Grim report finds arts ‘can’t reboot’ after COVID without massive help

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Grim report finds arts ‘can’t reboot’ after COVID without massive help

By Nick Miller

For our free coronavirus pandemic coverage, learn more here.

A grim report from a progressive think tank warns that the arts and entertainment industry faces serious, long-term damage from the pandemic, without a new, ambitious, sustained program of public investment in the arts.

It has proposed a return to Whitlam-era support for the arts, with a big increase to the number of “creative fellowships” funded by federal government to support artists, from less than 10 a year up to 900 a year.

Singer Guy Sebastian with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the announcement of a $250 million arts rescue package in June 2020.

Singer Guy Sebastian with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the announcement of a $250 million arts rescue package in June 2020.Credit:Louise Kennerley

The report was commissioned by the entertainment and arts union, the MEAA, and produced by the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, written by economist Alison Pennington and Monash University lecturer Ben Eltham.

A “whole of Australia public streaming platform” would help bring culture out of the institutions to the masses, and a new focus on arts education would help raise a generation better able to appreciate and contribute, the report said.

Much of this could be funded by a “digital platforms levy” from the giant tech platforms.

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Many venues and organisations, slammed by a loss of jobs and audiences over the year-and a half of lockdowns and restrictions, “will not be in a position to reboot”, the report said, predicting a “permanent drop in output” from those that survive, and an exodus of workers who opt not to return to this low-wage, insecure sector.

“Ongoing instability from the failed vaccination rollout, combined with the absence of widespread, long-term government supports, prevent the arts sector from rebooting to anything resembling pre-pandemic conditions for the foreseeable future,” the report said.

And this could result in wider economic damage, because the sector helps drive demand for hospitality, retail and tourism.

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The authors calculated there had been a 46 per cent drop in employment in libraries, a 32 per cent fall in the creative and performing arts, and 38 per cent in motion picture and sound recording.

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“As an already marginalised and precarious workforce, many arts and entertainment workers have sought alternative sources of income, often in even more precarious forms of work (eg dancers teaching yoga online as gig workers) or completely outside of their industry (eg sound engineers working as supermarket clerks),” the report said. “Some of these workers have found alternative employment and may never return.”

The pandemic had exacerbated problems that were already endemic in these industries, the report said. And the federal government had not adequately responded to the scale and severity of the crisis, the report found, despite its $250 million relief package announced in June 2020, the JobKeeper wage subsidy, and a $285 million package in the 2021-22 budget.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has implemented increasingly hostile policies in the arts and cultural sector, including weakening local production quotas and increasing the cost of studying creative fields,” the report said.

Though the relief packages were welcome, the “design and delivery ... fell far short of its glossy announcement”.

“It is not clear that the group of recipients funded through RISE [the federal cultural relief fund] corresponds to the areas of greatest need,” the report found, with little emergency funding reaching small and medium arts enterprises that generate most arts sector activity.

The report said “Australia needs a complete reboot of the arts and entertainment sector” with ambitious, sustained public investment to rebuild skills, jobs and incomes.

It recommended more long-term, secure funding for arts organisations, and wage subsidies for arts workers.

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