In what is doubtless going to be a pattern for some time to come, the emergence of COVID-19 cases, acquired from newly arrived international travellers in quarantine, has caused sudden border closures between states in recent weeks. This has led to the temporary shuttering of venues that were already back in business, and the postponement of various arts events including the opening of the Perth Festival, which had to be put back a week.

MTC Ghost LightMelbourne Theatre Company’s ghost light. Photo © Melbourne Theatre Company

Though this is causing all kinds of difficulties and angst for producers and arts managers, they are nonetheless going with the flow and adjusting admirably to whatever comes their way. The fact that theatres and concert halls are open and hosting events all over Australia is miraculous compared to the situation overseas, thanks to the way the federal and state governments have handled the pandemic.

However, the discontinuation of the JobKeeper subsidy at the end of this month is another major hurdle, causing plenty of concern within the arts and entertainment industry, with fears that some companies may not survive if JobKeeper disappears.

Last month, Symphony Services Australia (SSA), which represents Australia’s major state orchestras as well as other classical music organisations, called for the Federal Government to extend JobKeeper support to arts and cultural businesses that can demonstrate an ongoing impact from the pandemic.

“Australia’s arts and culture sector has been hard hit by COVID-19,” said Kate Lidbetter, CEO of Symphony Services Australia. “Performing arts companies have been grateful for the support offered by the Federal Government through JobKeeper and other stimulus measures. However, many will face a disastrous situation when JobKeeper ends in just a few short weeks.”

The plea from SSA follows similar calls from other arts leaders and peak bodies including APRA AMCOS, Theatre Network Australia, Ausdance, BlakDance, Diversity Arts Australia, Live Performance Australia and Regional Arts Australia among others.

Speaking to Limelight, Lidbetter says that the situation is “extremely serious. I am not speaking just on behalf of the six symphony orchestras but the entire arts sector. There are many small to medium and micro organisations that are really suffering and I imagine a number of them won’t survive.”

JobKeeper was introduced in March 2020 and was a vital government initiative, offering a lifeline to businesses badly hit by COVID. Sole traders working in the arts were able to survive because of it, and numerous arts companies and organisations (including Limelight) were able to retain staff, though there were still some redundancies.

When it was revealed that the Government had overestimated the cost of the program by $60 billion, the arts lobbied for freelance artists who had not been eligible to be included. This did not eventuate. Nonetheless, JobKeeper has been crucial in sustaining the arts. Without it, things could deteriorate fast.

Although JobKeeper was extended twice, payments have been reduced. Full-time workers originally received $1500 a fortnight. This was cut to $1200 from 28 September, and $1000 from 4 January, while the payment for part-time workers was reduced from $1000 per fortnight to $750 and then $650. At the time of writing, the subsidy will cease altogether from 28 March.

Though most theatres and concert halls in Australia are now open, and 2021 seasons are underway, ongoing border closures make it difficult to organise tours, temporary venue closures impact on ticket sales, and reduced seating capacities (important for health and safety reasons) make it hard to break even.

Even when seating capacities do return to 100 percent (as they have done at QPAC ), it will take years for arts organisations to pay down the debt levels incurred during 2020. Which is why an extension of the JobKeeper supplement is essential if the arts industry is to fully recover.

“It’s just a really unstable time, I think. We all hope that once vaccines are approved and out there, and people are getting vaccinated, then perhaps things will change but it’s all a bit crystal ball at the moment,” says Lidbetter.

APRA AMCOS CEO Dean Ormston argues that continuing JobKeeper beyond March “doesn’t just make cultural sense, it makes economic sense”.

“The arts and entertainment sector contributes around $15 billion per year in GDP and employs close to 200,000 high-skilled Australians. Australia Institute research has found that for every million dollars in turnover, arts and entertainment produce nine jobs while the construction industry only produces around one job.”

“We can’t afford to lose the skills and businesses of our sector,” said Ormston. “The result for Australia could be catastrophic.”

Lidbetter says that SSA is working closely with the orchestras it represents and a number of other arts organisations to lobby for Government support.

“Symphony Australia put in a pre-budget submission to Government calling for JobKeeper to be extended amongst a number of other recommendations,” says Lidbetter.

“We are also collaborating closely with a range of arts peak bodies like Live Performance Australia, APRA AMCOS, theatre companies and a whole lot a of performing arts peak bodies, so we are all fairly aligned in our request to government for JobKeeper to be extended.”

This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Limelight

Open Letter calls for JobKeeper extension

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