Mr Morrison immediately asked Vincent to help compile a list for a roundtable meeting. Last Thursday, the Prime Minister and Arts Minister Paul Fletcher convened a Zoom call with industry heavy-hitters, as well as Vincent and singer Guy Sebastian, to discuss the problems facing the sector. Barely a week later, help was on its way.
If Vincent’s message had any effect, it was the icing on the cake. The arts and entertainment sector has been lobbying the government for months for a targeted relief package, submitting spreadsheets and projections to prove the dire straits their industry has landed in, with doors closed and revenue dried up. Arts leaders from across the country spoke regularly with Mr Fletcher to put forward their case and a draft rescue plan was being fine-tuned by early June.
On Thursday Mr Morrison, flanked by Sebastian, announced $75 million in grants for new festivals, concerts, tours and events once social distancing eases; $35 million in cash for major arts and culture organisations in theatre, dance, circus and music; the guarantee of $90 million worth of loans to the sector and $50 million into an insurance fund to kickstart film and TV productions.
Mr Morrison said the measures would protect “thousands” of jobs in the creative economy which employs more than 600,000 Australians: “From performers, artists and roadies, to front-of-house staff and many who work behind the scenes… the tradies who build stage sets or computer specialists who create the latest special effects”.
The industry has largely welcomed the package. But beyond the praise, arts leaders say the real lifeline they need is certainty. Most productions and events, especially involving live performance, will not be financially viable until health restrictions including social distancing and spacing guidelines are relaxed enough to get capacity crowds back into venues.
The Prime Minister is aware of the problem. “Getting some certainty about when venues can operate at different levels of restrictions is, frankly, almost if not more important than even what we’ve done today,” he said on Thursday.
The National Cabinet will meet on Friday to discuss social distancing measures for venues. Arts companies want a clear timeline on how and when restrictions will lift.
“We need at least two months’ notice in order to plan with confidence from rehearsals through to opening,” Melbourne Theatre Company executive director Virginia Lovett said. “This time will be essential for us to make necessary changes and improvements to our practices so that audiences can feel confident coming back to the theatre.”
Producer Michael Cassel said he was “optimistic” the blockbuster Harry Potter and the Cursed Child might reopen in Melbourne in September.
“If the states can work together to agree on a pathway for the return of live events, theatre productions could be back onstage by spring,” Mr Cassel said.
Live Performance Australia’s president Richard Evans said, “There is nothing more that our artists and industry seeks than the ability to get back in front of full houses. The Prime Minister’s commitment to personally take this to the National Cabinet to assist the roadway to recovery is extremely important.”
But until box offices reopen creative workers – many of whom have been jobless since March – will continue to be left without paid work.
The JobKeeper program, which saved thousands of arts workers from unemployment, is legislated to end in September – and around a third of workers in the creative sector were ineligible in the first place.
Paul Murphy, chief executive of artists union MEAA, said grants and loans would help arts organisations but the package ignores the “backbone of the industry”: thousands of arts workers “who have been without work for months and need immediate income support”.
Australian Ballet executive director Libby Christie welcomed the package but said many jobs remained at risk and she would continue to lobby government to extend the JobKeeper salary subsidy.
The relief package largely caters to bigger organisations – “restart” grants start at $75,000 and go up to $2 million – meaning struggling artists and smaller companies fall through the gaps. The government points out that other support is available through state and local governments, and the Australia Council.
Geoff Jones, chief executive of entertainment company TEG, said the package showed the government had listened to the industry during the Zoom roundtable.
“They recognise this is a big industry that has been hit hard and continues to be hit hard. The money is really helpful but this industry has been impacted significantly. From small companies that are vital to the lifeblood of artists to the various arts companies, promoters, venues and ticketing companies. The whole environment has been really badly impacted,” Mr Jones said.
While Sebastian copped criticism from some fans for appearing at a political press conference, Vincent believes the package hit the right note.
“When I spoke to [Mr Morrison] I said, ‘All I want to do is get back out and sing’ and I feel like this is really going to help that, for me and so many artists.”
Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age.
Nathanael Cooper is a senior culture writer at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age with a focus on music.