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Photograph: Prudence UptonOpera Australia cancelled 570 performances, losing $75 million

Arts institutions react to NSW's $50 million Rescue and Restart package

While detail remains to be seen on NSW government lifeline, much-needed funds have been roundly welcomed

By Stephen A Russell

There was some much-needed good news for arts venues this weekend as the NSW government announced a $50 million Rescue and Restart package designed to support the sector while venue doors remain closed.

Despite supporting some 118,000 jobs across the state and contributing $16.4 billion to the economy, support has been a long time coming for many arts institutions that were amongst the first to be impacted by the lockdown as restrictions were placed on mass gatherings.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that, “The NSW arts and cultural sector is an important contributor to the NSW economy as well as for our community’s well-being. We know that the arts is a place of refuge and a source of inspiration in these challenging times.”

Designed as a life raft to ensure the survival of some of the most significant arts and cultural organisations across NSW, the Rescue and Restart package will be delivered in two stages. The first tranche will help venues ride out the hibernation period while they must remain shuttered. Later, the remainder will be released to help kick-start the reopening process.

Opera Australia CEO Rory Jeffes told Time Out that the devil is in the details, but it’s a very welcome announcement. “It’s certainly something we’ve been looking forward to,” he says. “From everything that’s been said, it could make an enormous difference for the organisations recovering from catastrophic loss.”

Opera Australia is the nation's most substantially funded arts organisation, receiving in the region of $25 million of taxpayer money a year. Jeffes says he hopes the state's emergency package will be shared around more holistically. “While all of us are focused on our individual organisations, we all recognise the need of the sector broadly”

Noting that Opera Australia has cancelled 570 performances this year at a staggering loss of some $75 million worth of ticket revenue, Jeffes says the company is focused on resilience. “It’s a balance between wanting to make sure that we can still be here when this is all over, but in the meantime, making sure we can provide as much support to all our people as we can. Opera Australia is the largest employer of artists, artisans and crews in the sector and we very much trust that the support of the New South Wales Government will help us to do that.”

Anne Dunn, executive director of Sydney Dance Company, told Time In the company applauds the news. “The performing arts have been one of the hardest-hit industries and will be one of the last to recover. This announcement gives comfort that the performing arts, which is a significant employer and a vital part of the visitor economy, will get some assistance at this critical time to ensure the industry is still there and can reboot when this crisis is over. We are looking forward to more details as to how the funding will be distributed.”

Vicki Middleton, chair of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company board, echoed those sentiments. “We are relieved and optimistic on hearing the fantastic news of a $50m arts sector support package from the NSW government. It will provide a lifeline for vulnerable companies, particularly those which receive little funding or rely heavily on earned income. There is, however, a most urgent and pressing need to ensure independent artists, performers and small arts organisations share in this support, so that the entire ecosystem can sustain itself into the future.”

Declan Greene, the celebrated playwright and newly appointed artistic director of Griffin Theatre Company, says that, like many NSW arts organisations that have been very vocal, “about our desperate need for a rescue package, and whilst the detail is still limited, we're very grateful that the NSW Government has come to the party with rescue and restart funding.  There is still a long way to go, but we hope the NSW Government are in this with us for the long haul. Because so many organisations are going to continue to need support beyond the immediate here and now.”

Eamon Flack, Belvoir's artistic director, says it's good news. “It’s a serious sum of money and, if it’s well spent, it’ll pull the sector back from the cliff-edge. You can be sure it’ll be worth it for the life of the city and the state. And it’s irrefutable that a public dollar to the arts is good general stimulus spending. It goes straight into the economy and multiplies itself pretty quickly. The question now that there’s money on the table is how do we rebuild the cultural life of the NSW? What’s the best way to spend this stimulus?”

Fraser Corfield, artistic director of the Australian Theatre For Young People – which recently lost multi-year Australia Council funding – says, “venues, companies and artists have been devastated by the impact of the COVID shutdown. It’s reassuring to see the state government investing not only in keeping companies alive while all production seasons are suspended, but to assist in getting audiences back to the theatre when these restrictions are lifted.”

He adds that the future of the theatre industry in NSW is extremely uncertain. “Many companies have been brought to the edge of insolvency,” he says. “This announcement is desperately needed. Our attention is turning from the remainder of this year, which we are confident we will weather, to 2021 when we try and rebuild our audience after a year apart.”

Concerned for the future of the arts in NSW? Read about how the resident companies of Carriageworks are coping during the voluntary administration of their home venue.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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Image: Supplied

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