“When I heard concerns about whether JobKeeper was working for the arts sector, I was naturally keen to investigate,” Mr Fletcher said. Now there were hard numbers to report on, it was “crystal clear” the scheme was providing “huge support” to struggling arts companies and workers, he said.
There are around 40,000 private sector arts workers in the creative and performing arts, which includes performers as well as administration and venue workers. Of those, 25,370 – or just under two-thirds – received a JobKeeper payment in April.
Together with a cash flow boost for companies and not-for-profits, the federal government put $99.6 million of extra support into the sector in April, to help combat the effect of the coronavirus shutdown which made it impossible to generate income from performances.
The government has previously claimed that support packages for creative industry workers will total between $4 billion and $10 billion. This figure includes JobKeeper, JobSeeker and other welfare payments going to 60-70 per cent of the 600,000 workers in the broader cultural and creative sector, which includes museums, design, digital media, film and fashion.
The artists’ union said the figures confirmed that a large section of the arts workforce had been unable to access JobKeeper because of its tight eligibility rules.
“These might just be numbers on paper to the arts minister, but every one of those 15,000 arts workers who have not received JobKeeper have themselves and often their families to house, clothe and feed,” MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy said. “Any rescue package for the arts and cultural sector must include income support for the tens of thousands of freelance and casual workers in the sector who have been unable to claim JobKeeper.”
Leading arts organisations said JobKeeper was crucial to their survival during the crisis. Australian Ballet executive director Libby Christie called it a “lifesaver” for the company. They put 229 employees on JobKeeper including all 80 dancers, as well as support staff such as the medical team, physios and coaches, costume makers and set builders.
“These are valuable, specialised creative workers and it has enabled all those people to retain those jobs,” she said.
But she hopes JobKeeper will continue past its forecast September cut-off date, as the ballet will still be paying wages without box office income. The government has refused to be drawn on any extension, pointing to a review of the scheme in July.
Brett Sheehy, artistic director and CEO of Melbourne Theatre Company, said JobKeeper had “helped us enormously”.
“The skeleton team who are keeping the company alive, we’ve relied on [JobKeeper] for every single one of them,” he said. “Frankly I think we would have had to close our doors [without it]. It’s even now an existential issue but it would have been absolutely catastrophic.”
However he added they were “very concerned” about the end date for the subsidy.
“We can’t reboot as an industry until social distancing ends,” he said. “We will be one of the last if not the last industry able to reboot. We hope that’s understood at a government level.”
And as well as an extension, he hoped for a “revamp” of JobKeeper to help those it omitted.
“We’re this shell that invites artists into our space to tell the stories,” he said. “The fact that so many, if not all of them were excluded from JobKeeper was just heartbreaking. If that means the loss of them [to the industry] that’s a crisis yet to be faced.”
Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age.