Opinion

Wesley Enoch
After the virus: Radical optimism for the arts

This Christmas, I’ll be asking for a hard hat and high-vis. It’s not that I need them for the work I do, although I have been known to wear high-vis for onsite visits and major set builds. It’s more that this guise may be the only way artists will get recognised in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The arts were the first industry to close its doors at the beginning of the lockdowns; no doubt we will be the last to get back on our feet, with restrictions and public sentiment affecting our medium-term viability. Many artists have been chronicling the bevy of job losses and contract cancellations. Back in April, more than $340 million worth of work had dried up in the music industry alone, and more than 50 per cent of arts organisations were not operating, with many facing the threat of permanent closure and insolvency. And yet, due to the casualised nature of contract-to-contract working patterns, so many artists and arts workers found it difficult to access JobKeeper. The calls for targeted help were coming from everywhere – organisations large and small, funded and commercial, big city and regional. We needed help to see a future through the Covid-19 haze.

The federal government launched its long-overdue Covid-19 package in June, announcing a series of loans and grants that would be rolled out over the next 12 months – “$250 million JobMaker plan to restart Australia’s creative economy”, the media release heralded. At the time, the package was met with relief and gratitude. But it was the substance of the federal government’s release that gave some insight into the way it thinks about and value the arts.

Today, we are still waiting to see the money land in the hands of those the package was designed to assist. It was revealed this week in senate estimates that, months on from the announcement, only a fifth of the funding has been handed out by the government. All of this has gone to film and TV production; nothing has been given to live performance. Many in the sector don’t believe they will see support before next February. Back in June, we thought there would be more assistance coming – figures of $750 million were being bandied around as the commensurate package for our $111.7 billion industry, in line with the packages for aviation, regional newspapers, tradie-fuelled renovations and new builds. We thought we were being heard and understood, and that we had a future.

But looking back at the media release, I can see the seeds of the arts’ future being sown. “This package,” it read, “is as much about supporting the tradies who build stage sets or computer specialists who create the latest special effects, as it is about supporting actors and performers in major productions.”

I have nothing against profiling the many skilled workers in the arts, but I now re-read those words with the benefit of hindsight. Even the idea of a package designed to support artists and the creative economy could not be spruiked without highlighting the “real” jobs connected to the industry.

“Our JobMaker plan is getting their show back on the road, to get their workers back in jobs,” the prime minister said. “We’re delivering the capital these businesses need so they can start working again … These measures will support a broad range of jobs from performers, artists and roadies, to front of house staff and many who work behind the scenes, while assisting related parts of the broader economy, such as tourism and hospitality … Many in the sector will find a new way to operate while the current social distancing measures remain in place and while that won’t be easy, I know there’s a strong desire among all Australians to see the return of gigs, performances and events.”

Everything about the direction of the arts in Australia after Covid-19 can be seen in this paragraph. How the value of the arts and the creative economy is directly linked to their usefulness to the tourism and hospitality industries; using the fact that tradies work in the industry to justify supporting the arts; the injection of “capital”, rather than funding, so businesses can operate again for profit; and the sense that new ways of operating will be needed. Nothing about the intrinsic value of the arts, the importance of the creative endeavour in its own right or the power to supercharge the imagination of a nation.

During the past seven years, we have seen the industries that question or scrutinise society slowly pushed into new models of operation. From attacks on and the defunding of journalism, especially public broadcasting, to the CSIRO and universities. The arts, particularly Australia Council funding, have not been spared. And in the face of dwindling funding dollars, greater investment into arts activities driven by “events and tourism” has seen the carrot of new monies prove too seductive for arts companies and artists. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this decay.

But, as they say, never waste a good crisis. There are two potential futures I can see for the arts in Australia: one in which we emerge from the pandemic strengthened in our purpose, where the arts and cultural economies are valued for their intangible public benefits, where creativity and imagination lead us – and another where the search for financial certainty and economic returns reshapes what artists can make, with innovation and risk depressed in the name of prudence and prudishness.

