COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on industries across our economy; however, none more so than the arts. Venues in my electorate have been forced to the wall. They include the Flight Path Theatre, the Red Rattler Theatre and the Factory Theatre, along with live music venues including the Lazy Bones Lounge, the Butchers Brew Bar and the Gasoline Pony. The arts sector is uniquely susceptible to this pandemic. Their function is to bring people together—a function that is at odds with the social distancing required to combat COVID-19. This means that arts venues were the first to close and may well be the last to reopen.
Lockdown meant our theatres, concert halls and rehearsal spaces emptied. Live music venues fell silent. Even the subdued murmuring in our libraries and art galleries petered to nothing as the doors closed. Forced to confront our fear and isolation—arguably when we most needed to reconnect with our humanity—our storytellers were pushed into the wings and onto the job queue. If that is a little bit too esoteric for members, it is also worth considering the hard economic realities. In 2018 the arts and creative industries contributed $111.7 billion to the Australian economy but by the end of April this year over half the industry had ceased to operate. The Australasian Performing Right Association Limited [APRA] and the Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society Limited [AMCOS] report that the industry has lost half a billion dollars in ticket sales alone since the lockdown began.
By June three-quarters of the industry's casual workforce were unemployed and over half of all full‑time or part‑time permanent employees were working at significantly reduced hours. It was initially unclear whether JobKeeper would help the sector, given the large number of sole traders and project-based casual employees. Now there are concerns that they are facing disaster with the looming transition to Jobkeeper 2.0. Twenty-eight per cent of arts workers work fewer than 20 hours a week, meaning they will have to fall back to $750 payments a fortnight with the two-tier system that is being introduced. While arts workers are relieved at the cautious reopening of arts venues in New South Wales, the uncertainty will continue unless there is clear support from the New South Wales Government.
Sadly, the New South Wales Liberal Government's response to the pandemic has shown it is no friend of the arts. Its Rescue and Restart program has proven to be nothing more than pocket money for the arts Minister to spend as he wishes. There is no eligibility criteria or assessment criteria and no deadline or guidance on what the funds could be spent. When a small company in Marrickville in my electorate sought funds to stop the company going permanently under, it was not even able to find out when or how to apply. Last week the arts Minister revealed that 84 arts organisations applied for financial support but he could not say how much of the money had been allocated or to whom it had been allocated.
The suspicion is that the funding is being used to prop up larger companies while smaller companies are left in the wings. This is unfair because arguably smaller companies have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Their usually smaller venues mean they can have fewer people at performances while providing safe social distancing and they are unable to draw on the reserves held by larger and more established companies. They should have a friend in the arts Minister. However, he has once again abandoned these smaller companies. I have to say that on this front the arts Minister has game.
In 2018 he was caught redirecting $400,000 in funding from small- and medium-sized companies partly to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra against the express recommendations of his department. He was caught red‑handed funnelling $44 million out of a $47 million grant pool from the Regional Cultural Fund to projects in Coalition electorates before the last State election, including to some groups that applied after the deadline had closed. Now the New South Wales Government has reduced or cut funding altogether to key organisations which include Writing NSW, Playwriting Australia, the National Association for the Visual Artists [NAVA] and Ausdance NSW. All that arts companies want is to know that when their back is against the wall they are playing on a level playing field. The industry is doing what it does best—innovating and demonstrating its boundless resilience.
The pandemic has increased our hunger for the arts. The Australia Council reported that the most popular activity during the lockdown was watching films and television programs and listening to podcasts and music. Last week one resident wrote to me to express that the arts should not be left out of the economic stimulus, proposing that we embrace a visionary and bold set of new ideas that includes the establishment of a dedicated State‑run Indigenous art gallery. Those ideas are definitely worth considering because the arts are well placed to grow through stimulus spending. The industry has a proven record of transforming every cent it earns into economic activity. The work that the arts industry creates has a transformative effect on us all, healing the unspoken effects of the pandemic on our mental health and social connectivity, and supports our hope and optimism for the future.