Brett Sheehy, artistic director and CEO Melbourne Theatre Company: JobKeeper was a godsend. [But] when that ends in September if it’s not revived, and if the mass gathering bans remain in place, we’re in a whole new existential world.
There are so many unknowns. We’ve got graphs galore: [are we] lifting our curtain at the end of September, later in 2020, next January or in March? Let’s say the 500 [gathering limit] is lifted: if we still have to adhere to the four square metre [distancing] rule, we’ve overlaid that on our venues and it’s catastrophic. Then we’re factoring in the appetite to return and an obvious fear amongst the community. Will they come back if there’s still no treatment and no vaccine? We’re all working in an impossibly abstract space. We’re doing our best and we’ve got something like 75 models at MTC.
David McAllister, artistic director The Australian Ballet: While we do have a big endowment, most of it is legally protected and any of our bonds and cash is pretty much spent. We’re just taking out a $15 million dollar line of credit to be able to get us through this time of cash flow. JobKeeper has been huge because, as an ensemble company, most of our artists actually are on salary, so we’ve been able to keep everyone there. But the arts were the first out, we will be the last back in, and that’s going to impact into next year as well.
Wesley Enoch, artistic director Sydney Festival: I think the worst experience so far has been a total lack of advocacy on a political level. You can’t help but think that’s ideological… the lack of political leadership and a rescue package.
We’ve been able to focus on the recovery narrative – let’s not leave all those stranded artistic assets, the shows that have been cancelled, the companies that have been teetering. Even though we will be planning for a massive downside in philanthropy and sponsorship, at least we’ve got our core funds.
We’ve made decisions about an all-Australian Sydney Festival. That’s both pragmatic and also philosophical. How do we support [Australian] artists – but also, we don’t know when the borders will open. We don’t know what the quarantine processes will be. The fluctuation of international currencies. It’s just too hard to plan for. There’s a real sense of the philosophy and the values and the pragmatism kind of coming together in what we’re trying to do.
We’re seeing all the small problems we had magnified. The funding cuts to the Australia Council in 2015, that keeps playing out. Wherever the weaknesses are, they’re now turning into massive breaks. Ideologies have become massive fissures.
Q – What do you think of government responses so far?
Sheehy: We were at the front line of the first industries immediately hit by the economic impact. So to then not have that followed by a specific package, a support package or a bailout package federally, that was devastating.
Jeffes: [The coronavirus crisis] is 10 years’ worth of problems rolled into one, quite apart from the whole health issue. In terms of the business model and the economics it does expose that we’ve got real existential issues, and that the new normal is not going to be like it was.
Galaise: Major organisations are fighting for their survival. We will need a recovery package. Even if in September we’re going to be ultimately open, which I believe we all doubt, this is going to impact our industry for many, many, many years. We will have to adapt to a different format, different spacing, different way to interact with our audience. In the symphony world, you have a varied audience, but you also have a senior audience, and they most probably will not want to come back to being all bunched together in a hall. You have to think of maybe going digital, doing things differently. The recovery will be over the years, not just over a couple of months. That’s where we need the support of the government.
Sheehy: Queensland and Victoria have both put together rescue packages which have been incredibly welcome. Federally, though, it’s gob-smackingly not on the radar. We all work on pretty well break-even budgets annually; to lose one show or one concert in any year is immediately quite catastrophic. To lose between 50 per cent and 100 per cent of our shows or concerts over a year is, you know, it’s existential, it’s an absolute catastrophe … and there’s just dead silence. It’s been so disappointing.
McAllister: The arts ministers want us to send them lots of information, constant spreadsheets, but we don’t see where it’s all heading. The feds have been interested but not forthcoming. For us, JobKeeper was a big step forward because most of our organisation are on salary. That did help us a lot, but I don’t think it helped many across the board of arts organisations.
Jeffes: [The federal government] were just seeing us as part of industry. I kind of get why. And JobKeeper has been really helpful for Opera Australia; we’ve got 475 people who qualify for it. We’ve just put in our first claim, and it’s $1.4 million for the first month. But 338 of our casuals do not qualify for it.
Sheehy: Pretty well every actor, director and designer in this nation is a ‘casual’ employee. The fact is they do work full time, [but] they move from show to show, company to company, year in, year out. That’s just how they work. And they’ve been cut out of JobKeeper completely. We are nothing without our storytellers. And they’re not eligible. It’s crazy.
