New report highlights a dire situation for Australia’s “once-vibrant” arts sector

A report from the Centre for Future Work Australia highlights Australia’s arts and culture sector’s dire need for a “public-led reboot“.

The recently published report is titled “Creativity in Crisis: Rebooting Australia’s Arts and Entertainment Sector After COVID“.

It was co-authored by Ben Eltham of Monash University’s school of media film and journalism, and Alison Pennington, a senior economist with the Center for Future Work.

Pictured: Art Gallery of NSW, Image: Bai Xuefei via Xinhua

Speaking with The Guardian, Eltham said that public investment in the arts and cultural sectorwas urgent last year…Now it’s beyond urgent. One thing I hope the report can do is show the metrics of just how bad things are.”

He warned that the sector should brace for “big casualties”.

The arts and culture sector of Australia employs an estimated 350,000 people.

This number, which includes jobs at the broadest measure of the sector, is three times larger than aviation and mining. In 2018-2019, the sector contributed over $17bn to the Australian economy.

Eltham stated that the sector is threatened by the Australian government’s policy responses to COVID-19.

We’ve already seen a wave of small company insolvencies across the sector over the past year…One of the tragedies the sector faces now is that the government has dismantled so many of what were already late policy responses, JobKeeper, for example. Without it, a lot of major companies are in trouble.”

Many workers within the sector are employed casually, making them severely vulnerable to COVID-19 closures of cultural institutions.

In February of this year, approximately 45% of all employees in arts and recreation services held casual roles, and were deprived of benefits, including sick and holiday leave.

Ironically, when the pandemic hit, these very conditions of insecurity then became a barrier for many cultural workers accessing the federal government’s JobKeeper subsidy“, the report noted.

In June 2020, the Australian government announced a $250m relief package for the arts and cultural sector. However, only 44 per cent of the package was allocated as direct financial assistance to cultural entities.

$90m of the package took the form of concession loans, which “required cash-strapped entities to risk launching projects during ongoing lockdown uncertainty, and then return all borrowed funds back to the Commonwealth.”

But according to the report, the arts and cultural sector was suffering from underfunding long before COVID-19.

One reason for limited government expenditure in the sector, the report says, is “decades of “market-first” economic ideas“.

This focus on generating immediate economic returns, rather than financially supporting the production of cultural goods, meant the arts and cultural sector lost value in the government’s eyes.

“With an eroding and unstable funding base, the arts and cultural sector has been reduced to endless, resource-intensive, short-term grant cycles and philanthropic dependency…The consequence of this policy failure is a once-vibrant ecosystem of cultural production in Australia, fed from the grassroots up, has been partly dismantled.”