Unique support needed for a unique sector

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There is one industry that was shut down almost instantly with the introduction of lockdown measures and has received a lot less attention than it deserves in the stimulus discourse. Yet, it never ceases to be part of our lives. I refer to the arts and entertainment industry, spanning from stage, to film and television, to literature.

Microphones on stage (Getty Images/Tiago Macedo)

The Federal government announced $27 million in targeted relief for the arts sector in the most recent stimulus package, including support for regional and Indigenous arts organisations, as well as Support Act, which delivers crisis relief to artists. This is a small slice of the $850 million support package proposed by Live Arts Australia.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data revealed that as of 30 March, only 47 per cent of arts and recreational services businesses were in operation, a snapshot which does not cover the many not-for-profit organisations in the sector. Arts and entertainment are invariably linked to accommodation and food services, which were operating at 69 per cent.

The live performance industry alone had a $2.2 billion turnover last year, not including pubs and clubs. Broader stimulus measures so far for those left without work include a JobSeeker (formerly Newstart allowance) payment boost of $550 per fortnight as well as the newly established JobKeeper program. Unfortunately, the latter does not cater for the unique nature of the industry.

One of the prerequisites of JobKeeper is that an employee has been employed casually for at least twelve months continuously or in the case of sole traders, that they are actively engaged in the operation of a business. The case for sole traders, however, does not apply to not-for-profit organisations. Many arts festivals and organisations are therefore excluded. Arts workers ranging from performers to backstage crew to front-of-house staff may work the duration of a particular festival in any given year over consecutive years, therefore not meeting the continuous employment test either.

In a recent webinar from The Australia Institute, Chief Economist Richard Denniss pointed out ‘There’s 193,000 people employed in the creative arts industry in Australia. To put that into perspective, there’s less than 50,000 people working in coalmining.’ Denniss also raised that Australia has spent 200 billion dollars in stimulus measures so far. ‘One per cent of that would be two billion dollars. Does the arts and entertainment industry deserve one per cent of it? Maybe it deserves two per cent which would be four billion just for this industry.’

 

'With the rise in neoliberalism over time, we have seen a devaluing of the arts as work.'

 

Many people are now turning to streaming services more than ever. The trouble is, despite calls for quotas last year, services such as Netflix and Stan don’t currently have an obligation to share Australian-made content. Further, Paul Fletcher MP announced a pause on the quota of Australian content that Australian broadcasters must show, including children’s and documentaries until the end of 2020, a significant set-back for local screen production. This has ripple on effects through the industry, as practitioners work across theatre and screen. This won’t be reviewed until 2021, raising concerns that it could continue well beyond the pandemic. A possible solution as raised by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is rather than reducing Australian content, to place obligations on these foreign companies to stream a certain amount of Australian content.

The arts and entertainment industry has suffered reductions in funding over decades along with the removal of an independent Federal Department of Communications and the Arts that I wrote about last year. This sparks a larger debate that goes beyond economics. It treads into the terrain of ideological underpinnings. With the rise in neoliberalism over time, we have seen a devaluing of the arts as work.

Yet ideology is being challenged in the current climate of stimulus measures going beyond the right versus left discourse. It is about what is good for society in the current scenario. This is an opportunity to look towards the arts as part of our recovery process too. Professor Peter O’Connor offered the reminder that, ‘In the coming days, as the fragility of life is increasingly threatened, the arts will be part of what puts us back together’.

The industry therefore requires a sector-specific bailout created in consultation with a broad cross-section of arts professionals that considers measures for both the shut down and rebuilding. The reality is it cannot simply start up again once lockdown measures lift without support. A greater acknowledgement of the value of the arts could be addressed through what Sarah Hanson-Young raised in the same webinar, as ‘a creativity commission’.

While the announcement of more than $15 million in emergency funding for the arts from the Victorian government is welcome, this is only complementary to a potential federal package. Ultimately, the arts needs to be acknowledged and funded at the federal level in order for the already struggling sector to survive across the country.

From a broader societal wellbeing perspective, we simply cannot afford, as Senator Hanson-Young says, ‘a huge cultural deficit’. Once it is safe to do so, we must also return to the theatres and festivals, in support of an industry which has supported us through difficult times.

 

 

Bree Alexander's words have appeared with Enchanting Verses, Westerly Magazine and Australian Multilingual Writing Project. Under pseudonym Lika Posamari, she was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize 2018 (NTEU category) and published a poetry chapbook The Eye as it Inhales Onions.

Main image: Microphones on stage (Getty Images/Tiago Macedo)

Topic tags: Bree Alexander, COVID-19, arts, entertainment, Australia

 

 

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Existing comments

The value of the arts sector is beyond a monetary figure. Of course, artists have to eat, they have bills to pay like everyone else. But their life sustenance is difficult to define. Just this morning I've been reading some work by W H Auden. I'm not sure how wealthy in monetary terms he was although the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 would have helped pay the rent. When he writes about his idea of the Garden of Eden this is food from heaven e.g. his idea of public entertainments in Eden: religious processions, brass bands, opera, classical ballet. No movies, radio or television.
Pam | 27 April 2020


I don't have a lot of understanding nor appreciation for the value in certain art forms, more particularly when some artists profess they perform or produce to "express themselves"; the image of the suffering artist in some dim studio stuggling to make a career is perhaps a necessary part of the apprenticeship to make them excel...but what would I know? Jason deCaires Taylor's Museum of Underwater Art, Great Barrier Reef exemplifies how arts funding is dubiously allocated...and where's the disabled access? However, I believe that artists who had a regular paid gig/exhibit perhaps on an annual basis with some festival would by the nature of the periodic engagement(s) and demonstrated frequency qualify as continuous casual. The apparently harsh provisions for JobKeeper do demonstrate that the frequency of cash-in-hand nature of certain work in the Arts (and otherwise) can be more securely managed as Sole Trader...you just need to comply with Australian tax laws to benefit from the system in times of crisis. You can take the government's stance as a reflection of their desire for regulation and everyone to pay tax...
ray | 27 April 2020


Thanks for highlighting this issue. The creative Arts and Entertainment sectors are vital contributors to the well-being and success of our society; the dark houses and empty stages are sadly missed. These activities are also significant employers but their workers seldom have the luxury of long-term contracts; many live from gig to gig. While many voices have been pointing out how important the Arts are and how precarious is the existence of those working in this sector, the decision-makers seem little moved. This is only one of a number of groups who are neglected or overlooked as the Government addresses the, admittedly wicked, task of propping up a faltering economy in the face of an extraordinary challenge. It is dispiriting that all who are suffering do not enjoy comparable levels of support.
Myrna Tonkinson | 27 April 2020


Unfortunately, Ray's solution for temporarily employed arts workers to register themselves as sole traders for tax relief purposes won't work because, the moment they are laid off, they must register with Centrelink for the miserly Newstart allowance, as an alternative to accepting unskilled work in the service industry, most of which has disastrously dried up in the current lock-down. My daughter, Nuala, is a Creative Arts industry producer-director in Sydney, the plight of whose co-workers, all laid off without pay in the current unjustly managed federal government package, doesn't bear consideration because of its gross malapportionment. Arts industry workers, other than those 'high-arts' performers favoured by blinkered former federal arts portfolio holders, such as Australia's UK High Commissioner, George Brandis - himself the recipient of a sinecure unavailable to a career diplomat - aren't simply the victims of a neo-liberal tendency to hive arts off to the market, but also of a stifling neo-conservatism that cannot see beyond the tedium of middle-brow opera and ballet.
Michael Furtado | 30 April 2020


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