The COVID-19 public health emergency (COVID-19) has left an indelible mark on the arts in Australia, and has touched the life of every person who creates, consumes, contributes to or benefits from the arts.
The arts industry, as well as the artistic experience, has been devastated by COVID-19 as events, venues, markets and access to art were shut down in order to protect Australians from the virus.
Ironically, the need for creative experiences and the joy brought by participating in art was critical to peoples’ ability to endure the economic and social disruption and damage caused by the pandemic.
A number of inquiry participants drew attention to the important role that connection to the arts has in promoting good mental health, and highlighted how much Australians have relied on the arts to help with coping with the uncertainty of the times.
The Museum of Contemporary Art described the way that the arts help people deal with different stages of a crisis:
In times of crisis – bushfires, pandemics – the arts have the capacity to give people ways of coping, imagining a future beyond the crisis. At the end of this current crisis, the world will be very different. Connection and relationships will be paramount to build and sustain community. The arts will be more important than ever – to assist with the aftermath in terms of mental health, to encourage confidence, to give people hope and encourage them to engage again in wider society.
People employed in the creative and cultural sector have been disproportionately affected by loss or reduction of employment, reduced income and the temporary and permanent closures resulting from the pandemic. In considering the impact on arts and recreation businesses, A New Approach (ANA) stated:
It could be years before this industry division fully recovers, due to the public’s discomfort with being in shared spaces like live performance venues. Ongoing social distancing requirements and the risk of events and venues being shut down is likely to continue undermining both consumer and investor confidence in the sector.
Inquiry participants put forward the view that Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions were in a poor position before the challenges of last year emerged. Ms Kate Larsen stated that:
Arguably, Australia’s arts, cultural and creative industries were already at their most vulnerable before the impact of this year’s bushfires, four-year funding announcements from Australia Council for the Arts, and the ongoing impact of COVID-19.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) labour market data for the Arts and Recreation Services industry (which is part of the creative and cultural sector) indicates that the pandemic has had a significant negative impact.The toll of the public health emergency on the overall arts labour market was vast, with employment falling by 872,000 people between March and May 2020.
The ABS stated, however, that employment data on the effect of the public health emergency was not available at a granular level, and explained that ABS reporting on this issue is ‘done on a different basis to the cultural and creative sector as defined for the purpose of the Government’s sector analysis’.
As a result of these different reporting approaches it is difficult to isolate recent employment numbers for the cultural and creative sectors and accurately assess the impact of the public health emergency.
Notably, the arts and recreation category is broad reaching, and includes areas such as sport, zoos and gambling, which the Committee does not consider to be part of the arts and culture sector. Nevertheless, arts and recreation was ‘the second hardest hit industry with regard to jobs lost’, and the sector’s recovery was dramatically slower than that of the hardest hit sector, Accommodation and Food.
Arts and recreation industry employees’ average work hours decreased by 21 per cent between the March and June quarters of 2020, compared with the all industry average decrease of five per cent. Further:
The numbers of filled jobs within the Arts and Recreation Services industry experienced the largest decline in jobs across all industry divisions (-19 per cent) between the March quarter and June quarter 2020.74 This was greater than the all industry average of 6 per cent decline over the period.
The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (DITRDC), which houses the Office of the Arts, referred to payroll data from the ABS (see Figure 3.1) which shows employment based on single-touch payroll data for ‘selected industry subdivisions of the cultural and creative sectors against the employment level of the week ending 14 March 2020 (the 100th reported case of COVID-19 in Australia) and against the employment level for all industries to the week ending 22 August 2020’.
Figure 4.1: Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages
Source: ABS, 2020, Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia, Week ending 22 August 2020 (in the Officer of the Arts, Submission 293, p. 24).
The data shows that while all selected subdivisions of the creative and cultural sector were negatively impacted, some fields were more strongly impacted than others. Creative and performing arts, and motion picture and sound recording activities, as seen in the graph below, were significantly affected, whereas computer system design and related services were more resilient to the pandemic’s impact.
Figure 4.2: Employment by full-time and part-time status in the creative and cultural sector
Source: Labour Force Detailed Industry Occupation and Sector, Quarterly, August 2020, Table 06, (in the Office of the Arts, Submission 293, p. 25).
While COVID-19 has impacted the rates of employment within the creative and cultural sector, it has impacted the availability of work across subdivisions of the sector differently. A drop in the overall number of full-time workers has occurred across all subdivisions except heritage activities and broadcasting, with broadcasting experiencing an increase in employment levels of 16 per cent, and activities returning to pre-COVID employment levels.
COVID-19 impacted employment of arts practitioners in different ways, with COVID-safe guidelines in some schools resulting in the prohibition of group singing, while policies limiting ‘the use of wind instruments in group settings have resulted in a dramatic loss of employment for music teachers and education for students, particularly those preparing for their HSC’.
Creative and performing arts activities include ‘Performing Arts Operation: Creative Artists, Musicians, Writers and Performers and Performing Arts Venue Operation ANZSIC industry classes’. This subdivision has been particularly affected by COVID-19. This sector comprises 45,400 employees of whom 25,370 or 63 per cent received the Government’s JobKeeper payments in April 2020.
Analysis by the BCAR found that up to around 90 per cent of the cultural and creative sector workforce could be eligible for JobKeeper, subject to their employer meeting further eligibility criteria.
Artists’ Lived Experience of the Pandemic
The COVID-19 public health emergency has had a profound impact on those working across Australia’s arts and culture sector. At the launch of the inquiry, the Committee conducted an online survey into the state of the arts tailored to those working across the arts and cultural sector. The survey received 4,871 responses and was the second-most participated in survey conducted by a House committee. The results highlighted the experiences of artists and arts sector workers with key issues including:
financial stress and Government support; and
The complete shutdown of arts events exacerbated the experience of chronic vulnerability and uncertainty across interdependent industries, such as tourism and hospitality which rely on cultural events for their success.
The impact of COVID-19 on the performing arts was further noted by Australian Performing Arts Market, which pointed to data collected through the ‘I Lost My Gig Australia’ survey, which ‘reports more than 12,000 respondents losing income of almost $340 million since March 2020, impacting almost 660,000 industry participants’.
Ms Gwendolyn Knox stated that the effect of the pandemic had been devastating ‘I personally have had all my bookings cancelled indefinitely. At 63 years of age and living remotely of Indigenous descent, my chances of re-entry to the sectors could be very challenging.’
Respondents to the Committee’s survey highlighted the wide-spread reduction in work due to the period, with some respondents noting the loss of all or some their work, leading to substantial financial loss and hardship. Others explained the loss in income was partially due to an inability to travel interstate and overseas during the pandemic, or as a result of venue closures.
Box 4.1: In artists’ own words
Artists set out their experiences of the COVID-19 public health emergency, and described the sense of loss – including loss of income, sense of self, creative ability and motivation:
Almost everyone I know who works in the arts has lost part or all of their work. The scale of the mental health and financial impact is enormous. For dancers and dance teachers, the sudden decrease in physical activity has caused physical health problems as well.
All of our overseas tours have been cancelled due to the very strict border closure rules of the Australian government…the extra costs associated with this are making it impossible to tour work nationally and internationally…Works have been cancelled due to the fact dancers cannot rehearse and theatres have closed. Most of our work has dried up and it’s very hard to plan for the future…
It's been seven months since the last time my choir has performed live. Some chorus-specific events have moved online, but it isn't the same. The social dynamic, the feeling of being amongst my colleagues isn't there in the same way as it was pre-pandemic and it is heartbreaking that we, among others in the arts industry whom are doing worse than us volunteers, have suffered this devastating blow to what is part of our livelihoods.
Isolation de-skills you, especially if you are a writer and an introvert already. I have lost social confidence, and feel that as an independent artist I have even less status than I had before, and really worry about making any sort of living in the months ahead. With the lack of arts bailouts, I grieve the damage being done to my sector, and the squandering of a generation of hard work by theatre artists. This is the latest in a long line of arts-bashing, and I must admit I'd tired, semi-defeated, thinking about leaving the profession altogether. Feeling a bit stunned and paralysed.
I’m living now in poverty more than ever before.
I have lost what was full time work as a stage manager and had to take a much lower paying full time role outside the industry. I have had the opportunity to work casually a few hours a week on some creative developments but nowhere near my previous capacity or wage.
I lost all work (7 productions) between March and September. This includes 2 shows overseas. Several of these will now never happen.
Further, respondents stated their inability to work in the arts had negatively affected both physical and psychological health. Some responses explained that this was due to the increased financial stress from the sudden lack of work, as well as being unable to connect with community or partake in their form of art. One respondent stated that: ‘The arts connects me to my community, it has helped me with my mental health.’
The role of Commonwealth Government in supporting the arts and cultural sector was discussed frequently in survey responses, with discussions of ‘funding’ mentioned 1,539 times throughout the survey, while ‘support’ and ‘Government’ were mentioned 1,143 and 790 times respectively. One survey respondent commented that: ‘Grants are hard to obtain, taxable, and not able to provide a writer with more than a year at most. Usually just a few months’.
A desire for further funding to reduce job insecurity was also presented, with one respondent stating that: ‘We need to reduce, and ideally, drastically reduce job insecurity and burn-out in the sector. Instead, Australia should ensure reliable and ongoing funding to arts organisations…’
A move to online delivery was a theme in survey responses, with respondents commenting that they had adapted to online practices, and accepted more digital work. Some respondents had participated in online performances, although they found these to be less successful in comparison to in-person performances: ‘I have done some online performances via zoom but engagement and ability to charge for tickets is a lot lower than live performance’.
Artists who could have continued to work stated that the restrictions on movement had meant that they could not attend their studios, which had significant financial impacts for them. Ms Jo Lane, a visual artist, set out that:
…artists were even told it was illegal to go to their studios, the only venue for them to produce work with which to make income (while construction workers were allowed to continue working on sites).
The Castlemaine State Festival outlined that a combination of artists not being able to open facilities, host events or attend studios and the fact that restrictions on movements had stopped people from visiting had been a significant double blow:
In Mt Alexander Shire the impact on activity has been substantial. Locally a range of artistic activities such as dance schools, a children’s’ circus, art classes, open studios have all been cancelled for months on end. A vibrant live music scene has also been shut down. The Castlemaine Art Museum has been closed. This has been further exacerbated by the lock down of Melbourne prohibiting visitation.
Commonwealth Government Support
Key forms of Commonwealth Government support to individuals in response to the pandemic were through the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments. A list of Commonwealth Government funding targeted towards supporting the arts and cultural sector is at Appendix E.
The Department of the Treasury (the Treasury) outlined the support delivered through JobKeeper to all industries:
The first phase of JobKeeper (March to September 2020) supported around 1 million businesses, covering over 3.8 million employees.
To date, the first quarter of the extension phase (October to December 2020) has supported around 525,000 businesses, covering an average of 1.6 million employees.
The Treasury noted that data was not available for the second quarter of the extension phase (January to March 2021) at the time of reporting. For the period of 30 March 2020 to 31 January 2021, Treasury stated that, overall, ‘1,458,349 JobSeeker Payment claims were granted.’
Within the arts and recreation category, ‘$560 million, 25,000 organisations and 122,000 employees’ received support from the JobKeeper payment.
In addition, the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research (BCAR) and the Office of the Arts explained that:
According to Australian Taxation Office (ATO) data, 25,370 people in the Creative and Performing Arts subdivision of the ANZSIC Arts and Recreation Services Division received JobKeeper payments in April 2020. As at February 2020, there were 45,400 employees in this subdivision, of whom around 40,000 are employed in the private sector. This means that around 63 per cent of employees in this subdivision were in receipt of JobKeeper payments in April 2020 based on employment levels prior to the pandemic.
The total cultural and creative workforce, including creatives working in non-creative fields, is 868,098 people. Comprehensive data on how this wider cultural and creative cohort has been affected by the pandemic is unclear.
Sector Response to Support
A number of inquiry participants noted the essential support that they received through programs including JobKeeper and JobSeeker, but some expressed dissatisfaction, concern and confusion towards the types of support packages available.
The JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments have eligibility criteria which have been criticised as not recognising the ‘gig economy’ nature of the arts and culture sector.
The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) was critical of the way different areas of government recognise work, and highlighted a lack of understanding regarding the suspension of mutual obligations as cause of confusion. NAVA made the point that ‘currently Centrelink don't recognise being an artist as a profession. The [Australian Tax Office] do by their tax ruling of being a professional artist, but Centrelink don't.’
Dr Catriona Menzies-Pike, Editor of the Sydney Review of Books (SRB), suggested that there has been a ‘failure of design’ in the Commonwealth Government’s response to the public health emergency in the way that an organisation’s public engagement with art and culture was measured which stopped SRB from receiving emergency funding. Dr Menzies-Pike suggested that, ‘looser funding criteria for the emergency packages would have allowed organisations like the SRB to commission a lot of writers to do work during this fallow period’.
In a similar vein, Dr Gail Jones raised concern at the categorisation of jobs and the exclusion of writers from Commonwealth support packages:
Most writers’ work is not recognized as a ‘job’; if it were, if there were a definition of ‘writer’ as a category of honourable labour (such as it is, for example, in Germany and France), writers would be eligible for Jobmaker and Jobseeker benefits. This may be ‘blue-sky’ thinking, but I look forward to a future in which forms of precarious labour, like writing, are recognized as jobs.
The peak body for performing arts, screen production and live entertainment sectors, Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) represents approximately 8,000 members. MEAA contended that:
The major challenge that our members confronted during the pandemic, flowing from the immediate cessation or work, was their inability to secure JobKeeper benefits. We estimate—and we think our estimates are reliable—that roughly half of our members in the entertainment sector were unable to access JobKeeper due to eligibility constraints.
The Stradbroke Chamber Music Festival raised concerns about Commonwealth Government support packages for arts organisations::
The federal government has earmarked $70 billion for JobKeeper but financial support for the arts sector remains comparatively small. After months of lobbying, the sector was finally advised of a $250m support package, at the end of June. This “bailout” comprises $75m in a highly competitive grant program, $90m in loans, $50m to Screen Australia, and the remaining dollars go to federal government funded arts organisations (Fletcher, June 25, 2020). This is at odds with the Australia Institute’s call for a $750 million rescue package for the arts industry (Farr 2020) in April. It is also unclear how, or whether, any of the funds will trickle down to the individuals who make art, perform the art, and live by the art.
ACE Open, a small-to-medium sized contemporary visual arts organisation in South Australia, received support through ‘the JobKeeper package and the cash flow stimulus’, and which enabled it to maintain economic activity while its physical spaces were closed. It added that:
ACE Open was able to quickly respond to closures and pivot a physical exhibition of digital media works to a digital platform in a way that maintained the integrity of the work and increased access for audiences nationally and internationally, as well as continue to pay artists and writers for work/s presented online while the physical gallery was shutdown.
The Australian Academy of the Humanities noted that 95 per cent of creative and cultural businesses are small to medium sized businesses which includes many sole traders:
As with other industries, they have been hard hit by COVID-19 and there is evidence of disproportionate impacts. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest labour force data shows revenues crashing and jobs losses in the order of 50 percent in some sectors.
The National Public Galleries Alliance (NPGA) asserted that without support:
The viability of some small-to-medium organisations is threatened due to the financial impact of long-term closures caused by COVID-19. This is particularly true for volunteer-run organisations reliant on visitors through their doors for income.
Commonwealth Government Budget Measures for 2021-22
On Tuesday, 11 May 2021, the Commonwealth Government announced budget measures to support Australia’s creative and cultural sectors.
An additional $85.4 million was allocated to the National Collecting Institutions for financial years 2021-22 and 2022-23, including $32.4 million to directly support the delivery of public services and programs by eight major institutions. Capital works allocated funding for five of the institutions will assist with preserving Australia’s cultural heritage, including:
upgrades to public areas and replacement of the fire safety system at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM);
restoration work at the Bundanon Homestead and repairs to the Boyd Education Centre;
replacement of end-of-life assets at the NGA to improve safety and support the ongoing care of the Gallery’s collection valued at $6.2 billion;
refurbishment of the House of Representatives Chamber and critical building maintenance works at Old Parliament House; and
replacement of the NLA’s Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning system.
The Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) received an additional $11.9 million over four years from 2021-22 to support the development and distribution of children’s content.
Additional targeted support in response to the effects of COVID-19 were also announced by the Commonwealth Government, including the extension of the Temporary Interruption Fund to the end of 2021; the Supporting Cinemas’ Retention, Endurance and Enhancement of Neighbourhoods (SCREEN) Fund to support independent cinemas; extension of the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund for productions, festivals and events; reinstatement of the Producer Offset Rate for Australian film, set to 40 per cent as an ongoing measure; and grants for the Culture, Heritage and Arts Regional Tourism (CHART) Program.
Further funding for the mental health support service Support Act was also allocated.
Crisis Relief and Mental Health Support Services
Support Act is ‘Australia's only charity providing crisis relief and mental health support to artists, crew and music workers’. Support Act was established in 1997 with the help of the Australasian Performing Right Association and Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society (APRA AMCOS) and the Australian Recording Industry Association and Phonographic Performance Company of Australia (ARIA PPCA), and delivers crisis relief services to workers as a result of ill health, injury, mental health problem or other crises. Support Act has operated a wellbeing helpline since 2018, which is a free, confidential counselling service available to anyone working in the music or arts.
The public health emergency’s immediate impact on the arts industry led to a huge demand for Support Act’s services:
I guess it comes as no surprise when I say our services were quickly overwhelmed when the pandemic hit. We initially actually had to halt our crisis relief program while we tried desperately to raise funds to underwrite our response. I am pleased to say we received a fantastic response from both the music industry and music lovers across the country, who very quickly started to miss being able to go and see live music and also understood the very real challenges facing the artists and musicians they love.
The Commonwealth Government, through the Office of the Arts, gave a grant of $10 million to provide crisis relief and wellbeing support for those workers affected by the public health emergency. Support Act also receives funds from the music industry and its supporters, including from donations, sponsorship, community fundraising, appeals and promotions.
The Commonwealth Government’s funding was highlighted by Support Act for the major impact it had on the ability to provide services:
…the real game changer for us came when the Australian government, through the Office for the Arts, committed $10 million to Support Act in April to support our activities. That was really fantastic. It enabled us to scale up and provide financial support to artists, crew and music workers who were at risk of being evicted from their homes because they couldn't pay the rent or the mortgage, couldn't pay their utilities bill, couldn't fix the car, couldn't pay the kids' school fees or whatever it was.
Support Act indicated that by December 2020, half of the Commonwealth funding had been used to provide services and support. The ‘safety net’ provided by JobKeeper and JobSeeker was highlighted as being ‘absolutely incredible’ but the forthcoming reductions in the amounts to be received were also noted.
Support was able to be provided for arts workers battling mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and isolation. The helpline was extended with some of the Commonwealth Government funding, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community engagement social workers to allow reach to a different cohort of artists for the first time. Other initiatives include early intervention mental health and wellbeing programs:
We're currently providing mental health first aid training to hundreds of artists, artists' managers and crew, and this is really having a noticeable impact on the way people are engaging in the conversation around mental health. We hope it will really move the needle when it comes to helping to reduce the stigma and encourage more people to undertake help-seeking behaviours.
Six social workers are employed as part of the crisis relief programs, who process and assess applications for crisis relief, identify non-financial supports including referrals for people at risk of homelessness or mental health support. The helpline is managed by a not-for-profit Employee Assistance Program (EAP) with trained clinicians to provide counselling.
In March 2021, the Commonwealth Government announced that a further $10 million would be allocated to Support Act to allow a quick response for the ‘artists, crew and music workers including sound and lighting technicians, managers, booking agents, promoters, venue workers and roadies still affected by COVID-19’.
Changing Models of Delivery: a Digital Focus
The challenges presented to Australians in 2020 and 2021 included bushfires, flooding, and the pandemic. These highlighted the need for industries, businesses, communities and individuals to innovate, pivot and adjust to new unanticipated realities. As one survey respondent stated:
We have had to adapt all work for artists and creative organisations to recognise the huge stress on the community. We have changed the way we work, administer, contract manage and support the arts and artists.
Another outlined how they had changed their business or work model in response to the pandemic: ‘Adapted my practice online; accepted more online publishing commissions; accepted commissions which engage creatively with the subject of the pandemic. Focalised/streamlined my projects’.
As a result of COVID-19, ANA stated that ‘some creative and cultural industries have found ways to transition online (or were already there), and new types of digital consumption and engagement are emerging’. This digital transformation is accompanied by significant potential to increase accessibility to cultural and creative experiences.
A clearer picture has emerged of the longer-term impacts of the new ways of operating. The Australia Council for the Arts’ COVID-19 Audience Outlook Monitor is a tracking study which measures trends and audience sentiments surround the arts and cultural sector. Four ‘phases’ of the survey were conducted in May, July and September 2020, and March 2021. In May 2020, 75 per cent of all audiences participated in a form of online or digital arts and culture activities, which dropped to 70 per cent in September 2020.
By contrast, as restrictions began to ease, the March 2021 phase of the survey found that 47 per cent of all audiences continued to participate in arts and culture activities online. Although there was a marked decrease in digital attendance between May 2020 and March 2021 as venues were able to hold live events (with restricted numbers), there is evidence that attendance in some form will continue regardless of the format:
…those who have recently attended a performance in person are also more likely to be participating online (51% compared to 47% nationally), as both behaviours are driven by audiences’ strong engagement with arts and culture.
This research also found that 37 per cent of users pay for online content (September 2020 levels were 39 per cent), indicating that there is ‘an enduring market for premium digital experiences’.
Solutions and conversations around innovation and pivoting in response to the pandemic focused heavily on digital responses, however Think Tank Dance Assembly raised concerns around this approach :
The digital realm is not the singular solution to resuscitate dance in this time of crisis. Live practice has to be reimagined and this innovative research needs to be led by artists, and those artists need to be paid for this work.
Ms Lamorna Nightingale drew attention to the flexibility of smaller companies and businesses in their capacity to meet the social-distancing requirements resulting from the pandemic:
At this time when larger companies are struggling with safety considerations involving large audiences, smaller companies can offer more intimate experiences for audiences and are able to pivot more quickly with creative solutions to the issues raised by COVID-safe compliance.
The loss of live music performances has been profound, and APRA AMCOS asserted that since the lockdown in March 2020:
…it is fair to say that the Australian live music industry fell off a cliff. It has had a dramatic impact on APRA, and cost revenue specifically. We were down on our revenue forecasts by some $25 million in the last financial year. In this current financial year, we were originally forecasting group revenue of approximately $520 million. We now see that as sitting at about $450 million. That is a combination of the direct impact on venues not being able to present live music because of COVID restrictions, but then there has been a domino effect where, for instance, radio stations have been impacted in terms of advertising revenue, which flows through and impacts the royalties we collect and pass on to our members.
In response to the inability to tour, livestreamed music performances have been embraced by many in the music industry, and more broadly across the performing arts. The PPCA contended that:
While the consumption of music through online streaming remains steady, and for some artists has become their only income stream, revenues raised from digital music platforms or virtual concerts cannot replace the loss of opportunities and income derived from live touring and public performance royalties. These difficulties are also compounded by the current Australian legislative framework which does not provide robust protection or safeguards for music rights holders and artists from the scourge of unauthorised use of their work online, when their content is uploaded by third parties on commercial platforms which deliver minimal or no remuneration to the rights holders and artists for the use of an artist’s work on these platforms.
Livestreaming creative performances was commonly noted by inquiry participants, with benefits for artists and peripheral arts workers noted to include improved digital skills, revenue and wider audience reach.
Musica Viva Australia experienced some success in implementing a ‘pay-what-you-can model’ for attendance at digital-streamed events:
We wanted to offer a performance at anything from $5 to $25, acknowledging that many people were impacted economically at the time but wanted to keep that sense of paying for a ticket and valuing the artist's work. The number of people who were really happy to pay at the high end, as well as those who clearly valued the opportunity to access music at a lower amount, was quite interesting.
Despite these examples of successful online delivery, Dr Charlotte Wood explained that the transition to online events has not always been financially successful for bookstores and authors. Book launches and author conversations, particularly for emerging writers, are usually an integral part of a book promotion campaign. Although these forms of promotion have been adapted to online formats, Dr Wood expressed concern at the drop in revenue:
One very well-established bookseller here in Sydney who has been running constant online events told me that it hasn't been translating to sales in the way it would with an in-store event. With a few surprising exceptions, event related books sales are down by 90 per cent.
Similarly, Writers South Australia stated that despite the ‘entrepreneurial response’ of writers’ centres to support events, workshops, book launches and similar in a remote environment, they ‘broadly suffered significant financial losses, and expect more to come with Australia in recession and travel restrictions limiting the earning potential of event-based organisations’.
The experience of digital fatigue was noted by the Australia Council which found that ‘some audiences are tiring of digital experiences and face barriers to online participation’.
First Nations Performing Arts Sector contended that while some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists have turned to online platforms, others have not ‘because they not have the skills or desire to do so’. One artist shared: ‘I am not an online artist, and believe I should leave that online world to those who have always specifically created content and art for that medium I long for live theatre’.
Entertainment Assist stated that ‘the entertainment industry is amongst the first to close, and amongst the last to resume, leaving many individuals, sole traders and small businesses out of work for longer periods than those in other sectors’.
Digital classrooms have become a popular medium for outreach and public engagement, but this medium may not suit all mediums or artists Ausdance National highlighted that while ‘some small businesses have been able to pivot their offerings (e.g. shifting dance classes online via Zoom), others have found it either unprofitable or an unsatisfactory way of teaching and learning in dance’.
Sydney Dance Company noted that while they have rapidly adjusted to deliver online content, not all content have been financially profitable. While some digital outputs, such as online classes, have been easily monetised, the Sydney Dance Company has been unable to monetise ‘artistic content due to the complexities and expense of licenses and union agreements’.
While the transition to online learning has presented challenges, Writing Western Australia (Writing WA) have found this to uncover opportunities ‘with the creation of new content and resources that deliver increased value for education providers and consumers’. This new content adds ‘value specifically in the digital environment’, and Writing WA suggested stimulus funding to support content development and marketing as an avenue through which this innovation could be further explored.
Ms Xani Kolac stated that as a music teacher she found it necessary to learn to teach music via online and digital platforms to safeguard her income.
The Australian Youth Orchestra also ceased in-person training and moved to digital platforms stating:
Our plan was to provide 600 places during 2020 – this was reduced to 240 in person and we created 125 new online program places. We have been unable to deliver any in-person music teacher mentor training this year and the number of in classroom sessions was significantly reduced due to school restrictions on visitors and musical activity in particular singing.
Equity of Access
Equity of access to arts and cultural activities for all was identified as of importance by many stakeholders. Not all people living in Australia enjoy the same access to arts and cultural participation, production or consumption, with particular groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, those affected by socioeconomic disadvantage, regional or older people, those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and people living with disability facing greater barriers.
Diversity Arts noted some benefits, and some challenges, in moving to online events:
Diversity Arts has moved our launches, talks and events online, as have many of our partners, and many people living in regional or remote places and artists living with disability have reported that digital access has led to greater access for them (online attendance, captioning, sign language interpreters). However, there are a range of limitations for organisations and audiences to access including hardware and software costs, online subscriptions (webinars, services such as Zoom), reliable internet, technical support, and the need to invest in new ways to engage with audiences.
Create NSW found that certain groups wanted to participate digitally with arts more than others. This included people with disability (71 per cent), caregivers to older adults (66 per cent) and parents of children aged under six (68 per cent). Further, 45 per cent of people with disability were found to be more likely to want an option to attend performances either in-person or watch a livestream. This was compared with an average of 36 per cent for all respondents. Create NSW suggests confirms ‘the role for digital in expanding access to the arts’.
