Every Little Hinders; Every Little Helps…
As industries go, the Arts sector has for some time been somewhat beleaguered. Defending its status and scrapping for funding has long been par for the course – even at the best of times. And one could argue that an industry that generates $111 billion for the Australian economy may well be defined as enjoying ‘the best of times’ prior to lockdown. Many working within the field are well used to the concept of a ‘Plan B’; creatives are seemingly programmed with the ability to innovate, adapt and evolve –even without factoring in the grand entrance of COVID-19 and its savage impact on the world of arts and culture.
War of Attrition?
So times are tough. Tougher than usual. Much tougher. But while coronavirus has sharpened difficulties within the industry, the Arts world has clearly been subjected to incremental attacks for some time. The blows may be unwittingly wielded, but wielded they are – and endured. Recall December, 2015: Scott Morrison, then Treasurer, made substantial cuts ($52.5 million) to the Communication and Arts budget, as well as pulling funding from museums and galleries; just months later, the Arts sector marked its own ‘Black Friday’ on 13thMay, due to Australia Council cuts that resulted in many Arts organisations losing their funding; a further body blow was rained upon the Arts in late 2019: the federal Department of Communication and Arts was dissolved and merged with another department to become the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communication – psychologically, at the very least, this is an affront to the Arts as a discrete industry. Augmentative changes such as these do add up – over time, their accretion makes a difference.
But then the stakes got higher. Along came COVID, heralding what was declared in The Guardian as a ‘cultural bloodbath’. One of the first strikes to the creative sector: the eligibility criteria of the JobKeeper package, inherently excluding casual and freelance workers – a substantial proportion of the Arts’ workforce. This, compounded by further headlines: the announcement of Australia Council cuts for 2020-21; the cost of humanities-related degrees more than doubling amid an attempt to channel students into more ‘practical’ courses; the 250 job cuts announced by The ABC, in a bid to save $40 million (having suffered $254 million of cuts since 2014). And so on …
On the face of it, June’s promise of a $250 million injection of cash into the Arts may seem charitable; it is most definitely needed and welcomed. Yet 30% of this cash comes in the form of concessional loans – which, by definition, must be repaid. Only weeks earlier, the construction industry was promised a $680 million recovery package, despite contributing less to the economy than the Arts sector. Read into that what you will. More than one commentator has noted that the latest Budget has all but ignored arts and culture, as detailed by Steve Dow in Limelight on 7th October. In the grand scheme of things, the $1.4 million doled out to Australia Council is paltry, a token gesture. So, one could be forgiven for thinking that those who hold the purse strings are mortgaged to the notion of marginalising the cultural sector, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Whether or not there is any justification for this brand of cynicism, what is abundantly clear is that when individually negligible slights are tallied up, the Arts do appear to have been vilified over recent years.
But the reverse also holds true: the accumulation of small-scale endeavours is the key to the salvation of the Arts…
Damsel in Distress? No Way!
When battered and bruised, it is easy and natural to mould to the role of victim. But years of hard knocks have toughened up the Arts world – this is no trembling casualty, quivering helplessly at the hands of the school bully – rather, it is the resilient and resourceful survivor, ready to stand up and be counted. To fight back. Similarly, the industry is no damsel in distress, passively waiting to be rescued by the powerful and strong. Just as the sector has had to perpetually defend itself, this very defensiveness has helped the Arts to build stoicism and to master survival strategies. Ultimately, these small-scale, individualised strategies count; they are a microcosm of the industry as a whole. The countless actions of individuals and organisations across the nation now combine to create a panoramic map of the road to renewed success.
The ‘small’ things do not always mean reactionary strategies such as fundraising. There is a good deal of proactive strategy in evidence, too: relatively early in the pandemic, the decision was taken by Melbourne Theatre Company to cancel productions – prescient thinking that prevented incurring huge production costs; Foundation chair Janette Kendall FAICD revealed that a quarter of patrons expressed their support by donating the price of their ticket rather than requesting a refund. Likewise, Queensland Theatre Company made the expedient decision to cancel all remaining performances of their prized Triple X. Despite the obvious decimation of revenue, both companies took practical and decisive steps in order to avert further expenditure on production. Such forward-thinking is as much about preventing financial loss as it is about recovery of losses.
In today’s crisis, the ability to innovate and evolve is being utilised in all spheres of life. As already stated, the cultural and creative sector is no stranger to innovation and never has it been more essential. Money-making, money-saving and profile-raising tactics are materialising at a rate of knots: The Australian Ballet is producing glossy and beautiful 2021 calendars – well worth the $30 apiece – in order to plough much-needed funds into this blitzed domain; Melbourne Theatre Company has introduced a voucher enterprise, whereby patrons can invest in a future theatre experience, gift the vouchers, or use them towards annual subscription fees; the Queensland Symphony Orchestra has worked hard on its online presence and interaction with virtual audiences; universities are enlisting the services of artistes to mentor undergraduates; petitions have been devised and signed, such as the current ‘Protecting Artists’ petition posted by The Greens. One may question what kind of difference these actions ultimately make – but anyone who has ever carelessly thrown coins into a savings jar, only to one day find that these coins have morphed into serious cash dollars, will surely understand the significance of small-scale accumulation.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
All around Australia, local supporters of the arts are giving their all, each a vein pumping blood to the heart. Some may be producing merchandise, such as ‘The Show Must Go On’ T-Shirts; some may be petitioning parliament; many will be engaged in equally valuable, if different, endeavours. This is to be celebrated. This is exactly the kind of spirit and determination that will ensure that the industry not only survives but thrives once again. After months of the whole gamut of entertainers keeping the nation buoyant and safeguarding their mental health during the darkest of times, don’t they deserve that much?