Pandemics and the Plight of the Arts

CONTENT WARNING: COVID-19, NSW/Victoria Bushfires, Climate Change

It’s a situation that I never thought I would have to prepare for. As the COVID-19 pandemic takes over the world we are seeing concerts, performances and arts events cancelled left, right and centre. It feels like almost every day there is another cancellation announcement. To date these have included large scale yearly festivals like Tassie festival Dark Mofo and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, small scale independent theatre projects like Red Line Productions and the plight of student theatre at ANU (my heart goes out to all the budding thespians whose shows have been cancelled for Semester 1). 

There’s a sense of doom pervading the arts industry. As of Thursday 12 March, Broadway theatres have gone dark for the first time since 2007. Theatres were shut for 19 days as the result of a stagehand strike. 

There are, of course, so many other issues within our current paradigm. Let us not forget the recent trauma of the summer bushfires and the inaction currently being taken on climate change. But I wanted to put pen to paper to examine the impact of the pandemic upon arts organisations and small ways that we can effectively petition for governmental assistance to assist arts organisations to ensure their survival. I think we can all agree that it would be heartbreaking to live in a world without the arts. 

Having worked within a range of different arts organisations, there is one thing I can say with absolute certainty: there is never enough money. Arts organisations are typically funded by the goodwill of sponsors and through ticket revenue. Government sponsorship was already down at the start of the year, with the merge between arts and infrastructure increasing the already overpopulated field of competition for resources and reducing the likelihood of local arts groups to receive survival-ensuring funds. Due to the pandemic, we are seeing borders closing worldwide, and the government has advised cancelling ‘events larger than 100 people’. People are scared, and with good reason, and so with travel and tourism at an all-time low the money from ticket revenue has reduced to a slim trickle. 

I study the digital humanities (honestly, just look it up, I’m over explaining it, but yes, it is a real degree). It is heartening to see art organisations like museums and art galleries digitising their collections and livestreaming gallery visits and artist talks. Content is rapidly finding itself in an online format to increase public access to information from cultural institutions with the threat of shutdowns imminent. I argue that creative logistical problem solving and utilising social media in a way that is effective in engaging audience members trapped at home is exceedingly valuable. I also agree that this is not a feasible option for all arts organisations. Do we think that your underfunded, under-resourced local art gallery, museum or theatre body is able to achieve this without some external assistance? No.

Evelyn Richardson, from the industry body Live Performance Australia is petitioning the government for assistance, highlighting that:

“Cancellation of live performance events, they need to…urgently develop a targeted relief package to keep businesses operating…there are companies that will not have the balance sheet strength to withstand the combined impacts of box office failure and contract obligations, and some larger event cancellations may cause irreparable damage”

The arts have long seen a culture of neglect within politics. I don’t think I have ever (and probably never will) seen the arts be a priority, or even a feasible player in the field within public policy. Now more than ever the arts need governmental support. And it’s not just the arts organisations that are suffering. The arts sector has an exceptionally high rate of casual employment, and performers are out of work. Artists, along with, I’m sure, a large number of the student population, are still waiting on a viable social security payment in light of a loss of reliable income due to a sector shut down. $750 – get a grip. No show = no income. There’s a plan for the tourism industry: why not the arts, which is so integrally linked?


Things you can do to help:


Don’t ask for a ticket refund 

Look, I get it. This option probably isn’t viable for students who don’t have surplus cash just hanging around. But consider turning your ticket into a donation, and don’t ask for a refund. 

Engage with cultural institutions digitally 

Museums, art galleries and other cultural institutions around the world can be seen moving towards digital platforms. Check them out, take a digital tour and enjoy culture via digital interaction. 

Petition for funding 

Write a letter to your local MP explaining the importance of the government’s financial support towards a struggling arts industry. 

Theatre and performance are reliant upon bums on seats. Without ticket revenue, the arts cannot be expected to support itself. So, what are our elected politicians doing about it?

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