When COVID-19 restrictions hit Australia in March, the country’s arts sector found itself staring into an abyss. The estimated lost income from cancelled events and closed venues quickly climbed into the hundreds of millions, as the federal government resisted calls from across the sector for a response that matched the scale of the damage – with proposals landing somewhere between $850 million and $2 billion.
Instead, a ‘targeted’ $27 million package was announced on 9 April, as Arts Minister Paul Fletcher insisted the government’s broader JobKeeper package would “deliver support worth billions” into the sector – despite reports of widespread ineligibility for many gig workers and those in government-adjacent arts organisations.
Today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined the federal government’s first major arts announcement since then, with a 12-month scheme to the value of $250 million – $160 million in new funding, $90 million in government-backed loans – that it hopes will support the estimated 600,000 workers that work in the $112 billion arts industry.
- $75 million “Seed Investment” scheme to provide grants ranging from $75,000 to $2 million for production and event businesses – including individual artists and practitioners – to mount new festivals, tours, concerts and other productions. Selection criteria will include audience type, popularity, “organisational sustainability” and jobs created, with a portion specifically allocated to the music industry.
- $90 million in “Show Starter” loans for productions and events that “generate jobs” administered through the major banks, with initial repayments deferred for 12 months, 100 per cent underwritten by the Commonwealth.
- $50 million for the screen industry via a Screen Australia “Temporary Interruption Fund”.
- $35 million for “significant Commonwealth-funded arts and culture organisations” imperilled by COVID closures, to be administered in partnership with the Australia Council.
“These measures will support a broad range of jobs from performers, artists and roadies, to front of house staff and many who work behind the scenes, while assisting related parts of the broader economy, such as tourism and hospitality,” Morrison said in a statement.
“This package is as much about supporting the tradies who build stage sets or computer specialists who create the latest special effects, as it is about supporting actors and performers in major productions,” he continued.
In the wake of the government’s $688 million HomeBuilder scheme, which supports the male-dominated construction industry as sectors like childcare have their support withdrawn, and an effective cut to universities funding that would kneecap Humanities degrees in favour of ‘job ready’ subjects, Morrison’s “tradies” comment has bemused some observers of the federal government’s increasingly ideological COVID recovery plan. But, it’s also a long-overdue acknowledgement of what the arts world has long insisted – creative industries encompass a vast and diverse range of workers and skills that have been left idle by the pandemic.
But rhetoric aside, this $35 million marks the first whiff of new funding the Australia Council has seen since COVID set in – its earlier $5 million resilience fund was backed by cuts to unallocated future programs. It seems this funding will be distributed among organisations with existing four-year funding agreements with the Australia Council, and others with “current and significant funding relationships with the Commonwealth” – a fairly select pool that may yet leave many organisations and artists in the dark.
As part of today’s announcement, Fletcher also said the federal government has been injecting $100 million per month into the arts sector via JobKeeper – a good decimal point off the “billions” earlier flagged. The news also comes as Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia announces widespread redundancies due to a budget shortfall, while ongoing cuts to the ABC – which will likely impact its capacity for new, locally produced drama, comedy and arts coverage – will also affect Australia’s cultural industries.
In South Australia, we’re beginning to see the results of some of both the state government’s round of ‘quick response’ grants and the Australia Council’s resilience fund, such as State Theatre Company and ActNow Theatre’s collaborative monologue project The Decameron 2.0. Local arts industry calls for an additional $10 million in state government support – the initial round received 700 applications – are reportedly also being considered.
After weeks of inaction, any news is likely to be warmly received by the country’s arts sector. But with its focus on major commercial operations and previously-funded organisations, it remains to be seen whether this broad stroke strategy will find its way to the artists and workers left out by the fine grain detail of previous measures.
Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country. His work has appeared in Rip It Up, The Saturday Paper, Smith Journal, Royal Auto, Swampland Magazine, Broadsheet and The Thousands.
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