Pandemic deals arts sector crippling blow

Headshot of Sarah Makse
Sarah MakseAlbany Advertiser
Southern Edge Arts artistic director Anne Sorenson.
Camera IconSouthern Edge Arts artistic director Anne Sorenson. Credit: Laurie Benson/Albany Advertiser, Laurie Benson

As some industries start getting back to business in WA, an Albany arts leader says the already struggling arts sector continues to suffer.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the arts and recreation industries were among the hardest hit by job losses at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

From March 14-April 4, the arts and recreation industry saw employment plummet by about 18 per cent, while nearly 200,000 Australian artists were shut out of the JobKeeper scheme.

At the end of March, just 47 per cent of arts businesses were actively operating.

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Anne Sorenson, the artistic director of Albany-based Southern Edge Arts, said like the entire arts industry, the organisation faced a crisis.

She said the 35-year-old organisation had been forced to cancel classes for its 150 students and put productions on ice until social distancing restrictions were lifted.

Staff had been stood down, with only a handful eligible for JobKeeper payments.

Ms Sorenson said the pandemic had dealt a crippling blow to an industry already hurting from intense competition in a shrinking funding pool.

“If it wasn’t hard enough for the arts as an industry, this has made it 10 times harder,” she said.

“The Government has systematically reduced funding to the cultural industries and it has become increasingly difficult to create and present creative activities.

“The arts aren’t just about performances, presentations and exhibitions — they are also about wellbeing, mental health and a sense of belonging.”

Ms Sorenson said although the organisation was still innovating and creating online content, nothing would fill the place of live performance.

“People are consuming a lot of arts right now. It’s the thing that is currently sustaining them in this lockdown,” she said.

“To think innovatively, that is what for us as an arts organisation will save us — it is the fact the we will be able to creatively think of a solution to this problem.”

Ms Sorenson said Southern Edge would continue to embrace new ways of delivering its services, with plans to expand their program to engage more age groups.

A spokeswoman for Culture and Arts Minister David Templeman said the State Government was working to deliver a regional relief package — the Arts U-15k grant program — for one-off projects and the Lotterywest Relief Fund.

“The department has commenced planning for recovery, to create WA content and re-engage audiences when restrictions relax,” she said.

“Sector recovery will take into account the impacts COVID-19 has had on individuals and organisations, their capacity to re-engage with staff, ability to access venues, programming capacity and financial viability.”

Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher said the Government estimated its financial support packages could inject $4 billion-$10 billion into the arts sector.

“This is the biggest single injection of funding into the sector in Australia’s history,” he said.

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