Arts energy left untapped

24 May 2021

The 2021/2022 Federal Budget includes $223 million for the arts. But will it be enough to airlift the ailing sector to recovery? 

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As the dust settles on a big-spending federal budget, arts leaders decry a missed opportunity to power up the creative economy, which is still reeling from the combined effects of lockdowns, audience capacity restrictions and border closures. Craig McKeough reports.

The economic power of arts and culture in Australia is undervalued and poorly understood, a reality that has hit home with job losses during the COVID-19 crisis, according to new research.

The findings from national think tank the Australia Institute come as debate continues across the arts sector around what is seen as inadequate levels of support for the arts in government responses to the pandemic.

Institute Executive Director Ben Oquist said the Federal Government missed an opportunity in its budget this month to direct much-needed additional support to the arts. It chose instead to pour stimulus money into industries such as construction through a big-spending infrastructure program and to extend subsidies for the residential building industry.

The 2021/2022 Federal Budget contains $223 million in grants for the arts industry, chiefly through continuing the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund, which was its main response to the COVID shutdowns in 2020.

Oquist said if the arts and entertainment sector were funded to the same level as the $2 billion HomeBuilder scheme, the investment would create over 8,500 jobs, including more than 4,000 for men and 4,500 for women. That would, he said, represent twice as many jobs for men and 10 times as many jobs for women as HomeBuilder was estimated to create.

“The COVID-19 crisis has hit the arts hard, with reports of over $330 million in contracts lost. This comes on top of substantial reductions in federal funding for the sector in recent years,” he said. “Unfortunately, the male-dominated and jobs-poor sectors of construction and mining continue to receive the majority of government attention and support.”

An under-valued sector

The WA arts industry is still assessing the damage from the COVID lockdowns, which wiped out a big part of the 2020 calendar and continued to ripple into 2021. A snap lockdown in February shut Fringe World mid-festival, and forced a two-week delay for the entire Perth Festival program, with audience capacity for performances slashed when it did get under way.

There is widespread concern that government support, both federal and state, came late and was skewed to infrastructure projects and the big companies and institutions rather than reaching independent artists directly to keep them in creative work.

There is widespread concern that government support, both federal and state, came late and was skewed to infrastructure projects and the big companies and institutions rather than reaching independent artists directly to keep them in creative work.

Chamber of Arts and Culture Western Australia Executive Director Shelagh Magadza said the COVID crisis had given the arts industry new visibility but so far governments had not responded with support that was in keeping with the sector’s value.

Dureshawar Khan sits on a chair. She wears a long cream dress that is embroidered with red. She is knitting with red yarn.
The Blue Room Theatre was not successful in its application for RISE funding, but has been well supported by donors and philanthropists. Pictured is Dureshawar Khan performing in ‘MoR’ at the Blue Room Theatre. Photo: Tasha Faye

“Even before COVID there was an awareness of some of the structural problems in the industry and the squeeze on funding, from state and federal governments, for at least five years,” Magadza said. “They have been getting away with it. The COVID crisis means they can’t get away with it any longer. Something has to happen.”

Magadza said the industry in Western Australia had made progress in getting the arts on the agenda of the McGowan Government, and eyes had been opened during the COVID shutdown about the flow-on effect from the arts to jobs in the events, catering and other industries.

“It shows that there is an entire economy that rests on creative productions,” she said.

She believes there is an awareness of this within the State Government. Premier Mark McGowan has talked about the need to diversify the economy, and the creative industries had been identified as a key area of potential growth over the next 30 years.

Even so, the State’s COVID response package last year was heavy on support for upgrading venues and planning new facilities, an approach Magadza dubs jobs for “concrete and construction” as opposed to direct support for creatives.

“The WA Government is content to let Lotterywest fund the content bit of arts and culture. The Government will fund the buildings and let gambling revenue help fill them. The problem with this is that gambling revenue is volatile and it has not kept pace with rising population or demand for funding over many years,” she said.

“Lotterywest funding for the arts has been declining in real terms and as a proportion of the budget. This is an issue that needs looking at.”

Inadequate funding at all levels

At federal level, the RISE fund was welcomed by many in the industry but there is disquiet at the seemingly ad hoc way this money is disbursed and the fact that the major federal funding agency, the Australia Council, has been sidelined in the process.

Perth’s home of independent performance, the Blue Room Theatre, was not successful in its application for RISE funding. This came on top of losing its four-year operating funding from the Australia Council last year.

Blue Room Theatre Executive Director Katt Osborne said she would have liked to have seen the COVID relief administered by the Australia Council which had all the peer assessment processes in place, and the knowledge of the sector to target money where it was most needed.

“The Australia Council might have been able to provide more targeted support to those that are struggling,” she said. “Many companies face a squeeze on their day-to-day operations and there is no pathway to solve that.

“That said, the fund is providing support for the sector, and any money is more welcome than no money.”

Osborne said the Blue Room had been well supported by donors and philanthropists through COVID and the organisation had been active in generating other sources of income.

“It’s not super bleak for us. We’ve been really well supported. People believe in what we’ve been doing here for the last 31 years,” she said.

Top level institutions have also had to dig deep in the absence of extra government funding.

Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) Director Colin Walker said the organisation was fortunate in the additional support it received from the AGWA Foundation, corporate supporters and other donors to help compensate for lost revenue during the forced extended closure last year and the ongoing dip in visitor numbers (forty per cent of gallery visitors are tourists from outside WA).

A traditional Aboriginal painiting, comprised of two sets of circles within circles, depicted in dots. The rings in between are different colours. The palette of the dots and rings is earthy colours - ochres - pinks, browns, yellows, oranges, creams.
One of the 130 artworks acquired as part of the AGWA Foundation Stimulus Package: Corban Clause Williams Kaalpa (Kalypa, Canning Stock route 23) 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 121 x 76 cm. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: COVID-19 Arts Stimulus Package, 2020.

This money was largely poured back into the industry through a $1.5 million support package, including a $2000 payment to every WA artist represented in the AGWA collection to generate archival content around their practice, and the purchase of 130 artworks for the collection from Aboriginal art centres and independent artists.

He described the Federal Government response as disappointing, suggesting, for example, that a funding boost to the ABC could have facilitated some innovative ways to generate content and provide work for creatives during the lockdown.

‘… we will see a talent drain with people moving away from the arts into a career with a more secure income.’

Local cabaret performer Tomas Ford said the slow rollout of the COVID vaccine program in Australia and the resulting extended period of closed borders was frustrating independent artists who depended on touring for a living.

“We are facing a longer period of uncertainty,” he said. “I had been planning an interstate tour but have pulled back from that.

“The industry’s resilience is so low at the moment. Everyone at the independent end is acting conservative, trying not to spend money.

“I’m really stubborn about continuing on as normal but have to admit I’m at the upper end of my resilience.”

Tomas Ford stands on stage, his streamer-bedecked arms raised.
Pessimistic: Tomás Ford in ‘Have a Bath with Me?’ Photo: Jamie Mykaela

Ford is pessimistic about many of his contemporaries being able to sustain a creative career.

“The only good thing about it in WA is that it is not that hard to find alternative work. Artists won’t die of starvation. But we will see a talent drain with people moving away from the arts into a career with a more secure income.”

Osborne also fears there will be casualties, with performers and creatives forced out of the industry, either temporarily or permanently.

“Across the industry we probably won’t know for 12 months what the impact has been of the COVID disruption. Much of it is hidden,” she said.

“Artists have lost a lot of opportunities and income, there has been a mental health toll with the uncertainty.

“This industry needs so much forward planning. If this is disrupted there is so much to deal with for the independent artist. Their creative energy is really challenged by the stop-start. It takes its toll.”

“This industry needs so much forward planning. If this is disrupted there is so much to deal with for the independent artist. Their creative energy is really challenged by the stop-start. It takes its toll.”

Where to from here?

Magadza said COVID highlighted an issue that the Chamber and others had been grappling with for years – how to make arts and culture jobs more sustainable and provide secure incomes for people.

“Artists are really adaptable; they are an incredibly fluid workforce. But they need a structure to work within and a solid pathway to follow,” she said.

“I’m sure people are being lost to the industry. We don’t have good data about it but anecdotally we know of people at all levels of the industry who have given up.”

She is optimistic, however, about an industry recovery and the capacity of artists to get through it. “I believe if opportunities open up again, many of them will be back.”

And she is hopeful in its second term in power, the McGowan Government will tackle some of these structural problems

“There are willing ears in government. We need to put together a plan that hits the right points. It’s a structural question as much as a money question. We’ve got to spend differently but it needs an overarching vision. We’ve got to use this opportunity to continue the conversation.”

Pictured top is Bruce Denny, director of Zac James’s ‘Kangaroo Stew’, which debuted at the Blue Room Theatre in April. Photo: Duncan Wright

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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