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The arts sector will be hard hit by COVID-19. We need to act now to save it

Mama Alto performing
Photograph: Alexis Desaulniers-Lea Mama Alto performing at Melbourne Recital Centre, January 2020

Earning a living is precarious enough at the best of times for independent artists and creative freelancers. Now, with sector-wide shutdowns prompted by necessary COVID-19 precautions, the outlook for artists is even more dire, writes cabaret performer Mama Alto.

These are trying times for everyone, but especially so for professionals in the arts sector. The heavy hitters of Australia's arts industry began closing their doors to the public temporarily this week, including state institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria, Sydney Opera House, and Melbourne Recital Centre, to name just a few.

Across the nation, festivals like Dark Mofo, Vivid Sydney, the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival have been postponed or cancelled, while major productions like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Billy Elliot and Come from Away announced early closures.

The economic shockwaves of these big-budget cancellations will be devastating, but it’s the independent artists, creatives, freelancers, smaller venues and arts-adjacent contract or casual workers who will be hit hardest.

Events and audiences are the most significant source of income for a broad diversity of jobs within the arts sector, from musicians to dancers, visual artists and authors to independent producers and venue owners. That extends to the production crews, bar staff, ushers, box office, sound and lighting professionals and many more who support them.

For the most part, these workers do not have sick leave or salaries. There’s no safety net, no security or certainty in this time of unprecedented upheaval when gigs are unable to go ahead.

These are the people who enliven our cities and regions. They create memories, bringing joy, excitement, colour, empathy, connection and storytelling to our communities, enriching human existence beyond measure.

That’s why it’s so important we support them in this hour of need. In the imagination of many members of the public, artistic types are entitled, demanding special treatment or carving out victimhood status, but their contribution to this country goes far beyond just cultural merit.

While Australia no longer has a dedicated arts portfolio, to its great shame, in 2016-17 the then Department of Communications and the Arts found that the creative and cultural sectors contributed more than $111.7 billion to the national economy, or 6.4 per cent of the gross domestic product.

As of March 16, I Lost My Gig – a data-gathering initiative spearheaded by the Australian Music Industry Network and the Australian Festivals Association – reported $200 million worth of lost income by small-to-medium businesses and independent contractors in the performing arts. That impacts over 400,000 people, and these figures are growing daily as more events are cancelled and more workers report income loss.

The Australia Council for the Arts 2017 Making Art Work report noted 81 per cent of practising professional artists are freelance or self-employed. When so many work gig-to-gig and hand-to-mouth, or are engaged in short term contracts or commissions, the pandemic means many will lose months of income due to cancellations.

In 2017, the Australia Council for the Arts reported the average total income of artists was 21 per cent below the Australian workplace average. Many artists and arts workers self-report they do not have substantial savings to tide them through the shutdown. The ongoing financial strain of the coming months will impact these individuals and the organisations, institutions, festivals and venues which employ them for years to come.

That impact is not only economic. Cancelling events, performances, exhibitions, festivals and other activities that connect artists to their audiences and peers is emotionally and psychologically devastating. It can cause acute mental health crises, anxiety and distress, and contribute to depression.

We know that those in the arts sector and creative industries are already a vulnerable and at-risk group when it comes to mental health, with Entertainment Assist’s 2019 research finding suicide attempts by workers in the Australian entertainment industry are more than double that of the general population. Levels of depression are five times higher, with moderate to severe anxiety 10 times higher. The direct losses and continuing uncertainty and instability during the COVID-19 crisis exacerbate these risks.

The answer is not to continue with events and performances. Social distancing, isolation and quarantine measures are necessary to address the developing pandemic. We need to protect those most vulnerable to critical and fatal complications of COVID-19 including, but not limited to, the elderly, First Nations and Indigenous communities, those living with disability and chronic illness, those experiencing homelessness and others with compromised or suppressed immune systems. We need to implement distancing measures to avoid a surge of demand on our already strained healthcare systems. Indefinitely closing down the arts sector is the responsible course of action to save lives and reduce suffering.

But there are positive, proactive ways communities can come together to support the arts. Ask the artists you follow and admire how you can get involved. Many are utilising online services and social media to accept tips with virtual busking, by running workshops, accepting commissions or live-streaming gigs. Buy or stream their work online where it is available. Support them through revenue streams like Patreon, Ko-Fi, PayPal or Venmo. Share their social media posts and spread the word about their work. Amplify your enthusiasm and love.

Add your name to petitions calling on the government to introduce stimulus programs specific to the arts. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance calls on individuals to make the impact on the creative industries known. Live Performance Australia demands, “an immediate and targeted package of assistance.”

The state and federal arts and cultural ministers met on March 19 to survey the “unprecedented and evolving” situation. Whilst no practical outcomes have been offered as yet, the communique released following that meeting did acknowledge that many arts workers “are often casual employees and sole traders.”

However, despite this recognition, fear within the arts industry persists that when or if assistance arrives, it may be inaccessible or impractical for sole traders and freelancers, as with the government’s first stimulus package on March 12. It is vitally important that any assistance flows beyond the major companies, through to the sole traders, freelancers and independents who are the engine room of our cultural scene, bringing joy to so many. If action is not taken now, the devastation to Australia's cultural identity could be irreparable.

Artists and arts workers can access the 24-hour Support Act wellbeing helpline or can call 1800 959 500 to speak to qualified counsellors. Artists and arts workers can log lost income here.

You can support local artists by contributing via the Adopt an Artist initiative, by signing the change.org petition or by visiting savetheartsaustralia.com.

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