Galaise: If I was to guess, the Australia Council and Creative Victoria are actually quite aware of what’s happening. In our case, because we are fighting for our survival, we have weekly meetings with them. They not only asked for a spreadsheet, but they analysed it and came back and asked us zillions of questions. They came to the same conclusion that we have. Now can we have some help and the answer at both levels was ‘we will try to bring forward your instalment’. In our case, [JobKeeper] helps because nearly all our casuals are regular members of the orchestra. We employ 200 casuals and they’ve been with us sometimes for more than 15 years, and they’re very regular.
Jeffes: The department is focused on such a broad portfolio that the arts is just lumped in with communications, etc. [Federal Communications, Cyber Safety and Arts Minister Paul Fletcher], he’s a huge fan of the arts but I don’t see that he’s really focused specifically on the arts. If JobKeeper ends in September, an arts sector specific package needs to recognise that we are going to be the last people able actually to earn any money again.
Enoch: If you’re aviation or if you’re regional newspapers there are these specific packages being done and I go, ‘how are they happening?’ It’s because of high level advocacy. And we’re missing out. We do need to think into the future about how our venues and our organisations are going to recover, and that will mean a rescue package. We will see large companies go down if we don’t get [one].
Because we deal in feelings and emotions and art, they think they don’t have to deal with us as businesses. The big thing I would be advocating is open up the communication channels more and stop doing just the pastoral care. Check in about our economic and financial health so that we can actually build the recovery that we’re all wanting.
Q – What do you make of the surge of digital content you and others are creating?
McAllister: The digital engagement has been extraordinary and I think what it’s really shown us is that there is great love for the arts all around the country. We were thinking if we got 1000 people to look at each one we put up that would be great – and the first one got to 15,000. We’ve had an extraordinary connection with the audience.
Galaise: Our digital program that we started in March, by now we are coming up to 400,000 people who would have viewed our programs, and that’s approximately the same audience as our total live audience in 2019, so that’s quite good. We need to craft the future in a different world.
Sheehy: I think we’ll come back with audiences who are much more familiar with who we are and to whom we feel much closer, ironically, even though we’ve been distanced for so long. All of that digital content now has proved to us how loved we all are, and the kind of support and messages have been just phenomenal.
Enoch: We were driven to give a lot of what we’re doing free [online] to our audiences. But to everyone who’s picking up free content: donate. If you watch it, pay for it. If we continue a culture of devaluing the artists, which is the greatest danger, then these organisations won’t be around to deliver it.
McAllister: We need to be able to find ways of still delivering [to audiences] what they love and they’ll have to pay for it.
Sheehy: We’re definitely going to have to bring filming productions forward on the agenda.
Jeffes: The better we make the digital experience, particularly at a time when people are going to be nervous about going back into performances, the bigger problem we’re creating for ourselves as well. There is nothing like sitting in a hall with 2000 strangers that are all having different emotional experiences that are very personal. I really worry if we make the digital experience so engaging and so wonderful, what’s going to happen to the live shows?
McAllister: I think that it’s only going to build the audience. It’s not an ‘instead of’ because obviously being in the theatre experience is better: it’s going to be the most, the ultimate.
Jeffes: Digital needs to be a catalyst for continuing to drive people to live shows.
Galaise: Berlin Phil[harmonic] is a great example of a digital concert hall that works wonderfully well and they got major support [from] the German government and the Deutsche Bank.
We have to prepare for a different future. And we’ll need some funding for that. So [a rescue package is] in part, survival, but also making sure we adapt.
Q – What help do you need to recover after the crisis?
Sheehy: Whenever there can be a moment of clarity, please just give us that clarity – even if it’s bleak, just so we can plan for the future. That matrix of mass gathering numbers, with or without social distancing, that equation is going to be so vital. It decides whether we can live or die, frankly.
Jeffes: We are not able to reopen and earn significant ticketing income until we can get 1000 people in the hall. So when can we go through that gate?
McAllister: We need to be really careful that when we go back into the theatres too, that there is not this sort of cross subsidisation war, if they are going to make us pay for all the biosecurity.
Enoch: We need to think about the next 10 to 15 years and build structures that make sure that we don’t lose a generation of artists and a generation of innovation.
Jeffes: We need to move the conversation from being about support, to being about investment. It’s about investing in culture and in the infrastructure: what makes society special.
Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age.
Nick Galvin is Arts Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald