The shows must go on: Australia's arts industry deserves our full support

DEVASTATING: Those in the arts sector have done it particularly tough during the COVID-19 pandemic. Picture: Shutterstock
DEVASTATING: Those in the arts sector have done it particularly tough during the COVID-19 pandemic. Picture: Shutterstock

I had the privilege of going to see the Spooky Men's Chorale on Sunday night.

My shoulders hurt from clapping so much (literally), my face ached from laughing so much (literally) and I wished I'd remembered to throw my Ventolin in my handbag because I honestly laughed so hard I lost my breath.

I was privileged to share this experience with my sister, who travelled with her fiancé and stepson - both of whom are actually two of the amazing "Spooky Men" - to go with me and it was honestly, one of the best experiences.

The Spooky Men's Chorale was meant to be touring Victoria when this latest lockdown hit and what happened next really highlighted two things to me: firstly, just how hard the arts have suffered in this ongoing COVID-19 climate, and secondly, the importance of innovative problem solving and creative business planning to navigate this period of great uncertainty.

The thing with COVID - now that we are in the "management" phase (at least here, in Australia) - is that nothing is a given.

We have systems in place that allow us to go into snap lockdowns, most businesses who can, have remote working plans, we have contact tracing, and we have QR code check-ins, even if the vaccination rollout has been slow.

This has limited catastrophic numbers like we've seen in other countries, but this does not mean that we have not suffered. Ask any Victorian in particular and they'll tell you just how hard it has been.

The arts - especially sole traders and micro businesses in this space - have really been handed a raw deal over the last couple of years.

The push for STEM-based study and careers - particularly women in STEM fields - has rendered the arts an "indulgence".

To study arts at university, we have to pay significantly more than most STEM-based fields as a "disincentive" to study these areas, which leaves a truly bad taste in my mouth with an undertone of WTF.

Government support for the arts has (eventually) provided dollars to Screen Australia, the Australian Children's Television Foundation, for capital works, storage and digitisation projects, and to support Trove, in addition to access to the same JobMaker, JobKeeper, JobWhatever that made up the general response to the crisis.

This meant that for many in this sector whose work was simply cancelled without any kind of certainty in its reinstatement and with a casual shrug of the shoulders - it's "only" arts after all - the only support that was left open to them was JobSeeker.

Coronavirus-related funding didn't start to be distributed to arts projects through the RISE program until November last year, a full eight-months after the pandemic closed theatres and civic centres across the country.

Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising given that the nation's interest in the arts has been reduced to an "Office for the Arts" as part of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. I mean, nothing says "theatre" like transport strategies.

It is so clear to me just how hard the arts have been hit by this pandemic; in many ways, they've been hit twice.

First, by the unavoidable cancelled gigs and second, by the lack of support and dismissive approach to their fight for survival.

My aching shoulders and face from clapping and laughing so hard on Sunday physically reminded me how little I've been able to experience these performances over the last 15 months.

So, with all this baggage in the tumultuous relationship between the arts and the government, I take my hat off to the Spooky Men's Chorale for how well it has pivoted.

Instead of touring regional Victoria, it booked two shows in regional NSW on the way down to Albury for Sunday night's performance, with no more than a couple of days' notice - and sold out both venues! Having watched the show, I have to say I'm not surprised, but what a fantastic business pivot with such an incredible outcome.

COVID-19 has taught us all to exercise our creative bones, to shape our plans around the uncertainty of textbook implementation and the need for contingencies.

But when it does all come together, like it did on Sunday in Albury, appreciate every moment - and for God's sake, pack your Ventolin.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au.

Twitter: @ZoeWundenberg

This story The shows must go on: Australia's arts industry deserves our full support first appeared on The Canberra Times.