“When JobKeeper is over, I would love the Australian Tax Office to tell us that a high percentage of these have received JobKeeper, but with current eligibility, I estimate it will be a small percentage, less than half,” Beyer says.
The network has canvassed its 380 members including Sydney Opera House, South Australia’s Windmill Theatre, Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, and the Melbourne Theatre Company.
. . what’s an arts company without artists making art? It’s like a plane without a pilot or a hospital with no nurses. It’s ridiculous. The whole sector has become something out of a satire.
Those who potentially miss out on the $1500 fortnightly payment include performers, musicians, writers, directors, dramaturgs, set and lighting designers, costume designers and makers, along with technicians, builders, front of house staff, workshop facilitators, tour managers, stage managers, production managers, circus riggers, and other backstage crew, it said.
“The situation we are in now is absurd,” says Eamon Flack, artistic director of Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre. “We have a theatre sector with no actors. Or to speak the language of government, we are an industry with no essential workers.”
Flack is working out what final staffing will look like, but he anticipates there will be no full-timers at Belvoir by the end of this month. Even he will be part-time, supported by the JobKeeper subsidy.
“Given the pandemic, does it matter if the theatres are closed? Well, it does because performing to audiences is only the tip of the iceberg of what we do and what we can do. But we can’t do anything if we can’t hire actors.”
The theatre has no income to hire the 150 odd artists the theatre employs every year on contract and casual work.
“We are scrambling to find a way to turn it around,” he says. “Because what’s an arts company without artists making art? It’s like a plane without a pilot or a hospital with no nurses. It’s ridiculous. The whole sector has become something out of a satire.”
The Museum of Contemporary Art estimates 71 of 120 employees affected by its closure may be eligible for JobKeeper. Many of these hosts and educators are practicing artists.
Director Liz Ann Macgregor worries that the criteria requiring eligible employees to show they are employed on a regular basis for longer than 12 months will exclude many from the wage scheme intended to help up to six million workers.
“It is the nature of employing artists that they may drop out for periods when other opportunities arise,” she says.
The SUBSTATION, a contemporary art gallery and performance space in Melbourne’s west, anticipate half their six core staff will be eligible, one casual out of 20, and none of the 150 artists they engage each year.
Artistic director Brad Spolding says while some of those artists may be sole-traders and so technically eligible they are not necessarily part-time or long-term casual employees with the presenting production companies.
“Potentially the artistic director will qualify but none of the performers, no technical or production staff and no one backstage,” he said.
Arts companies tend to produce work on a three to four-year cycle, using grants in one year to develop work and stage and tour productions the next.
“I don’t know of many arts organisations in our peer group that will qualify because they can’t prove losses from one year to the next,” he said. “With festivals and presenting venues such as ourselves, it is more cut and dry. Two-thirds of our income for the year has disappeared.”
Sydney’s Urban Theatre Projects’ artistic director Jessica Olivieri says an arts stimulus package was needed to support freelancers and artists.
“We would normally employ between 80 and 150 people a year who fall into this category. This year we will employ around 40,” she says of the acclaimed company.
“The arts sector is facing a crisis within a crisis: COVID-19, which effects us short term and our ability to seek philanthropy medium to long term due to the economic downturn. Then we have a long term lack of investment as represented in the Australia Council announcement of a drop from 128 to 95 organisations now multi-year funded.
“To put it really simply we need more investment. The arts has the ability to lead the country out of this crisis, but in order to do so we need to still be here.”
Beyer says arts workers work an average of about eight projects per year for different employers, consisting of short-term contracted work on company payroll as well as through their Australian Business Number.
“We need to remember that these artists are running small businesses,” she said. “They have tools, equipment and materials. Like other ‘tradies’, they will need the full JobKeeper payment to keep these micro-businesses running, but at the moment, because of the flaws in the eligibility of JobKeeper, too many will miss out.”
A spokesperson for Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher said the combined effect of JobKeeper and JobSeeker would inject between $4 billion and $10 billion into the arts sector.
JobKeeper, set at around 70 per cent of the national median income, would pick up those with a long term connection to an employer while JobSeeker would assist those with more fluid connections. JobSeeker provided $1,115 a fortnight payment, around double the national median income for art workers, the spokesperson said.
Further cash flow assistance was on offer to be used by organisations to fund ongoing employment of casual staff.
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald