Features/Dance/Music/Visual Art

Navigating the pandemic

19 March 2020

As arts organisations cancel events around the country, Nina Levy takes a look at the impact of the pandemic on the West Australian arts sector, how the Government can help, and what your arts experiences might look like as social distancing becomes the norm.

Self-isolation, social distancing, flatten the curve, “stay (the fuck) at home”.

These are all terms and expressions that have become part of our new normal, as Australia navigates the unfamiliar terrain that is COVID-19.

Like most people I know, I’m on board with all of them. The countries that have taken the most stringent action are the ones that have avoided a situation in which medical facilities are overwhelmed.

Nonetheless, these measures are coming at a cost, and the arts sector is one of the hardest hit, with the majority of events and seasons cancelled for the next six months. Within a few weeks of the summer festival season finishing, the Australian arts industry is in freefall. Esther Anatolis, Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), has said that NAVA estimates that the total impact on Australia’s creative industries will be in excess of $100 million.

While the cancellations are devastating for everyone in the sector, it’s freelancers and casual workers whose plight is of most immediate concern. According to the newly created website https://ilostmygig.net.au/, which is tracking the impact of cancellations on arts and entertainment industry workers, the current total of lost income is $150 million.

Western Australian independent performer, choreographer and artist Serena Chalker is one of the thousands of artists affected, with four shows cancelled at community events and a number of international residencies suspended. Chalker supplements her artistic income by working box office or front of house but with all the event cancellations, that work has dried up too. And as a dance-based artist, her other options are limited. “It is harder for some artforms to continue to generate income,” she comments. “Sure, musicians can still sell music, but what about those of us who don’t have a tangible product?”

Serena Chalker making work at Seoul Dance Center. Photo: CHO Hyun Woo, c. Seoul Dance Center.

“The uncertainty is also a worry,” she continues. “All [the residencies and programs] I applied for this year are in countries that are currently being affected by COVID-19 – even though the programs are not until August, will they run or not? Who knows. Everyone I know who works in the arts has been affected in some way. There are going to be really tough times ahead, and many artists, arts workers and event staff are also going to need psychological support to get through this. It is a bit of a bloodbath.”

The plight of independent artists and casual workers is of most concern to Western Australia’s flagship contemporary dance company Co:3 Australia. As Co:3 Executive Director Alana Culverhouse explains, while the company receives triennial funding from the State Government, it is not in a financial position, as yet, to employ its dancers year-round. “Because we receive triennial funding, we’re in a very fortunate position that, as a company, we know that we will weather this,” she remarks. “But our primary concern is the welfare of our dancers, because … they’re all on [short-term] contracts, and the casual staff we work with, we’re trying in any way that we can to retain employment opportunities for them.”

“There are going to be really tough times ahead, and many artists, arts workers and event staff are also going to need psychological support to get through this. It is a bit of a bloodbath.”

Serena Chalker, independent performer
Alana Culverhouse

Though Co:3 Australia is cushioned, to some extent, by being a triennially funded organisation, like all performing arts companies its 2020 program will be drastically affected by the measures put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19. And unlike the other flagship performing arts companies in WA, such as Black Swan State Theatre Company, West Australian Ballet and West Australian Opera, Co:3 is young company and relatively small company, and is, consequently, also relatively vulnerable.

The company is anxiously waiting to hear what support will be provided for arts companies, independent artists and arts workers by the Federal and State Governments. As a starting point, says Culverhouse, it would help if the government could lift the obligations that the company is committed to as part of the Arts Organisations Investment Program (AOIP), the program under which the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries (DLGSC) administrates triennial funding.

“I feel that [it would be helpful] if the State Government could relieve us of AOIP expectations … and allow us to reduce our programming and direct money where it’s needed. We’ve just done re-budgeting for this year and the potential worst-case scenario is massive deficit budgets. So it would be really good if the DLGSC lobbied for us as a sector to receive financial relief packages so that we at least end the year on a cost neutral basis.

“I think the focus of support needs to be on small-to-medium companies who don’t have the buffer to weather this. We welcome the recent announcement by the Federal Arts Minister that arts companies will be eligible for the payroll cash flow relief package, which will enable us to cover the wages that our dancers were expecting.

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“We would also like to see the State Government helping the independent artists and casual staff force within our sector – that we rely on so much – to maintain their own income as well. Because if they don’t maintain their own income, where are they going to go? And then they will be lost from the sector, when we recover from this?”

Chalker is also anxious to see support for independent artists and casual workers within the arts industry. “Governments need to realise the real and widespread ramifications for this kind of event – there needs to be a targeted support package for all artists/arts workers/event staff,” she says. “This includes freelance workers, because if you limit it to people who are ‘employed’ by a company, that excludes the majority of artists working in Australia today. These artists also usually supplement their income by working at theatres or events – yet these are also cancelled. Additionally, for artists/event staff who are forced to go on Centrelink, they need to drastically reduce both the red tape and the waiting times, because it is going to be critical that people get support at this time.”

These concerns have been echoed by various national arts organisations and peak bodies, with organisations such as Live Performance Australia, MEAA and many more calling on the Federal Government to provide urgent financial support to the sector, across the spectrum of employment. At a local level, the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA (CACWA) has been in conversation with the DLGSC about how the State Government can provide information, support and assistance.

CACWA Executive Director Shelagh Magadza says discussions have begun about a possible Federal assistance package. The Federal Minister for Communication and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, convened a national roundtable with representatives from 18 peak bodies for the arts on Tuesday 17 March, and on Thursday he met with the Cultural Ministers group.

Shelagh Magadza

“Obviously there is a need for a co-ordinated approach and I would imagine the State’s decisions will flow from the actions taken by the Federal government” says Magadza.

Magadza has no desire to criticise decision-makers at such a difficult time but she is concerned about the timeframes of the decision-making process and the impact it will have on those in need. “The question is how long can companies sustain operations before they have to take drastic measures? And the unknown duration of the shutdown, or the restrictions, is part of the huge stress because no one knows what to plan for.

“The other thing I think is really important for the independents artists is how we can mitigate their loss of contracts.”

Magadza has fielded many anxious phone calls in the last week, and her concerns are not just for the financial welfare of those individuals but for their mental health and well-being as well.

Nonetheless, she sees opportunities for the sector in this unprecedented situation, as companies and artists consider ways that they can stay connected with their patrons. “It’s a great opportunity to use some creative power into what recovery might look like,” she remarks. “There are some beautiful ideas that artists can bring to our community – we will need that idea of recovery and regeneration and reconnection.

“There are some beautiful ideas that artists can bring to our community – we will need that idea of recovery and regeneration and reconnection.”

Shelagh Magadza, CACWA

“This is one of the times when local artists, in particular, become so valuable because they are the people who will tell the stories for the community, and reflect back to us what our experiences have been.” Given that this is going to be a “quiet time” she suggests it is also a time to commission and develop new work. ”It would be great to capture this moment in a creative way,” she reflects.

In spite of the enormous challenges that artists and arts companies are facing, there is a quiet optimism working its way through the sector. On social media various groups are gathering to support one another and brainstorm ideas for ways to continue to make and share work in isolation. WA Youth Jazz Orchestra General Manager Simon Keen has convened an online meeting for WA small-to-medium arts companies with similar aims.

Freeze Frame Opera is offering Window Serenades, where members of the public can book a personal operatic serenade for themselves or for someone who is lonely, simultaneously keeping artists in work during this period of social isolation.

Like many arts organisations, Co:3 Australia is looking at ways it can interact with its audience online as part of a COVID-19 survival plan.

Co:3 has recently launched a collaboration with fitness app Kixxfit, whereby the company has a channel with dance workout routines. Now Co:3 will promote that programme as a way for people to stay active and engaged in their homes.

