The Australian arts and entertainment sector has been neglected for decades and badly damaged by the pandemic according to a new report, but is there hope with the right support and policy reform?

Woman in a face mask in a gallery

Opera Australia’s heartbreaking decision to postpone its major production, The Phantom of the Opera, until 2022 is the latest blow to the national arts company. With the cancellation of their Sydney 2021 winter season and a $63 million revenue loss in 2020, the organisation finds itself amid the deepening financial crisis crippling the arts and entertainment sector.

While New South Wales bleakly faces a lockdown extension until at least the end of August, and Victoria and South Australia nervously open back up, the sector is buckling under the weight of ongoing uncertainty and revenue loss.

The federal government has responded to Opera Australia’s plight with a $4 million injection from its COVID-19 Arts Sustainability Fund. No doubt a welcome reprieve, but hasn’t it come a little late? New research says yes, and that the limited and poorly coordinated Commonwealth response to our arts and entertainment workforce during COVID-19 is not new, but merely the latest disappointment in a long history of neglect.

New research

The July 2021 report – Creativity in Crisis: Rebooting Australia’s Arts and Entertainment Sector After COVID – is authored by Senior Economist Alison Pennington and Monash University’s Ben Eltham and published by The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work. It shines a light on our government’s failure to support Australia’s arts and entertainment sector and makes a series of recommendations about how to nurture this vital industry, during the pandemic and beyond.

According to the report, more people work in broad cultural industries (over 350,000) than many other areas of the economy, including those who receive policy supports, such as finance (202,400), aviation (40,500), and coal mining (48,900).

The arts and entertainment sector contributed $17 billion in GDP to the Australian economy in 2018-19. There are 7,000 art-adjacent jobs associated with arts venue activity (such as food, beverage and ticketing outlets). Many arts workers make vital contributions to other industries, such as teaching in the education sector. The contribution of art and entertainment is, of course, not limited to economic measures, with far-reaching social and personal benefits.

Despite these impressive statistics, the report paints a picture of a sector that has been subjected to decades of underfunding and policy oversight, ensuring it was primed for devastation when COVID-19 struck.

The picture before COVID-19

The Centre for Future Work’s research argues that:

“The primary role of public investment in facilitating an arts sector has been eroded through decades of ‘market-first’ economic ideas.

Investment in stable provision of public goods has been consistently cut, supposedly due to failure to demonstrate ‘value for money’. These destructive government financing trends are particularly evident in the arts and cultural sector.

With an eroding and unstable funding base, the sector has been reduced to endless, resource-intensive, short-term grant cycles and philanthropic dependency.

Meanwhile, the diminishing pool of available public arts funds has increasingly been directed away from areas of greatest need, such as grassroots arts organisations and independent artists.

Cultural content policies have been deregulated, to the advantage of global technology corporations and large media owners. The quality and quantity of jobs in the sector have been sacrificed to restricted funding arrangements. Permanent ‘good’ jobs in the arts have become even more scarce, and precarious work in its myriad forms has exploded (including casual work, gigs, contracting, and freelancing)”.

The report highlights two particular issues within the sector:

The reliance on a gig economy, resulting in precarious work opportunities and an insecure workforce. In February 2021, around 45% of all employees in arts and recreation services were in casual roles. These very conditions of insecurity then became a barrier to accessing the federal government’s JobKeeper subsidy for many cultural workers during the pandemic.

A lack of funding, with responsibility for cultural funding support largely resting on the shoulders of local government who, in turn, have the least ability to support it. The federal government’s contribution has declined from 24% of all funding in 2014 to only 20% in 2018. To compensate, state and local governments lifted total spending over the same period, reaching 28% and 51% of all spending on arts and culture in 2018, respectively.

OECD data (2019) shows Australia’s lowly rank among OECD countries (24th out of 33 countries listed in 2019), allocating just 0.9% of GDP to arts and culture; one quarter below the OECD average of 1.2% of GDP.

OECD Australia Ranking 2019


Then COVID-19 arrived…

The impact of the pandemic on the Australian arts and entertainment sector was swift and brutal. Venues and productions dependent on live audiences were shut down overnight and the ensuing ripple effect was felt far and wide across our cultural workforce.

Economic impact

The resulting economic setbacks for the sector have been colossal. A perfect storm of lockdowns, restrictions on public gatherings, severe unemployment and changes in audience behaviour (often due to their own employment challenges) has paved the way to insolvencies (Carriageworks), last-minute cancellations (Byron Bay Blues Festival and Melbourne’s Rising Festival) and a fall in average weekly full-time ordinary earnings for workers in the arts and entertainment sector from $1,525 per week in November 2019 to $1,464 in November 2020 (despite JobKeeper).

The cancellation of events had a flow-on effect on charitable giving, with the NAB Charitable Giving Index category of ‘Culture and Recreation’ experiencing a 60% and 73% decline in donations and donors, respectively, between December 2019 and December 2020.

