In March 2020, as cases of the novel coronavirus started to proliferate in Australia and the nation retreated into its first lockdown, live performances were cancelled and cultural venues were shuttered. By April, more than 50 per cent of arts and entertainment businesses had ceased operating. Further lockdowns of varying lengths and severity across the states — not to mention the 704-day international border closure — compounded the pressure on an industry already straining to accommodate unstable funding and a precarious gig economy.
Almost two and a half years on, the effects of the pandemic on the country’s creative sector are yet to be fully understood. Data gathered by government and industry bodies tells a story of cascading cancellations, disproportionate job and income losses, and billions of dollars in missed revenue for one of the worst-affected industries. The future of the arts in Australia is as elusive as ever.
When the first lockdown happened, the Australian dancer and model Rhys Kosakowski had just joined the Sydney Dance Company after almost eight years working overseas — first with the prestigious Houston Ballet, which he joined at age 17, then in Los Angeles, where he expanded his modelling career and burgeoning public profile.
“I got a few months of normality and then it hit,” says the Newcastle-born classical and contemporary dancer, who rose to fame as a 13-year-old playing the titular character in Australia’s “Billy Elliot: The Musical” (he was the first to perform the role outside the United Kingdom). “I was just happy that I was in the company, and by then I’d made such a family and had such a friendship group.
“No-one has really gone through something like that before,” he continues, “but it was amazing to see how well the company stuck together, just doing what we could to stay afloat, like teaching and working online. I didn’t feel alone.”
Having returned to Australia with an international outlook, Kosakowski, 27, believes that in order to thrive, the local arts scene must focus on what makes it unique. “I think we need to push our Australian identity, as dancers, to keep creating and keep being inspired and keep doing what you don’t see, because that’s what’s so appealing,” he says. “We need to really be our true self and keep pushing it. Hopefully, it will be seen by people overseas, which means it will travel throughout the world.”
The new federal arts minister, Tony Burke, shares Kosakowski’s vision of Australia as an exporter of culture. When the Labor government came to power in May, it did so with a mandate to re-prioritise the arts. Burke has said he is “determined to deliver a better future for Australia’s creative sector”, however questions remain over spending allocation.
It comes in the wake of a coalition government that oversaw damaging cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts and the ABC, merged the federal arts and transport departments before announcing plans to double the cost of humanities degrees in 2020 and, most recently, reduced arts funding by approximately $190 million in its March 2022 budget.
Granted, initiatives such as JobKeeper, the JobSeeker Coronavirus Supplement and the RISE Fund, introduced by the Morrison government, played a part in offsetting some of the pandemic’s negative impacts for those who qualified. But they do not redress years of systemic erosion of the cultural sector, much less guarantee ongoing security, notes Ben Eltham, the co-author of an influential report by The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work titled “Creativity in Crisis: Rebooting Australia’s Arts and Entertainment Sector After Covid”.
“The stimulus is winding down and the emergency funding that was put in place is winding down, but the pandemic is still with us and you’ve got a lot of uncertainty going forward,” says Eltham, who is a journalist, researcher and lecturer at Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism. “Whatever measure you look at, it’s not back to 2019 levels. A lot of people have simply left the industry, particularly technical workers, production workers, crew. So there’ll be long-term impacts from that,” he says. “In our recommendations for the report, what we were saying is we need to use the opportunity of the crisis to try to reset and reimagine the policy architecture for Australian culture, and set it up for a sustainable longer-term future.”