Op-Ed: Coronavirus hit Australia’s arts industry hard and early. Our support package is designed to help

For the many Australians who enjoy the arts, the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 are painful.

Galleries, museums and libraries are closed. You cannot attend a play, a ballet, an opera, a circus, a festival – indeed any live performance. Clubs and pubs, which are normally venues for bands, comedians and other performers, have shut down.

For those used to attending performances regularly – which certainly includes me as arts minister – it leaves a big gap.

The pain is even greater for artists and others who work in the creative sector. When you have a passion to create, to perform, to share your talents, to be part of something bigger than yourself, it is enormously frustrating to be unable to do that work. This is compounded when the lack of work means a lack of income.

The arts community was hit early and hard by the Covid-19 crisis.

It is so important to support the arts community to get through this – and to ensure the arts play their rightful part in the reopening of our society.

The first priority here must be our aggressive national strategy to manage Covid-19 as tightly as we can. The better we can do that, the better placed we will be to reopen society, likely in a staged way.

Those decisions will be made by the national cabinet – and it is important that issues for the arts sector are carefully considered. For example, while theatres or concert halls are unlikely to be part of the early stages of reopening, options to manage social distancing in galleries and museums may be more feasible.

The next priority is support for the 600,000 people who work in the sector – when work and incomes have dried up. Of the many types of employment arrangements seen across the Australian economy, few sectors use so many as the arts.

Typically work in the arts sector is collaborative and project-based – with a group of people working on the project under different arrangements. Some are full-time employees, some are contracted for the life of the project, some are casuals employed for just a short time.

The government has deliberately structured a range of support arrangements which responds to this variety of employment arrangements.

For permanent employees, the jobkeeper payment keeps them connected to their employing organisation – so that organisation is ready to rebound post-crisis.

Opera Australia, for example, plans to use jobkeeper to retain 244 jobs at a cost of $4.7m; Sydney Symphony Orchestra 140 jobs at a cost of $2.7m.

For those with more fluid or flexible employment or business arrangements, jobseeker is available for at least six months, at a rate which is around double the national median per person income for arts-related activity, and around 70% of median artist income (from all sources).

This support matters to individual artists – it means a steady income for this period to help sustain a creative life.

It also matters to the whole sector – in aggregate it will end up being worth between $4bn and $10bn of support to the creative workforce, making it the single biggest government investment to support our arts and creative sector that we have ever seen.

Of course the value of the arts cannot be reduced to a dollar figure. It is in the quality and significance of the creative work and the way it helps us understand and interpret our world.

I know our artists will respond in many ways to Covid-19 – and our collective need to reflect on it, to process it, to try to understand it. More than ever Australia will need its storytellers, its interpreters, its creators.

In this period of social distancing we are reminded daily of what we are missing and how much it matters – particularly live performance.

At the same time, it is exciting to see the innovative ways that artists are delivering content – from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra broadcasting new performances online via their Virtual Concert Hall, to the Biennale of Sydney partnering with Google Arts & Culture to deliver live content, and art schools like the ARTea posting online tutorials and daily art challenges for those of us at home.

It will be even more exciting when venues can reopen and live performances can restart and our national cultural life can resume with its full vigour. That day will come!

Paul Fletcher is Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts

Originally published on The Guardian, Thursday 23 April 2020