Although there has been significant uptake by regional artists in webinars, seminars and online sales, regional audiences have faced challenges in accessing online content. Regional Arts Australia (RAA) drew attention to the ‘digital divide’ which continues to exclude some Australians from participation in the arts. According to a survey by Regional Arts New South Wales, ‘three quarters of respondents of the respondents reported connectivity issues’. Furthermore, issues with the availability of the National Broadband Network (NBN) were identified:
For those not currently using the NBN, 24% have applied, 24% intend to apply, 14% do not plan to apply and for 38%, the NBN is not available. For those with NBN network connections, 68% have been connected for less than 2 years. For those who have applied for an NBN connection more than 20% have waited more than 12 months, while 40% have been waiting 6-12 months.
The experience of digital exclusion and inequity appears to be determined by the type of arts or culture organisation and their location; national institutions and organisations based in capital cities generally experience fewer barriers and have ‘better access to skills’ compared with the rest of the arts and culture sector. Ms Indigo Holcombe-James drew attention to limited digital inclusion in Indigenous art centres and regional community museums:
Although the buildings in which Indigenous art centres are situated tend to be digitally connected, this does not always extend to the artists themselves, with digital participation remaining the preserve of the non-Indigenous art centre managers. In turn, although community museums are increasingly using online cataloguing platforms, the digital inequity confronted by their elderly volunteers profoundly influences their capacity to accurately and effectively catalogue these items, thereby impeding their accessibility.
RAA noted that ‘access to digital platforms, services and resources is not equal’, which RAA suggested was a restraining factor in the capacity of their members’ practice, and businesses in response to COVID-19. In a similar vein, Latrobe City Council asserted that:
In regional areas a capacity and resource gap is limiting access to digital engagement as audiences, artists, producers and presenters do not have the network infrastructure or available equipment to view or broadcast livestream and video content.
Latrobe City Council added that there are structural inequalities in regions with significant social and economic disadvantage, and suggested target investment to establish ‘community based media production capability, and training programs that enable local creative capacity could unlock digital export as a viable option for regional creative industries’.
The enormous disruption of the COVID-19 public health emergency had immediate and shocking effects on all sectors of the economy. Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions were hit by the effects of the emergency as venues such as theatres, galleries, performance spaces and classes were closed.
Some were able to move to online platforms to deliver classes, livestream music or comedy performances, and create digital content in response to the restrictions. Others were less able to transition, with a range of barriers experienced including lack of access to digital connectivity, lack of resourcing to create or move content to the digital space, lack of suitability of the medium of art to the digital space, and issues regarding access by the audience.
Australians have been living with some level of restrictions, rules and uncertainty for some time now, and this may continue as global efforts to control the public health emergency continue.
The work already undertaken by individuals and organisations creating Australia’s arts to strengthen their ability to survive will most likely continue to serve them well as Australians adapt to the pandemic and its challenges. However, there are enormous risks that many individuals and organisations will not be able to continue to create the way they have in the past, or continue at all.
The Committee is grateful to all those who took the time to participate in the inquiry, during what was a stressful and uncertain time. The Committee appreciates that Australia’s artistic community is experiencing unprecedented hardships at a time when the need for artistic content has been extremely high.
The arts has undoubtedly helped a great number of Australians to cope with the pressures of the pandemic, with the isolation of living with lockdowns, and the uncertainty that is now part of our lives.
The Committee commends the work of Support Act in delivering crisis relief and mental health support. This type of support has never been more vital to those working as artists, crew or music workers. The Committee appreciates the need for this type of service, and recognises the funding provided by the Commonwealth Government to allow this type of in-industry support to be provided. The Committee notes the recent announcement of a further $10 million in funding for Support Act to allow further crisis support to be provided.
The Committee encourages arts workers in need of crisis relief or mental health services to seek help from Support Act.
The Committee notes the additional funding allocated to Support Act in the 2021-22 budget, and recommends that the Commonwealth Government continue to monitor and assess the need for further funding to Support Act as the public health emergency continues.
The Committee invites Support Act to update the Committee on its work by June 2022.