More than three months after live performances were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Government has announced a $250 million rescue package of grants and loans for the beleaguered arts industry. The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the arts, with tours and performances cancelled, workers stood down, Sydney’s Carriageworks gone into voluntary administration, and just this week the National Gallery of Australia announced it will be forced to dramatically reduce future acquisitions and lose 10 percent of its staff.

One of the ghost lights installed by the Sydney Opera House in each of its theatres during COVID-19. Photograph © Daniel Boud

The Government’s 12-month package, announced today, includes $75 million of capital funding to help production and event businesses put on new festivals, concerts, tours and events as social distancing restrictions ease, with grants of between $75,000 and $2 million available from next month; $90 million in “show starter” concessional loans to fund new productions and events, delivered through commercial banks, backed by a 100 per cent Commonwealth guarantee; $35 million in direct financial assistance to support Commonwealth-funded arts organisations; and $50 million fund to assist local screen production, both film and television, administered by Screen Australia. More details on the guidelines for applying will be released in the coming weeks, with a Creative Economy Taskforce to be established to guide the implementation of the programs.

“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,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “Many in the sector will find a new way to operate while the current social distancing measures remain in place and while that won’t be easy, I know there’s a strong desire among all Australians to see the return of gigs, performances and events.”

The package has been welcomed by many in the industry. “This is a welcome investment in some of the industries hardest hit by the impacts of COVID-19” said Australian Council for the Arts CEO Adrian Collette AM, who will join the Creative Economy Taskforce. “An investment in the arts is a smart investment in recovery: creativity-led productivity fuels our economy and our social fabric. Arts and culture are major drivers for tourism, both domestic and international. They boost the hospitality sector. They underpin the vitality of our cities and regions, and the perception of Australia internationally.”

“This is welcome and much needed support for the creative industry that has been devastated by the necessary restrictions on public gatherings. We acknowledge and welcome this commitment, in addition to the whole of government programs including the JobKeeper and JobSeeker legislation,” he said. “We will continue to do all we can to work collaboratively with the Office for the Arts to provide advice to the Minister, now and into the future.”

Live Performance Australia, which has been lobbying for support from the Government since the COVID-19 crisis began, has welcomed the Government’s package, despite it falling far short of the $850 million stimulus package the peak body called for in March, or the $345 million plan LPA outlined at the beginning of June. “This is a vital injection of capital funding which will help live performance companies reopen and start to rebuild after the impact of the overnight loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue over the past three months,” said Live Performance Australia’s Chief Executive, Evelyn Richardson. “COVID-19 has caused significant damage and disruption for our industry: performing arts companies and venues closed overnight; performers, production and technical staff and crews were without work or stood down; and companies and organisations were left with no alternative sources of revenue.”

“JobKeeper has been an important support for those who have been able to access it. However, many in our industry have suffered devastating income losses, along with the many businesses which rely on our industry, including across the tourism and hospitality sector,” she said. “That’s why the measures announced in this package, which reflect our industry’s unique characteristics and the challenges it faces, are so important. They also recognise the significant economic contribution that our commercial sector makes to Australia’s economic and cultural well-being.”

“Commercial production companies are among the biggest generators of employment and economic activity in the performing arts, and it is pleasing to see their contribution and needs have been addressed in this package,” Richardson said.

Circus Oz Executive Director Penny Miles said that seeing the Federal Government recognise the impact and importance of targeted support for the arts sector as a “significant relief”.

“We are looking forward to detail on how funds will be accessed and directed,” Miles said. “Regardless of process, an injection like this into the sector will have ripple effects throughout the whole ecology stimulating and securing jobs for artists and a hive of much needed and missed artistic activity and events.”

The National Association of the Visual Arts has also welcomed the package. “It’s been just over three months since the entire industry united to let the Prime Minister know how devastating the pandemic’s economic shock has been for the industry that inspires the nation,” said Esther Anatolitis, Executive Director of NAVA. “It’s clear just how much work the Prime Minister has done since that time to understand the scale, scope and needs of the industry, given the massive public demand for our work at this time. This work is welcomed and valued.”

“I am heartened by today’s announcement of a comprehensive approach to embedding arts and culture across the Australian Government’s economic recovery work. This responds to consistent calls by NAVA and others for a high-level taskforce to support the government in achieving this,” she said. “In the wake of the shocking ABC cuts, the skyrocketing cost of humanities university education, the exclusion of local government and university galleries and art schools from all support measures, the JobKeeper eligibility restrictions on casual and migrant workers, the waiver of local tv content requirements, the ongoing efficiency dividend impacts on our national cultural institutions, and the impact of years of cuts to the Australia Council with no new funding to invest strategically through this crisis, the work of the Creative Economy Taskforce will be valued deeply by all Australians.”

Anatolitis also called on the Government to ensure “that each element of this and future packages will be made available, openly and fairly, to everyone in the arts industry – artists, artsworkers, and those excluded to date such as local government and university museums, galleries and art schools” as well as increasing the acquisitions budgets and removing efficiency dividends on national cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia, the Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Australia and the Museum of Australian Democracy, and “investing ambitiously in the Australia Council, who have been forced to jeopardise their future industry development work in order to offer a $5m emergency fund by redirecting funds internally.”

The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance has been critical of the package, however, saying that as it may still be some months before productions are able to recommence, the JobKeeper subsidy needs to be extended to the many thousands of creative workers currently excluded from it, who are “the backbone of the industry.”

“While any form of assistance is welcome, this package is another slap in the face for the thousands of arts and entertainment workers who are not eligible for the JobKeeper income subsidy scheme,” MEAA Chief Executive Paul Murphy said. “The grants and loans will help arts organisations begin to recover from the coronavirus shutdown, but there is absolutely no relief for freelance and casual workers who have lost their jobs and suffered significant reductions in income.”

“It is essential to provide capital injections and financing and investment incentives to the bodies that provide employment in the industry, but there is no point in doing that if you don’t have a workforce,” he said. “The stark reality is that we are in danger of losing a generation of creative professionals in this country without an adequate income support scheme.”

“You can’t just switch the lights back on overnight,” Murphy said. “What this could mean is that the majority of workers in the arts and entertainment sectors will remain out of work for several more months, which is why income support is so important.”

“The biggest help the federal government could provide right now for workers in the sector is to change the eligibility rules for JobKeeper so arts and entertainment workers can claim the income subsidy,” he said.