News & Commentary

Survival and the creative economy in the time of coronavirus

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To mangle Dostoyevsky’s words, a society should be judged not by how it treats its successful creatives but how it nurtures and develops its creative workers of the future.

Going into the “Great Pause”, the creative economy employed 260,000 Victorians and was growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy.

The creative economy was at the heart of our cultural identity and central to our visitor and experience economy. It was a keystone to regional employment growth and economic diversity.

The role of first peoples and diverse communities sent the message that Victoria was a place that reflected and welcomed your contribution, no matter who you were and where you were from and what your story was.

This diversity made the place interesting to global, knowledge-based investors. Success and investment begat success. The most visited galleries, libraries and museums in the nation, surrounded by the most vibrant live music scene in the world, and a pipeline of state, university and private sector investment in all fields of the creative economy, from the booming digital and gamification sector to design innovation, drove growth and change.

The March shutdown hit the creative community hard and fast. The ABS points to the sector being the earliest and the hardest hit nationally, with well over half the sector stopping trade in a matter of days. More recent Grattan Institute work shows that the crisis in the creative and cultural sectors deepens as the impact of efforts to save lives by “flattening curves”, staying home and washing hands takes hold.

The March shutdown hit the creative community hard and fast. The ABS points to the sector being the earliest and the hardest hit nationally, with well over half the sector stopping trade in a matter of days.

With the initial enthusiasm over the JobKeeper package – whilst clearly welcomed – dissipating as its design runs into the real world of the original “gig economy” that underpins so much of the sector, the need for all levels of government to step up in the crisis grows.

That is why Victoria immediately moved in March when we waived rents in state-owned sites and guaranteed existing multi-year funded organisations income until the end of the 2021 financial year.

There were community-wide supports for mental health, rental housing and other programs that had a particular relevance for the creative community.

We supported and welcomed the creative communities leading innovation on digital platforms, to engage the wider community while delivering some form of support to battered bank balances. But with the crisis deepening it wasn’t ever going to be enough.

Now and for a long time to come, government action will be critical to the jobs, the innovation and future of our creative communities.

That’s why our recent $16.8 million down-payment on the survival of the Victorian sector between now and the end of this financial year is so important.

With dark concert halls, closed galleries, scrapped festivals, gigs and tours abandoned and projects from one end of the state to the other evaporating, we have to step in and help secure work for the sector. Support for the lifeblood of emerging talent in the small, medium and independent sectors of the cultural communities and new funding to sustain programs that commission work will help sustain the sector in the depths of the crisis.

We know there will be more to do. The state’s announcement last Friday of the Victoria Together platform – predicated on the importance of connection in an age of distance and providing $3.25 million to commission and lead news works – demonstrates the wider social and economic value of the creative sector.

It points to the role creativity has in making sense of and shaping the world we are entering.

Contrast this with the Australia Council being forced to limit the application of its support with no new funding available, and with the blow to our screen and TV industries of having all Australian content scrapped.

With efforts needed to slow the spread of coronavirus and social distancing being a “new normal”, the problems with the sector’s model are more apparent.

The Federal Government is not big on doing favours for the sector, and with philanthropic support and private sector investment shaky in a likely recession, the prospects for a business as usual approach are seemingly bleak. Reform is in the wind.

The creative economy has to be prepared for a new environment where collaboration and cooperation will be needed across and between the creative organisations – public, private and NGO alike.

The creative economy has to be prepared for a new environment where collaboration and cooperation will be needed across and between the creative organisations – public, private and NGO alike.

Survival of the pandemic crisis without reform won’t be enough. The sector needs to partner with governments at all levels and other investors who are committed to making sure our rich pickings in the creativity economy are able to make the adaptions and changes to the new world we are running headlong into.

Partnerships between government and community and the cultural sector can build a new model of funding, operation and opportunity. If new models of investment and business support aren’t pursued then parts of the cultural economy will fall victim to the vicious pressures the pandemic has unleashed globally.

The creative economy will be vital to our economic, cultural and social recovery from the crisis – and we will only be successful if we find new ways to collaborate and imagine a better, different future supporting the rich ecology of art and culture in the state.

To end on another mashed-up literary note … it’s up to all of us – governments, creatives, supporters and investors – to keep our eyes on the green light of a better future*. It has eluded us in recent times, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further. . .And one fine morning. . .

*With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald

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