The pandemic has highlighted the plight of the arts sector but will the support continue?
Although a wave of COVID-19 relief funding is keeping arts organisations afloat, the next few years could be telling for the sector.
Faced with a recession, government stimulus expiry dates, an expected reduction in corporate support and general uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, the arts sector must traverse a lengthy road to recovery.
Given the prevalence of casual and contract work in the sector, the halting of performances, gallery closures and film set shutdowns have heavily impacted independent artists.
The 'Arts and Culture Economic Recovery Plan', recently compiled by the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA, reported there were around 10,000 creative businesses in WA and 60 per cent, or about 6,000, were sole traders.
According to the report, independent and emerging artists were disproportionately affected by the pandemic because of a lack of access to JobKeeper, the likelihood they did not have ongoing project funding, the reduction in available contract roles and the fact that most had fewer personal resources.
Western Australian visual artist and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts board member Abdul-Rahman Abdullah said he had been fortunate to receive grants during the shutdown period and had sold pieces before COVID-19 hit. Others weren’t so lucky.
“In that sense, I’ve been quite lucky, but I am also well aware that these funding rounds, it’s often less than 10 per cent of these applications get funded,” Mr Abdullah told Business News.
A renowned artist working primarily in sculpture and installation, Mr Abdullah has previously attended art shows across Australia and New Zealand to show his work.
“The financial hit for me was losing opportunities,” he said.
“It’s very hard to sell work that I’m not showing.”
Going forward, Mr Abdullah said there would be a lot fewer visual artists able to participate in the sector because there would be fewer opportunities.
“The whole industry will shrink, I think, in a way we might not be able to feel,” he said.
“It’s going to be a lot more competitive and a lot of people will fall through the cracks.
“It’s a scary thing to think about.”
Co3 Australia executive director Alana Culverhouse said organisations in vulnerable positions before the pandemic were in strife.
“If the companies … are only just scraping through now, I’m concerned about their ability to continue to trade over the coming two years,” Ms Culverhouse told Business News.
“Sydney Theatre Company and Carriageworks are in strife but they had been reporting quite big losses on their balance sheets prior so I think COVID is really highlighting that.”
Co3 was launched in 2015 after the amalgamation of Buzz Dance Theatre and STEPS Youth Dance Company.
Ms Culverhouse said Co3 was performing better from a financial perspective than expected and was in the midst of developing a plan to ensure it could survive even tougher economic conditions.
“We have finished the year in not as bad a situation as we had anticipated,” Ms Culverhouse told Business News.
Cancelled shows and the cost savings that come with that, coupled with the opportunity of increased funding and stimulus packages from government, had helped, she said.
Co3 received $183,683 from Lotterywest under the event cancellation relief fund, and sector support for resilient organisations, along with JobKeeper.
Ms Culverhouse said the additional funds had enabled the company to keep all office staff working their full hours and to keep five full-time dancers employed. All of this had been achieved while building up the company’s reserves.
“We have done that as a deliberate measure to basically squirrel away our nuts because it’s the next two years that are actually going to have the most impact, when the government stimulus packages dry up, our funding will remain static, at best, and sponsorships will get more difficult to secure,” Ms Culverhouse said.
“We are really trying to put the company in a stronger financial position now to enable us to weather the next wave of economic downturn that’s going to come out after this.”
However, Ms Culverhouse said relying on reserves may create problems because it could stop the company from taking risks in its program.
“This is also something I am a bit concerned about because we are a contemporary dance company and, inherently, our work is new, it is risky,” she said.
“So what does that mean in two years’ time when our reserves are really low?
“I’m just wondering about the quality of artwork that could be presented, not just by us but by the whole sector.”
However, the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA report found the most significant issue in the recovery stages would be the unpredictability of multi-year funding administered by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.
“The last three years has seen volatility, with this funding fluctuating from a low of $15 million in 2016/17 to $18 million in 18/19,” the report read.
“The impact of this variance of up to 20 per cent has been significant and hampered consistent policy and funding delivery by the department.”
According to the report, the fluctuating funding has increased the fragility of the sector and hindered the development of emerging and diverse practitioners who would bring innovative thinking.
“Should the next three years see another phase of reduced funding to the department, it will be unable to be responsive to the prolonged effects of COVID-19 and provide the ongoing support that the recovery will need,” the report said.
“We urge the government to review this policy and provide stabilisation to the department through consolidated revenue.”
Rick Heath says the pandemic has highlighted the importance and fragility of the arts sector. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira
Donations and ticket sales
He said the pandemic had highlighted both the importance and fragility of the arts sector.
“There’s this genuine sentiment that there’s a kind of heightened consideration, or at least an awareness, of the performing arts,” Mr Heath told Business News.
This had translated into $53,000 from people donating the cost of their tickets to the company, and an end-of-financial-year campaign that doubled its target and raised 500 per cent more than last year’s campaign.
Mr Heath said this had further bolstered Black Swan’s already strong financial position.
West Australian Ballet also had an impressive end to the year, raising $275,000 - 35 per cent more than last year.
Barking Gecko Theatre had its most successful end-of-financial-year fundraising campaign in recent years, raising $22,585.
The campaign, called $20 for 2020, focused on attracting small donations from a wide range of donors to help kickstart the company’s philanthropy program.
While Mr Heath said it was great to have such support, he wasn’t sure how long it would last.
According to Business News Data & Insights, corporate sponsorship for the 20 largest arts and culture organisations jumped from $24.4 million in 2017-18, to $30.1 million in 2018-19, before falling back to $27.1 million in 2019-20.
However, with the recession in Australia expected to deepen, the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA report predicted there would be a reduction in corporate sponsorship over the next two years.
WA Ballet and Co3 have already flagged a loss of corporate sponsors.
Perth Symphony Orchestra founder and chief executive Bourby Webster said her organisation was well supported now, but was concerned about sponsorship revenue if the orchestra couldn’t perform again soon.
“Funders and sponsors are going to go, ‘look, if we aren’t getting anything in return, we are not just going to keep helping,’ or, for obvious reasons, they will be struggling too,” Ms Webster said.
Perth Symphony Orchestra has a unique funding model that saw it impacted by COVID-19 more than most.
The orchestra, ranked as the 16th largest arts organisation on Data & Insights, prides itself on its ability to operate on revenue from ticket sales and minimal government funding.
According to the company’s most recent annual report, about 61 per cent of revenue was from ticket sales and 28 per cent from sponsorships and donations.
Ms Webster said the company lost its major income stream when the orchestra couldn’t perform.
She said the first shows back, including Stardust: The Music of David Bowie, planned for September, had to sell well.
“As an orchestra that relies on ticket sales, we have to sell out,” Ms Webster told Business News.
“Our breakeven is insanely high because we don’t have that funding to put towards our concert.
“That’s a concern for us all to go, ‘What is customer sentiment? What are the patrons feeling?’”
Data compiled by seven government arts agencies, along with research organisations Patternmakers and WolfBrown, suggested consumer confidence to attend arts and cultural events in WA was at 37 per cent in July, compared to 24 per cent nationally.
The growing customer sentiment was confirmed by Artrage, which reported its Girls School Cinema venue had posted a 300 per cent increase in year-on-year ticket sales, before opening night.
The time away from the stage hadn’t been wasted, Ms Webster said, with the company reviewing its strategy.
“While I never want to go through this ever again, there is most definitely the opportunity, and I think most arts companies will have used this time to have taken a really good hard look at what we are doing and how we are doing it and what we can do in the future that might be different,” Ms Webster.
The orchestra was using one of its first Lotterywest grants to refresh its IT systems and was undergoing a strategic marketing review.
Black Swan’s Mr Heath, who joined the company as executive director in January, said the theatre was undergoing change before the pandemic.
He had plans to refocus the identity around Black Swan as a brand, rather than focusing on its attachment to the ‘state theatre company’.
“We need to show people what we stand for, not ride on, the fact that we are the state theatre company, losing that sense of entitlement I think is very much around my future direction,” Mr Heath said.
The plan revolved around ensuring Black Swan’s work reached more members of the community, details of which would be revealed in the company’s program for next year.
“It’s not, ‘We are up here, it’s the elite arts, here’s the high-end work for the people in the western suburbs’, it’s more about providing that engagement and there are a couple of projects which are really going to feed into that next year,” he said.
One opportunity arising from the pandemic and WA’s hard border, Mr Heath said, was the chance to showcase more local artists.
Although an open access event, Fringe World Festival has also flagged that a majority of its shows will be local and has implemented measures, including removing upfront registration costs, to make the festival more accessible for artists who are doing it tough.
RAC Arena, which usually stages international acts, has organised for local performers, including San Cisco’s Scarlett Stevens and Dan Riches from The Struggling Kings, to perform on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Perth Cultural Centre is set to provide more entertainment, too, with the new Western Australian Museum opening on November 21 and the Art Galley of Western Australia’s rooftop project, Elevate, which includes a 500-person rooftop venue and an open-air rooftop sculpture park, scheduled for completion early next year.
Mr Heath said more local collaborations were in the works, with Black Swan teaming up with the other theatre companies, Marrugeku, Last Great Hunt, The Blue Room Theatre and Barking Gecko Theatre, to share audiences.
There were also discussions about collaboration options with the other large publicly-funded organisations, West Australian Ballet, WA Opera and West Australian Symphony Orchestra, he said.
“I think there is a sense of will at the moment that I am optimistic about.”