Australian arts sector left in the dark by Federal Government, claims prominent theatre director


April 25, 2020 10:49:36

Prominent Australian theatre director Geordie Brookman has launched a scathing attack on the Federal Government for not coming to the aid of the arts sector.

Key points

  • Jobs in the Australian arts sector have declined more than 18 per cent since March due to COVID-19
  • The Australia Institute wants a $750m rescue package for the arts industry
  • Nearly 200,000 artists are not eligible for JobKeeper wage payments

When the coronavirus hit, the estimated $15 billion industry was smashed apart as shows were cancelled and venues closed.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures reveal the number of jobs in the sector have plummeted by more than 18 per cent since mid March.

But most of the arts sector’s more than 193,000 workers were not eligible for the Government’s JobKeeper payments, despite being defined as sole traders.

Brookman has been working in Germany and said he lost 12 months’ worth of income in one phone call and three emails when the pandemic hit.

The former State Theatre Company South Australia artistic director said the German Government quickly passed legislation to support freelancers, including visa holders.

“We were able to apply online two days later. A day after that, money landed in our bank account, so we paid our rent, fed our kids and breathed out for a moment knowing we would be OK,” he said via social media.

But he had a feeling of guilt watching the virus tidal wave hitting the same sector in Australia.

“Guilt because I’m having my arse saved by a foreign government while the government of my homeland hangs my friends, collaborators and entire professional cohort out to dry,” he said.

Performing online not sustainable

Struggling award-winning Australian theatre performer Michaela Burger had also heard of the German stance of support.

“It’s heartbreaking, we’ve been in contact with a lot of friends in, for example Germany, who have been looked after by the Government and who were really taken care of the minute this happened, whereas the arts in Australia seems to have been forgotten,” she said from her Melbourne isolation base.

Burger saw her income for the year disappear as the COVID-19 disease shut down Australia.

She immediately began online shows several times a week, which worked OK, albeit temporarily.

“Slowly though the donations have become less and less until it’s almost nothing,” she said.

“It’s not even enough to pay our rent, so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of help we can end up getting.”

She said she had applied to Centrelink.

Some companies have gone entirely online in the hope that, with the help of previous public funding, they would survive.

The Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) should break even financially, despite deciding early to keep paying its dancers.

“We made the decision not to stand down any staff, so our business staff and our dancers will be employed as they would have been without this crisis happening,” ADT executive director Nick Hays said.

Calls for multi-million-dollar rescue package

Children’s company Windmill Theatre had to abandon an American tour when the pandemic began closing international borders.

It has also committed to honouring performers’ contracts for the rest of the year.

“Our company is nothing without our incredible artists so that was our number one priority,” theatre artistic director Rosemary Myers said.

But most across the nation are missing out, with an estimated $330 million in paid performances cancelled.

Actor Ellen Steele is one of the lucky ones working with Windmill, but was worried about the mental health of others.

“There’s a lot of fear, it’s been devastating actually. There’s a lot of trying to look after each other,” she said.

Some state governments are contributing, but have been quickly overwhelmed.

Arts South Australia received more than 730 applications for just $2.5 million in emergency funding.

Government says it has backed the arts sector

The Australia Institute said there should be a $750 million rescue package for the arts industry, to make up for the closure of venues including pubs, clubs, theatres and recital halls.

In a statement, the Federal Government said it was backing the sector, estimating its financial support packages could inject up to $10 billion into the industry.

“I urge all artists, arts workers and arts organisations to consider applying for support measures that are available, including cash flow assistance, support to pay staff, income supplements, flexibility with existing grants, loan support, rental protections and loan deferments,” Arts Minister Paul Fletcher said.

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