“There’s enormous pressure. It’s devastating for all of us … the breadth and creativity of the sector will suffer,” he said.
Sydney Theatre Company chair Ian Narev said audiences had “disappeared overnight for an indefinite period” but acknowledged that the demands on governments responding to the health and economic threats of COVID-19 were “extreme”.
“The choices and trade-offs are so hard, and we should all be wary of single-issue advocacy,” he said.
Mr Narev, a former chief executive of Commonwealth Bank, argued that the “livelihoods of Australia’s artists and arts administrators almost all depend on not-for-profit companies, which survive year to year based on their ability to appeal to audiences and philanthropists” and added “the viability of arts companies, even large ones like STC that have taken Australian art to Broadway and the West End, is under imminent threat.”
“A whole sector, quite literally, could fall over. It could not be rebuilt quickly, and so would leave an enormous void in community wellbeing for a long period,” he said.
“Right now the debate must not be partisan and theoretical. It should be urgent and practical: amid the extraordinary demands on government’s attention and resources right now, how can government and the arts sector work together cooperatively to navigate coming months so the sector can emerge viable?”
Mr Narev, who said NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian understood the importance of arts to the community, added theatre jobs at risk included ushers and carpenters as well as actors and directors.
Eamon Flack, artistic director of one of the country’s most awarded theatres, Belvoir, described the uncertainty as “scary”.
“Everyone who works in the arts lives in uncertainty all the time, so in a way it is familiar. But everyone is entering into a completely unfamiliar time,” Mr Flack said. “This could turn out to be the biggest historical event in many, many decades. We’re going to need the arts at the end of this. Crisis is when we need art.”
Mr Flack backed the calls of Live Performance Australia, the industry’s peak body, for an $850 million rescue package to ensure theatre companies and musicians alike survive the shutdown.
The federal government has already set aside $17.6 billion for cash-strapped businesses, with small and medium-sized arts companies are eligible to apply for grants of up to $25,000. But federal Greens leader Adam Bandt is now calling for an urgent $1 billion stimulus package.
“When there’s over 600,000 people employed and over $100 billion contributed to the economy, that’s a sector worthy of support,” Mr Bandt told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. “The flow-on effects if we don’t keep this sector alive would be huge. It’s a lot of people who won’t have money to pay rent or buy food.”
The artistic director at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre, Mark Kilmurry, said the shutdown period would be “financially devastating for us and all theatre companies”.
“It’s devastating for society as a whole,” Mr Kilmurry said. “People need this art form, they need to have an escape. When that’s not there we’ll certainly feel it in society.”
Circus Oz executive director Penny Miles said “in the past five days alone” the organisation had seen multiple revenue streams disappear, from public shows in its Melba Spiegeltent to regional tours to “well-subscribed circus classes”.
“Our losses alone already total $500,000 and that’s not considering longer-term impacts. When you add that up across the sector, you start to see an alarming picture of what this really looks like,” Ms Miles said.
Dan Rosen, chief executive of the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA), said creative industries were vital because “we’re going to need them to help us through this period”.
“As you saw in the bushfires, in times of crisis, in times of need, musicians and artists are out there trying to help people heal and get through it,” Mr Rosen said.
The union for live performance workers, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, has also called on state and federal governments to bring forward guaranteed funding for major, medium and small arts organisations.
On Wednesday, the latest cultural events to pull the pin included the Sydney Comedy Festival, due to begin on April 20, and the Sydney Film Festival, which was supposed to kick off in June. It is the first time the film festival has been called off in its 65-year history.
Josh Dye is a news reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Broede Carmody is a culture reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald