If you’re studying a course in the arts, you’ll be all too familiar with the criticism of the very thing you’re passionate about. You’ll have been ridiculed for doing something creative and following your dreams. Your degree will have been called useless. People will have told you that you’ll never get a job unless it’s flipping burgers at Maccas.
The arts and those who work in the arts have long suffered from these narrow-minded and ill-informed views. Yet artists have persevered, not just out of love for what they do, but also knowing the importance of what they do. Such suffering can only be endured to an extent, though. In Australia, the arts have been under increasing pressure. Now, the sector is on the verge of collapse.
The Coalition’s ‘savaging’ of the sector
In April, 49 arts organisations lost federal funding. Federal funding for the arts is distributed through the Australia Council for the Arts in four-year cycles and by way of a competitive application process. Among those organisations that lost funding were the 53-year-old La Mama Theatre in Victoria, which is known as the birthplace of Australian theatre; progressive literary journal Overland; Australian Theatre for Young People, whose alumni includes Rose Byrne and Rebel Wilson; Australia’s largest celebration of writing and ideas, Sydney Writers’ Festival; peak body National Association for the Visual Arts; the influential, diverse Restless Dance Theatre in South Australia; and, in Western Australia, the Blue Room and Barking Gecko theatres.
Funding affects the fate of not only the arts in Australia, but also Australia’s culture. Loss of funding means less support for artists, who already tend to struggle and do more for less. It means constrained projects and cancelled programs. And it can mean the closure of entire organisations.
The Blue Room Theatre has been the home of WA’s independent theatre for almost 30 years. It is where many WA artists begin their careers, as was the case for Tim Minchin, Kate Mulvany and Claire Hooper. In taking away their funding, the federal government is risking the fate of young artists and their stories in our state.
Chair of the Blue Room, Shane Colquhoun, said the outcome of the most recent round of federal funding represents the ‘savaging’ of Australia’s small to medium arts sector. ‘It is a direct consequence of the federal government’s decisions regarding funding to the Australia Council since it came to power in 2013,’ he said. ‘This is a senseless hobbling of a productive and vital industry. It is a signal to artists and arts workers that their work is not valued in Australian society.’
Between 2007 and 2018, independent think tank A New Approach found an 18.9% decrease in cultural federal funding per capita, with funding at its lowest under the Coalition. Note the gap in the below data is due to Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey cutting funding to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2014, which caused them to stop collecting the data.
Cultural funding per capita by different levels of government (adjusted to June 2018 WPI), 2007–08 to 2017–18 | A New Approach
The Coalition has also continually failed to release a comprehensive arts policy since they came into power.
The potentially fatal blow
Australia’s arts sector was already in trouble at the beginning of this year, then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. The arts and arts workers have been some of the worst hit by the effects of the pandemic. Arts organisations were among the first to be affected by restrictions and the last to have restrictions on them eased. Restrictions affecting arts organisations have included venue closures, gathering numbers and physical distancing, as well as border closures, which have impacted shows touring. A site set up to measure the impact of COVID on Australian shows, I Lost My Gig, has tracked $340 million in event cancellations.
Jobs and wages have been good indicators of COVID’s impact on different industries. Between 14 March and 18 April, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found a 27% decrease in employee jobs in the arts and recreation services industry, the worst after accommodation and food services, while total wages decreased by 17.3%.
Changes in employee jobs by industry since 14 March 2020 | Australian Bureau of Statistics
Most Australians have been hoping the government’s JobKeeper scheme will keep them employed during and after the pandemic. However, many in the arts are ineligible for JobKeeper payments because of the nature of their work. Employers need to demonstrate at least a 30% downturn in their income due to COVID, or 15% if they are not-for-profit. Cash flow is often uneven for arts organisations, who are funded by ticket sales and, sometimes, donations, sponsorships and grants. Short-term contract employees and casual employees not employed on a regular and systematic basis for at least 12 months at 1 March 2020 are ineligible. This represents a significant proportion of arts workers, such as actors who are employed for the run of a show. Theatres and galleries owned by universities or councils are ineligible for JobKeeper too.
When it comes to JobSeeker, again, many artists are ineligible. This is due to the same issue faced by employers. Workers must demonstrate a loss of income as a result of COVID, but this can be difficult due to uneven cash flow where artists may book a strong period of shows then go months without work. According to ABC News, the Australia Institute believes ‘there should be a $750 million rescue package for the arts industry, to make up for the closure of venues’.
Part of an industry contributing billions to the economy
Those who criticise the arts often claim they don’t contribute anything valuable to society. This is far from the truth. The arts develop our country’s culture and share our history, which are a part of who we are as Australians. Our culture and history also attract tourists. According to Australia’s peak industry group for the tourism, transport and aviation sectors. Tourism and Transport Forum Australia, cultural and heritage offerings are a ‘critical demand driver’ for visitors to Australia. Moreover, the arts boost our economy. The Bureau of Communications and Arts Research found cultural and creative activity contributed $111.7 billion to Australia’s economy in 2016–17.
The arts and artists are incredibly undervalued. In December, Australia lost its federal arts department within the snap of Scott Morrison’s fingers. The Department of Communications and the Arts was rolled into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. The new department doesn’t even contain the word ‘arts’ in its title, a reflection of the sector’s growing invisibility.
According to the (former) Department of Communications and the Arts, cultural and creative activity in Australia contributes over $100 billion to the economy annually.
But that's chickenfeed, right? And honestly, why encourage them. We've got an economy to run.
— Nick Feik (@NickFeik) December 5, 2019
In addition to their economic value, the arts contribute something you can’t put a price on: happiness. The arts are a principle source of entertainment. When we watch TV, listen to music, read books, go to the movies, see plays, go to concerts and festivals or attend exhibitions, we are consuming products of the arts. The arts can comfort us when we are scared, down or hurt, and they can connect us to other people, educating us on their experiences or helping us to feel less alone. In the midst of COVID, this has been more important than ever.
Australia’s arts sector can’t sustain much more pressure. The fate of our nation’s culture is on the line. When we are stressed, we often turn to the arts for comfort, whether it be a TV series, music or a book. Now the arts are in crisis, and it’s time our government, and our people, show their support.
How you can help
With the government’s recent easing of COVID-19 restrictions in WA, galleries, museums, theatres, auditoriums, cinemas and concert venues can now reopen. Check out the websites and social media for your local arts organisations, see if they’re open and book tickets for a show. If you’re able, this is a great way to directly support our local artists, not to mention it’ll be especially good for you to go out and enjoy some shows after having to self-isolate.