Raewyn Hill

Another intriguing idea is connected to a new work that Co:3 is developing, to be performed in 2021. The development of the set is a community project, overseen by project manager Paul Rowe, explains Co:3 Artistic Director Raewyn Hill.

“Groups gathered together and they created a bird out of a garment that they donated,” she explains. “So we’ve been talking this morning, actually, about how this is a wonderful project that we could begin to work on as this self-isolation and the social distancing happens. Potentially we could start to create these individual birds. You know, we’ve got the pattern, you access it online, and you create this bird whilst you’re self-isolated, the bird, this idea about freedom and flight. And then all of those birds then become the set for the work that will premiere in 2021.”

“We’ve got the pattern, you access it online, and you create this bird whilst you’re self-isolated, the bird, this idea about freedom and flight.”

Raewyn Hill, Co:3

Culverhouse adds, “And then the stories that are collected through the making of the birds are all about the stories of that isolation, potentially … So then the result is this beautiful display of what happened when the world went dark.”

Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) has already brainstormed multiple ways to engage with its audience online, says PICA Director Amy Barrett-Lennard.

“We’ve been talking about what can we do to allow people to access arts and culture a) if they have to self-isolate or just choose not to spend time in public spaces, or b) if we have to close the gallery, for example, or cancel (which we have already done) our public programmes, and some of our performances,” she elaborates.

“One idea is an open studio, in which we have some of our current artists-in-residence talking about what they’ve been making and, instead of that being open to the public, with a whole lot of people crammed in a very small space together, we are talking about having the event recorded and then live-streamed or developed as an online resource for people to download.

“Another idea is based on a public programme which was going to see a local writer and spoken word artist respond to Laurie Anderson’s “Chalkroom”. We’re talking to them about having their performance and talk recorded or live-streamed.”

“Even though it’s a really difficult time, it could be the catalyst for arts organisations to shift into another gear, which we probably all needed to be doing for a long time.”

Amy Barrett-Lennard, PICA

While some of PICA’s performance programme has had to be postponed, Barret-Lennard explains that the organisation is looking at ways to support those artists to create new work, and open the creative process to the public. That might involve recording and sharing the process or conversations with the artists about making the work, so that audiences can see that new work is still being made. “And then eventually, when things settle down, those audiences can come and see that work that they’ve been following.”

Virtual tours are another option should the gallery have to close, says Barrett-Lennard. Creative activities that are related to exhibitions have already been cancelled, but she sees online potential there too. “We could post instructional videos online, so that people can do some creative things at home, responding to the exhibitions and artworks, and feeling connected,” she muses. “I think that’s really important, feeling connected. We’ve also been discussing how we can develop ways that audiences can talk to us, and participate in a dialogue, somehow.”

The potential benefits of these innovations – giving the public online access to see works-in-progress, hear artists talk about the process of creating work, and engage creatively with the work – are huge in terms of building audience engagement.

“Even though it’s a really difficult time, it could be the catalyst for arts organisations to shift into another gear, which we probably all needed to be doing for a long time,” reflects Barrett-Lennard.

What’s more, with the mass-cancellation of normal service, there is time to experiment with new approaches.

While COVID-19 is presenting unprecedented challenges to the arts sector, perhaps we will look back one day and recognise that out of great adversity came great change.

To support artists and companies please consider donating the value of tickets to any cancelled events, rather than accepting a refund.

Show support for the arts sector by letting your local MP know that you want to see the arts sector supported, in particular casual workers and small-to-medium companies.

Feeling anxious about how you’re going to get your arts fix?

Stay tuned – Seesaw will be providing coverage on opportunities to engage with the arts while in isolation.

Do you have ideas about how audiences can continue to engage with the arts? Get in touch!

Pictured top: The results of a public program art activity for Laurie Anderson’s “Chalkroom” exhibition at PICA. Photo courtesy of PICA


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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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