Art for art's sake 2.0

July 2, 2020

Claire Spencer, Chief Executive Officer of Arts Centre Melbourne

How might we maintain and develop a focus on community cohesion, mental health, identity?

The crisis has both connected our community and isolated us in ways not experienced in recent memory. Equitable & resilient regeneration will require the fostering of positive behaviours and fostering enhanced community connection.

Sometimes we have to have things taken away from us for us to realise how much we value them.

That's just what happened in the middle of March when we closed Arts Centre Melbourne and sent our team, audiences and artists away to the safety of their homes. Three and a half months and an existential crisis later, we were ready to welcome visitors back at the end of June, but are now once again keeping the doors closed, and the ghost lights on.

It’s going to be a long road out and we do not yet know how soon we will be back in the venues enjoying live performance again - it simply is not viable with physical distancing in place.

We realised in a few short days that our industry was going to be devastated. Artists with months and years of work cancelled overnight, companies at the edge of bankruptcy. As an arts administrator I kept my job. I was lucky. It felt unfair as many around me lost theirs.

How could this have happened so quickly? And how could the arts and our artists be left so exposed and vulnerable?

This is an industry where impact has not always been well advocated for or understood. All of us in leadership positions in this sector must reflect on that. While we have been luckier in Victoria than other states, we have not been immune to the devastating impact of the pandemic.

Live performance is not just entertainment, nor is it simply an economic contributor - though neither of these things can be undervalued. But it does more than that.

It connects us, it reflects our society back at us. It highlights the issues that we must solve as a community and the aspects we must celebrate. Through storytelling and artistry it can take us to other places, to reflect on the experiences of others. It brings us beauty and great joy, it reveals ugliness and sadness - every aspect of the human experience. It provides for learning, creativity and mental wellness. It connects us with our humanity and our community. It helps us understand our identity.

From January to mid-March of this year, we had over 900k people connect with our AsiaTOPA Festival. Since the end of March there have been over 4 million engagements with our digital content. This is not a pastime of the elite. If it is made available and accessible, all of the community will engage with live performance.

In May, Australian Academy of the Humanities published a report entitled A New Approach: A View from Middle Australia: Perceptions of Arts, Culture and Creativity. The report defines “Middle Australians” as “middle-aged, middle income swing voters from suburban and regional Australia.” This report has demonstrated that Middle Australia values arts and culture. Two findings particularly resonated:

Finding 1: Middle Australians consider arts and culture to be essential to the Australian way of life; without them, Australia would be like authoritarian or war-torn nations. The value of arts and culture was expressed through two key themes: 1) creativity, imagination and inspiration; and 2) participation, belonging and community.

Finding 4: Middle Australians believe arts and culture help bring communities together, break down barriers between different groups within society and encourage greater communication. Participating often means opportunities to socialise with friends and family. Consequently, the most valued activities involved attending and participating in local activities, such as festivals, live performances and local libraries.

So, for this summer let’s imagine a season at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl which can offer community cohesion and connection while maintaining the necessary physical distancing. Where Victorians can return to the wonderful experience of live performance - from opera to electronic music; from classical music to dance parties; from contemporary music to pop up theatre. It can happen and it can be safe, and we are all working towards making that happen

We have heard from our own audiences that they want to come back. They miss it, they can’t wait to return, so long as it’s safe to do so.

And I can imagine improved “social equity” and “community cohesion” if ticket prices could be made much lower or even free (as they already are for some events at the Bowl thanks to the generosity of Sidney Myer, the Myer Family and their Foundations). It would require a change of heart and philosophy, but free admissions for some cultural institutions make them attainable and accessible for everyone. Why not performing arts too? It’s a choice.

Digital content has been abundant in lockdown - it has been valued and binged. How do we take that demand, that need for stories, for music, for dance, and translate it into a sustainable livelihood for the thousands of artists in the sector?

This pandemic has shown us we need these things more than ever. They have a valuable role to play in rebuilding our communities after this crisis. We have heard from our audiences how they long to return. But will the sector be intact when restrictions are lifted? I fear it will look very different.

Artists are at the heart of what we do, without them our venues are empty shells. And yet it is they who have suffered the most. So many have missed out on JobKeeper due to no permanent employment or connection to any organisation of adequate longevity. And while grants have been made available, especially here in Melbourne and Victoria, the competition is high, and many miss out. This crisis has uncovered gaps that all tiers of government and the sector need to address together. My greatest fear is our creative workers deciding it’s all too hard, leading them to choose a different career path for the future - one where they are more valued, where they can live a sustainable life.

Being valued must come from all directions - from governments in their support of live performance, from audiences who are the beneficiaries of the performance, and from organisations like Arts Centre Melbourne. We all need to find ways to create a more sustainable life for our artists.

To do this well, we need to get through to the other side of this pandemic and be able to fill our venues once again. All of us have a role to play by following the health directions and maintaining our physical distance, for now.

While we can take our first steps to reopening, the financial challenges of running our venues at massively reduced capacity are great, and it is still some time before we'll be able to get performers back on our stages and in front of a live audience.

In the meantime, we must look after our artists. We must give them work. We must provide them with resources to stay well. We need to let them know they are valued and we need to give them hope.

By looking after our artists, our whole community will be enriched and the benefit will reach far, far beyond the arts sector.

This opinion paper is part of the City of the Future event 1, exploring focus area 6: Mental Health and Identity.

Problem statement: How might we maintain and develop a focus on community cohesion, mental health and identity?