It’s no surprise that right now the arts industry is in a critical situation. It’s reeling from COVID-19 and the recent Australia Council for the Arts four year-funding announcement.
We’re quickly dealing with the consequences – managing cancellations; interpreting the complexities of JobKeeper; figuring out how to pay, employ and support artists; and many of us are simply asking: how do we survive?
At a rapid pace we’re trying to plan in a knowledge vacuum, experiment in the digital realm, hibernate large sections of activity and all without any certainty of timeframes.
Then comes the next shock wave. The legislative amendment to have a tailored relief package for the arts industry didn’t pass. There were many who worked tirelessly on this campaign, along with other efforts in the industry to mount a call for an increased Australia Council budget.
There was a momentum of hope, but with no success. Where do we go now? Was that our last shot? No, we still have options.
A New Conversation
It is critical we shift our thinking and approach and adapt to the one thing we do know – it’s a new world. And this new world needs a new conversation. As the pandemic evolves, many industries and facets of the economy are knocking on government’s doors for support – it’s a very loud and noisy space for treasury departments right now.
We’ve seen some success with a combined package of $17 million for regional arts creation and Indigenous arts centres (and an additional $10 million for the music industry charity Support Act) However, this feels almost insignificant against targeted relief of $715 million for the airlines, $60 million for food supply chains and a guarantee against losses of $18 billion for the tertiary education sector, to name a few.
As an industry we’ve been clear in quoting our statistics, our worth and our losses. The pitch in parliament for an arts package presented a very strong case of a vulnerable workforce and an industry in desperate need where many artists and performers have been left without any income safety net.
So why is there no overall industry bailout? It can be easy to feel despondent and think it’s because of party politics or that nobody is listening to our claims about being an industry that significantly contributes to the economy. But there is a simpler reason.
I’ve observed, working in other government portfolios, that the arts aren’t as practiced as other industries at having the right conversation. It’s critical to pivot our request away from our needs and issues towards a discussion about what and how the government actually needs to support society. The pitch needs to be an investment proposal.
Getting the Pitch Right
Many of us might talk about investment, but we use it interchangeably with grants and may not fully understand what it means in a very competitive, government fiscal policy context.
If you look at the suite of government relief support successes, they all have something in common – they deliver a specific need for society and the economy. It must be unique and it must resolve and manage an anticipated problem for the government.
How do we shift our conversation and get our pitch right? Our new conversation needs to sound more like: “Government, we know you will need X and Y and we are uniquely positioned to solve that for you, but in exchange we need…”
At Circus Oz, we recently did a stocktake of what we can offer and what resources we have available. In the first week of the pandemic restrictions, we saw half a million in ticket sales, venue hire, classes registration and presenter touring fees vanish from our books. With income streams drying up and minimal reserves, money is no longer a resource. Instead our stocktake revealed three clear resources in its place: creativity, networks and time.
Time is a rare commodity for the arts and we need to use this new resource to our advantage. This is the time to shape a new conversation.
Globally, we are experiencing what is being referred as the Great Pause. Society and economies are being forced into hibernation. We are being told to expect a pause of at least six months (maybe more).
What does this time offer us? Combined with the arts industry’s creativity and imagination, we have time to build a ‘think’ economy that helps us navigate solutions. We have no line of sight to the horizon, but we can imagine the possibilities.
We can use this time to regroup and use our networks like we have never done before. This pause doesn’t mean we stop. It means we have a rare moment to breathe. A moment to plan without panic. We have an opportunity to harness our ability to interpret and reflect society as well as lead the new conversation.
This pause doesn’t mean we stop. It means we have a rare moment to breathe.
We can use this time to amass evidence and ideas to shape an investment proposal. There’s a wealth of information on learnings from the past and trends already emerging in an isolating world. Some will be transient and others enduring. There’s much we don’t know, but we can draw enough conclusions on what society and government might need.
We can imagine some people will be desperate to reconnect. A strong temptation to immediately regain a sense of normal. Others may have new isolating habits, distrust and discomfort for the outside. Regardless of government fiscal interventions, for some people the shock alone of current financial vulnerability could shift consumer spending habits.
The creative sector can address these situations, as well as other scenarios. We are distinctively positioned to help when society is ready to emerge. We will help people reconnect, create tailored events, share stories to heal, celebrate and reflect. These are ingredients that can help kick start society and get the economy back on track.
This is our potential new conversation – our investment pitch. In exchange we need a true stimulus package. A package to help us gear up for the demand, and to help the community heal, reflect and imagine the future. A one-time investment of new (not repurposed) money to stimulate our industry in advance of society emerging.
The Australia Council for the Arts redirecting $5 million to resilience grants is a start in this direction. But this funding will only support a fraction of our industry. It will not stretch very far or have enduring impact if you consider the eligible amounts across three funding streams.
Our industry needs a stimulus package to employ artists and performers; one that delivers quality interim products; that bridges isolation created from the COVID-19 circumstances; and that subsidises and encourages audience engagement and participation.
We have been busy focussing on calculating loss and relief. Now we must shift the conversation and ask, ‘What is the cost to stimulate society when delivered through arts and cultural programs?’
What is the cost to stimulate society when delivered through arts and cultural programs?
This is the time to get our industry pitch watertight. We haven’t got long, but nor should we rush. Everything we do now has a ripple effect into the future.
We know at some point the government will need to tighten its belt to balance the significant relief expenditure currently being pumped into the economy. One thing I learnt being in non-arts government branches (as much as it pains us to believe): the arts are not going to be high on the priority lists in treasury departments.
If arts funding budgets become further limited, we will likely witness the end of the lottery-odds of application programs. In its place, looking to other government areas, we can expect an investment model; a strategic distribution of government funds that offer longer term or amplified returns.
It’s therefore time to put our rhetoric of ecology into action. We need to harness and share our collective networks across all areas, knowledge, experience and ideas to be ready and lead this brave new world of investment.
Penny Miles is the Executive Director of Circus Oz. Prior to joining the company in September 2019, Penny held leadership roles in performing arts organisations including Circa, Australian Theatre of the Deaf and the NSW & ACT venue association. Penny also has extensive government experience including developing strategy, policy and funding programs for arts, counselling services, emergency and disaster response, regional infrastructure and health research.
Penny is recognised as one of Australia’s expert voices on touring and regional arts access. Credits in this area include heading up Arts on Tour and reforming the federal government’s grants program for performing arts and exhibition touring. Penny’s strategic work includes co-developing City of Parramatta’s 2017-2002 Cultural Plan and conceptualising the precinct vision for HOTA on the Gold Coast.
Image: Penny Miles – photo by John Dobie