The pressures facing the arts will be heightened once we apply the stresses of the economic downturn. I predict there will be a further casualising of the arts workforce and de-professionalising of companies, an increased role for philanthropy and the subsequent influence of philanthropists, and the decrease of public investment, with funding given primarily to projects with more pronounced commercial imperatives.

Government funding shows no sign of increasing. In the areas where new public monies are being made available, they are tied to the “activation” of night-time economies, tourism and hospitality. Philanthropists will be asked for greater assistance to support the new, the risky and the risqué, but history shows us the bulk of philanthropists lean towards the high-profile, the popular and the glamorous.

In times of uncertainty for many arts companies, there is a pressure to avoid risk and look to precedent to build success – the idea that “this is what has worked in the past, we should repeat it in the future”. I fear a future of conservative programming and decision-making, where the number of artists being employed shrinks – live music being replaced by DJs or playlists, theatre companies scheduling fewer shows with large casts, dance companies reducing ensembles and contract lengths. I also predict the shows and publications that do get selected will be well-worn hits, rather than new works or commissions, works developed by reliable names and brands rather than new talents. Notions of celebrity or internationally credentialed offerings will be put before local talents.

We may see fewer established companies championing the work of women, people of colour and First Nations artists. “They don’t sell, they don’t have an audience.” This enmity towards risk and investment in the new could curtail career development and speed up the natural talent attrition in this country. Australia could see a generation of artists opt out of careers in the creative fields, and instead read the policy signals and focus on engineering or computer science. Of course, this seems to be what the government wants.

A decade of not supporting the young, new and risky could have far-reaching implications for a generation of creative and artistic endeavour in Australia. Like Britain after the devastating Thatcherite policies of the 1980s, this country could find itself with no one skilled or experienced enough to run our major cultural institutions, and with very little work of artistic interest.

Metrics for success are already skewing from qualitative to quantitative. In coming years, this will continue unabated, with impact measured by numbers of eyeballs engaged in transitory exposure and mass distraction rather than deeper connection, community development or risk.

But maybe there is another way. One that does not require me being gifted a hard hat and high-vis this year.

I am reminded that during the Covid-19 shutdowns, we’ve seen an unprecedented valuing of creativity and the arts. Everyone was reading, watching films and TV, going on virtual gallery and museum tours around the world, listening to music, trying new culinary pursuits; some were painting, others writing or problem-solving. Live-streaming homegrown and imported concerts and cabarets gave punctuation to our otherwise clear calendars; whatever barriers we once had to partaking in the arts were recast.

Accessibility to the arts has been at a peak during the pandemic. If you had enough bandwidth, the barriers of geography, time, finances, your own mobility or disability, or even your cultural background, were removed. Risk and engagement were encouraged. Arts and play were returned to the centre of our lives, and although this was not the panacea to all our ills, it gave us a glimpse into an alternative future.

This optimistic view of the Covid-normal future sees greater valuing and rewards for the intrinsic power of the arts to help build community cohesion and collective imagination. I am radically optimistic and working towards this future. Watching the public advocacy of Esther Anatolitis, who ably led the National Association for the Visual Arts until she stepped down in August, the efforts of outgoing ARIA chief executive Dan Rosen and his counterpart at APRA AMCOS, Dean Ormston, to fight to support musicians, Ben Quilty’s call to support young Australian artists, and the incredible engagement of Darwin and Brisbane festivals in promoting Australian artists, you get a sense that we are not alone. I will, however, still take the hard hat and high-vis, even if only to prove the arts can be a real job too.

This is the fourth in a series of essays examining how Covid-19 will reshape key issues facing our nation. To read the others, click here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2020 as "After the virus: Radical optimism for the arts".

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Wesley Enoch is the director of the Sydney Festival and a Quandamooka man.