The NSW Government has unveiled a $50 million rescue and restart package for NSW arts and cultural organisations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Government, the package will be delivered in two stages: funding available now to enable NSW not-for-profit arts and cultural organisations to hibernate temporarily, and funding available in the coming months to enable NSW not-for-profit arts and cultural organisations to restart operations after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yael Stone and Hamish Michael in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Photograph © Brett Boardman

The funding will be made available to not-for-profit arts and cultural organisations assessed as being in financial distress on a case-by-case basis, while a report by the Sydney Morning Herald flagged Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Opera Australia, Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Australian Theatre for Young People as likely recipients of funding through the program.

“This Rescue and Restart package will ensure the survival of some of the most significant arts and cultural organisations across NSW,” said NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who has been in charge of the arts portfolio since Don Harwin resigned as arts minister in April, following revelations he had been fined for breaching COVID-19 health restrictions. “The NSW arts and cultural sector is an important contributor to the NSW economy as well as for our community’s well-being. We know that the arts is a place of refuge and a source of inspiration in these challenging times.”

“This funding is critical to keep more businesses in business and people in jobs as the as the NSW economy begins its recovery,” said Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, pointing out that the arts sector supports 118,000 jobs across NSW and contributes $16.4 billion directly and indirectly to the NSW Gross State Product. “The Rescue and Restart package is intended to assist NSW arts and cultural organisations to hibernate, so they are in a strong position to restart operations when health guidelines permit.”

The new package follows Create NSW’s announcement in April that it was providing a $6.34 million package, comprising new and repurposed funds, to support independent artists and small to medium arts, screen and cultural organisations impacted by COVID-19.

The Rescue and Restart funding will no doubt provide a lifeline for organisations whose revenue has been almost completely destroyed by the shut down of live events. “Since the crisis hit, the staff of Create NSW has been in constant contact with arts organisations to understand the impacts of social distancing and other necessary health measures taken in response to the pandemic,” Sydney Theatre Company’s Executive Director Patrick McIntyre said in a statement. “It is great to see with this announcement that the State is taking steps towards securing the future of arts businesses. ‘Saving’ them is not too strong a term – we are expecting theatres to be closed for at least six months in total. There are few businesses in any industry that can withstand the sudden loss of six months revenue.”

“We are heartened by the Premier’s acknowledgement that the arts provide refuge and inspiration in these challenging times. In one way or another millions of Australians have turned to culture to sustain our well-being and to maintain our connections to each other.”

“Once theatres re-open, we look forward to making our contribution to the State’s recovery in both economic and social terms,” said McIntyre. “The Rescue and Restart package is essential in helping companies like ours to do that.”

The Government’s announcement of the new funding has been overshadowed, however, by a report from the ABC’s Michaela Boland and Greg Miskelly revealing that of $47 million in infrastructure grants to arts and cultural organisations ahead of the 2019 state election, $44 million went to Coalition held electorates. The report, based on documents obtained by the ABC under freedom of information laws, also revealed that Deputy Premier John Barilaro and then-arts minister Harwin approved funding for at least eight projects that were not recommended for funding by the team of experts appointed to assess the applications.

The revelations have prompted accusations of “pork-barrelling” and have caused some in the arts industry to question whether the new funding will be distributed fairly. “In light of this pork barrelling, don’t hold out any hope that the NSW Government’s $50 million arts package will be spent fairly and equitably,” wrote Sydney arts writer Steve Dow on Twitter, where the hashtag #artsrorts is gaining steam. “As abysmal as sports rorts. Where is the accountability?”

“Transparency is needed immediately on process, criteria and assessment,” wrote Esther Anatolitis, the Executive Director of the National Association of the Visual Arts.


Update:

“Final funding decisions from the panel’s recommendations were made by the Minister for the Arts in consultation with the Deputy Premier based on knowledge of the regions and in line with Government strategic priorities to ensure bold and exciting cultural infrastructure for regional NSW. Consistent with the approach taken with all Regional Growth Funds, the Deputy Premier consulted with local Members of Parliament to ascertain the principal priorities in local areas,” a NSW Government spokesperson told Limelight. “All 136 projects were eligible for funding and demonstrated their capacity to meet the assessment criteria and deliver cultural infrastructure that will provide ongoing social and economic benefits in regional NSW. All projects supported under the Regional Cultural Fund will ensure that the people in our regions have access to arts and cultural facilities and are an unprecedented investment in regional arts and culture in NSW.”