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Photogrpah: SuppliedSydney Fringe and fellow arts institutions were left hanging for help

Will the government's $250 million lifeline be enough save the arts? We ask industry leaders

After months of silence, will the raft of grants and loans be enough to keep all parts of the sector afloat?

Written by
Stephen A Russell

When theatres, comedy clubs, music venues and other performing arts hubs closed their doors indefinitely at the start of the crisis, they knew dark days lay ahead. Although they held out hope for a lifeline from the federal government, nothing came for months. While the NSW state government stepped in, the government has left Carriageworks, the first major company to go into administration, hanging.  

But now that the Morrison government has finally pledged $250 million for the arts, the question remains: is it enough to save Australia’s arts scene? Will audiences itching to emerge from lockdown and see new shows have anywhere to go?  

To say that Wesley Enoch, artistic director of the Sydney Festival – which will go all-Australian next year – isn’t so sure would be an understatement. “This package is about a third of what we’ve been asking for, so already it’s inadequate for what we need to do.”

His concerns go much deeper than the bottom dollar. “It’s an aggressively ideological-driven sense of ‘Let’s wipe out certain parts of the arts.’”

Many companies face oblivion. “We will not be able to trade for god knows how much longer, and the government is boiling the frog on this one,” Enoch says. “It’s some money, and maybe there’s more coming. Then you look at an arts degree is going to cost 113k or more. You see the cuts to the ABC, and how now there’s denial about that. And you start to see a pattern of behaviour which says, ‘We don’t want creative thinkers.”

Wesley Enoch, artistic director of Sydney Festival
Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch says the arts are under ideological attack Photograph: Prudence Upton

Who needs help most? 

One major concern is that roughly a third of the package is in the form of concessional loans, prompting Enoch to ask, “Who’s in a position to borrow at the moment?”

It also ring-fences a hefty chunk for ‘significant Commonwealth-funded arts and cultural organisations,’ like the Sydney Opera House. While Enoch says this is great, he’s worried a raft of small to medium venues could collapse. An army of independent artists weren’t able to access JobKeeper because of the transient nature of working gig to gig. “It’s not even conservative, because it’s not about conserving what’s here now,” he says.

Another tranche is put aside for new projects, which sounds good on paper, but it further worries Enoch. “It’s not about existing projects, companies or festivals, and so you start to go, ‘what happens to those of us that already exist?’ Do we have to shut down and startup something new? How do we keep the furniture when the fire sale is about to begin?”

Much of the money is on the promise of new shows, with very little to ride out the storm. “This is all about saying, ‘look, we will dangle a carrot, which you might be able to eat 12 months from now’.”

Enoch argues the arts shouldn’t have to go cap in hand when even the government’s statistics show the creative industries contribute more than $111 billion to the Australian economy each year, employing close to 600,000 people, or 5.5 per cent of the workforce.

“Perhaps it’s one of a series of programs that will be rolled out, like the states have done, but I get a sense that no. I mean, when even when the prime minister says this support is not just for artists, but that there are tradies here too, that that in some respect signals that artists aren’t good enough to support themselves.”

The show must go on

Fiona Hulton, acting executive director of Griffin Theatre Company, cautiously welcomed the package but was keen to see the detail. “There’s still a long way to go before our industry is on the path to recovery,” she says. “As a theatre that relies on the intimacy of audience members sitting cheek-by-jowl, our future is in jeopardy.”

Patron limits are a worry, she adds. “The reality is that we still can’t reopen unless small venues like ours are exempted from social distancing. And we need to ensure that the individual artists, many of whom have not been able to access government initiatives to date, are the recipients of genuine financial support.”

Sydney Fringe director and Old 505 Theatre-owner Kerri Glasscock previously told Time Out she was worried the crisis would deter the little guys from taking creative risks. When we checked back in with her following the announcement, those fears weren’t wholly allayed.

“Over the past five months our independent sector, particularly our artists and venues, have been decimated,” she says. “This package appears to be heavily geared to supporting the commercial part of the sector and companies that are already receiving government funding.’

Pluck out the roots, and the entire tree begins to wither. “The through-line from youth theatre to drama school to independent theatre to our main stages or professional film and television is clear,” she adds. “Without one, we do not have the other, and excluding a vital part of the sector at this time of need, through reduced eligibility scope, would be devastating. You simply can’t fund the restaurant without feeding the farmer.”

She’s glad a Creative Economy Taskforce is being established. “We would want to see true representation on that taskforce, not just industry associations that represent the commercial sector and major companies. Ensuring that regional venues, independent artists and festivals are included is imperative. It’s the small venues and grassroots festivals that are going to kickstart the sector first, that have the ability to be nimble and responsive.”

SBW Stables Theatre Griffin 2020
Like many independent companies, the Griffin Theatre Company is in jeopardy Photograph: Supplied

Winning hearts and minds

Enoch says the arts and linked tourism industries reach far beyond Sydney’s city limits. “The reason you go to a rural or regional area is not just for the beauty of the landscape and the road trip, but also because there are art galleries, special events, festivals,” Enoch says. “So why is it that our government shoots us not just in the foot, but both feet, so there’s just no way we can dance anymore?”

Enoch argues that if anything, lockdown has proven how essential the arts really are. “This whole lockdown has proven that people turn to books, music and film and theatre online. We’ve relied on artists and art to keep us active and keep our minds and our souls filled. And in many ways the government is saying, ‘no, that’s not really important’. It’s a kind of bloody-mindedness.”

It’s time to change their mind, Enoch argues. “They have to take off their ideological blinkers and see the arts, entertainment and cultural industries for what they are. Which is a huge economic engine, a huge social benefit to the community. We will, by the very nature of who we are, by telling stories, keep communities confident and active. I think they’ve totally misplayed their hand here.”

Want to see how playwrights are responding to our crazy days? Check out these 50 mini-monologues.

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

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