Employment impact

Figures shared in the report depict a debilitating impact on employment in the arts and entertainment sector. Total employment declined by 18% between February and May in 2020. 53% of businesses in the sector had ceased operating at April 2020. Survey data identified $24 billion in lost output and 80,000 jobs lost after COVID-19 hit.

However, not all art and entertainment sub-sectors were impacted equally. Digital-enabled sub-sectors – including internet publishing and broadcasting – experienced employment growth of 38.2% and 41.4%, respectively. Internet publishing experienced the highest growth over the pandemic, with a total of 4,100 jobs at February 2021 (up sharply from 900 jobs in February 2020). Unsurprisingly, those in people-facing roles, such as performing artists and librarians, suffered the most.

Impact on employability and skills

Put simply, the longer there is reduced demand for art sector workers, the greater the damage to their employability.

As with hospitality, many workers from the sector have sought alternative, more reliable, sources of employment during the pandemic. We are at risk of losing this creative talent forever.

A muddled and unbalanced government response

The report argues that “the federal government has not adequately responded to the scale and severity of the crisis gripping the arts and entertainment sector”. Not only has the response been slow-coming and difficult to navigate, but damaging policy reform has been thoughtlessly introduced during the sector’s greatest time of need.

The first federal relief package of $250 million was announced in June 2020, a full three months after COVID-19 brought Australia to a standstill. Barriers to accessibility also mean that funding has failed to be distributed across the sector, with little support reaching small and medium arts enterprises (which generate the majority of arts sector activity). Over 90% of artists, creators and businesses do not receive public funding, meaning most people in the sector have been unable to benefit from the government’s arts relief measures.

In better news, the 2021 federal Budget did offer additional support for arts and culture of $135 million alongside funding for national cultural organisations, Screen Australia and local independent cinemas. However, the report highlights that budget support went principally to larger performing arts organisations, museums, galleries, musicals and touring companies, with small and medium arts organisations fairing less favourably. The Australia Council (the federal government’s key arts funding body) was not a budget winner, with no increase in funding, and the ABC was subjected to yet more funding cuts.

Whilst recognising the positive support delivered by JobKeeper, the report is critical of aspects of the scheme. Firstly, JobKeeper was prematurely ended in March 2021 when large sections of the economy were far from returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity. Then unnecessarily restrictive eligibility criteria excluded thousands of casual employees who had been with their employer for less than 12 months.

Challenges faced by casuals and other arts sector workers facing forced shutdowns were partially addressed through the introduction of the Coronavirus Supplement in April 2020, a $550 per fortnight allowance that reached over two million of Australia’s unemployed, underemployed and low-income people. However, the supplement was gradually reduced and eventually phased out in April 2021.

And the damaging policy reform?

In 2020, the federal government weakened local content rules and local production quotas, allowing more international content when demand for digital content rose dramatically; an opportunity missed for Australian contributors the report argues.

Furthermore, the Morrison government introduced its ‘job ready graduates’ legislation. The costs of arts and humanities degrees more than doubled, while costs were moderately reduced for supposedly ‘job ready’ vocational degrees in nursing, teaching and maths.

The report summarises that “federal support for the cultural sector since the pandemic has been patchy and insufficient. Many sectors across the economy were supported with funds, wage subsidies and industrial relations flexibilities to adjust their businesses to the shocks of the pandemic, with an explicit acknowledgement from government that fiscal support was required to allow firms to transform and survive. The arts, while certainly receiving some relief, have been denied the level of support required to adjust, transform and reboot”.

What then, does the report suggest as the road map to a brighter future?

The report makes several recommendations that would help the arts and entertainment sector not only recover from the pandemic but also transform into a more sustainable, supported and robust sector. These recommendations include:

  1. Expanding cultural funding to community arts organisations and artists and introducing a new Commonwealth creative fellowships program
  2. Creating a whole-of-Australia public streaming platform
  3. Lifting government funding for arts education at Commonwealth and state and territory levels
  4. Introducing a digital platforms levy to fund a merged-content production fund
  5. Introducing a single technology-neutral Australian repertoire quota on all content services, including international streaming platforms
  6. Funding national cultural institutions properly
  7. Improved coordination of cultural policy between federal, state and local government levels, especially during the COVID-19 recovery
  8. Funding community broadcasting and public-interest journalism
  9. Strengthening pay and conditions for arts and entertainment sector workers

With so many Australians living, once again, with lockdown and restrictions, there is no doubt that the need for a unified, top-down approach to government pandemic support is far from over. What this report clearly outlines is an opportunity, beyond crisis response, to reboot one of the hardest-hit and, arguably, longest overlooked sectors so that current and future generations can enjoy a flourishing Australian arts and culture scene for many years to come.

Read the full report here.   



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