With the COVID-19 coronavirus forcing many of Australia’s performing arts companies to cancel their shows, ticket holders are being asked to donate their refunds or to exchange their tickets to a later event where possible. The global pandemic is an unprecedented crisis for the arts industry and its workers, many of whom are casuals or sole traders, and is expected to have an enormous economic impact.

Joan Sutherland Theatre

Live Performance Australia estimates that the crisis may cost the industry more than half a billion dollars and thousands of jobs, and has called for an immediate government rescue package.

“Many of our smaller- to medium-sized companies simply do not have the financial resources to survive an extended shutdown period,” said Chief Executive Evelyn Richardson. “They may be lost to the industry forever.”

In addition to the cancellations announced on Monday, Sydney Dance Company has had to call off its first program of the year, Bonachela / Forsythe; Sydney Theatre Company has been forced to cancel all remaining performances of No Pay? No Way! at the Sydney Opera House, as well as its planned season at Parramatta; Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has announced its closure “for the foreseeable future”; the Adelaide Festival Centre has announced that it will be closed to the public, with all performances suspended, until April 30; and the Sydney Opera House is the latest to announce that all public performances will be cancelled until March 29.

Opera Australia, in announcing the cancellation of the remainder of its Sydney summer season as well as its flagship Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour event, was among the many companies asking their customers to consider gifting ticket sales.

“We are very proud to be the only major opera company in the world where more than 50% of its revenue comes from ticket sales. However, as Australia’s largest arts employer with more than 1,000 employees, not to mention contractors and suppliers, it is this singular strength that will now be our biggest challenge through the COVID-19 crisis,” Opera Australia CEO Rory Jeffes said. “This is a time of crisis for performers across the cultural sector. So, it is at this time that I ask any ticket holders to OA or any presenting company – please re-consider your refund requests and instead where possible, to either exchange your ticket to a performance later in the year, convert it to a gift voucher or a donation to the company.”

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which yesterday announced that it will not perform for the next 30 days pending further advice from the government, said, “In our 88-year history, we cannot remember a time when the Sydney Symphony has had to fall silent. We stand in solidarity with our sister organisations around the nation – all Australia’s stages and theatres will be dark for many weeks. We are heart-broken that we can’t perform for you publicly – especially at a time when we all need the power of music. The financial impact of cancelling performances will be significant, and it may threaten the future of performers in Australia.”

The SSO has outlined ways in which ticket holders may wish to help alleviate the financial impact on cultural organisations, including donating the price of a cancelled ticket, asking for non-cash credit to use against a future concert, and exchanging cancelled tickets for another performance.

Similar messages have been communicated to patrons from the major state orchestras, as well as smaller ensembles whose ticket sales are vital to their survival. The Metropolitan Orchestra, forced to cancel two of its following events, issued a similar appeal to ticket holders for donations, adding, “There is no doubt that the current enforced restrictions will have a significant impact on our organisation. Our thoughts are not just with the many creatives, suppliers and partners involved in our events, but with the greater arts community as it struggles through this most challenging period.”

In the independent theatre scene, Red Line Productions’ Artistic Director Andrew Henry said, in announcing the postponement of its forthcoming Is God Is, “Our 60 seat theatre runs on a month by month basis. We are unfunded, we have the tiniest of reserves and we have only survived because of our ability to operate with a guaranteed 60% minimum capacity. We run off our box office takings and that has always been our sure thing. Over the past two weeks that has dramatically changed, so we have made the decision to postpone our upcoming production of IS GOD IS so that we can mitigate the potential decimation of our company by running without our ‘sure thing’. This sucks, but if we are to survive we have to make this decision.”

In an update, in which Henry announced the postponement of a second show, Hand to God, he asked ticket holders to “please seriously consider leaving that with us as a donation to help us survive or waiting until our seasons are rescheduled and we can transfer your ticket”.

In addition to the Adelaide Festival Centre, other venues which have announced temporary closures include Arts Centre Melbourne, Sydney’s City Recital Hall and Melbourne Recital Centre. In positive news, the MRC today announced one-off payments to the eight Victorian chamber music and jazz ensembles whose concerts were affected by the closure.

“Melbourne Recital Centre plays an essential role in the live music ecosystem of Victoria, particularly in our support of the small and medium sector: the hundreds of independent musicians who we partner with to co-present concerts in a vast array of styles,” said MRC CEO Euan Murdoch.

“Closing the Centre for four weeks was a heartrending decision, especially as we were so aware of the effect it would have on the musicians whose livelihoods are vulnerable at this time. It will also have an impact on audiences who take so much joy in their performances.”

“After the current crisis has passed, music will play a role in again bringing people together for inspiration, reflection, healing and renewing social connections. It is vital that Victoria’s musicians are sustained so that they can be a part of this. We stand with all artists and the community during this challenging time.”

Pianist Kristian Chong, one of the performers whose concerts has been cancelled added, “The musicians who perform at Melbourne Recital Centre feel like part of the family. I value immensely the relationship I have with the people who help me perform at my best. The Centre’s support through this time will help us continue making music for all Victorians.”