How artists can adapt to COVID-19

The coronavirus situation is changing quickly around us so Kath Melbourne advises that we stay informed, stay in touch and remember the enduring strength of our arts community.
How artists can adapt to COVID-19 Don't lose your community in the calls for social distancing. Photo by Nicole Baster.

Kath Melbourne

Monday 16 March, 2020

Things are moving fast. At the beginning of last week the conversation at the pub sounded a lot like ‘Look at all those crazy Australians at Woolies panic buying toilet paper over something that is no worse than the flu’. By Sunday we were sharing breakfast while we grappled with cancellations of iconic events, travel vetoes, and now the banning of events over 500 people. 

As we enter a new work week, we’re doing our part to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, either by a pre-emptive choice, with a keen ear to news coming from doctors, or by the edict of law. We’re embracing hand sanitiser with a degree of enthusiasm most of us have never felt and some of our work places are choosing to stay the fuck at home.

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In a week’s time many of us will be in Skype meetings with international colleagues, brainstorming new solutions and sharing our staff knock off drinks over Zoom on a Friday afternoon in our pyjamas. This is not business as usual, but it is a new momentary normal, that if embraced, could stop the overwhelming of our medical professionals and hospitals. Remember, as hectic as it might get, we’re in this together.

The arts have learnt some difficult lessons in the past five years. It’s made the industry more resilient and adaptive. I don’t mean the kind of ‘see how many punches you can take and still get up’ kind of resilient. I mean the kind that takes an incredibly shitty situation and through determination and grit strengthens us and doesn’t defeat us.

I’m sure many independent artists, venues, facilitators, producers and small companies without the comfort of reserves are asking, ‘How many more blows can you ask me to absorb?’ 

When the most vulnerable in the ecosystem are also the most impacted, we all are. When all this is over, when a vaccine is invented, when numbers return to double figures, when we go back to opening the doors to our theatres, concert halls, galleries and museums, we’ll still need to have the energy and resources to exhibit and to perform. We’ll need artists more than ever, because when people have been forcibly separated they will be gagging to get together. It’s human nature to want to connect, and at the end of this, audiences will come back with added appreciation and yearning. 

Hold fast.

To get through this we’re going to need collective action. Now is the time to be inclusive, and to embrace (digitally) across art forms and states.

What you can do now

Before you start something new, take an hour to look around and see if there is already a group/petition/industry wide initiative underway. Collectively we will be stronger. 

As of Sunday night Australian Arts amidst COVID-19 was nearing 4,000 members. There are already a number of petitions online gaining traction. Here are three of the major ones: via Freelance Jungle, data collation via I Lost My Gig and a petition via Change.Org asking the federal Government to support the industry to avoid economic decimation. 

If you’re a large organisation, festival or venue publicly funded on a multi-year basis and you’ve had to postpone or cancel, I know you’re feeling devastated. Please don’t throw your hands up and walk away. Consider renegotiating your contracts to support the most vulnerable in our arts community. Think about ways art can be experienced without close sustained contact. Contemplate commissioning a work that responds to this unique time in our history. Capture this moment in time through art, movement, music and words. Artists really need the work right now and they can make sense of the world for us in ways that statistics and news reports just can’t.

If you’re a funder, the industry is moving so fast you’re probably struggling to keep up. Be generous. Be empathetic. Be human. You’re most likely feeling as blindsided as we are out here. Advocate for the importance of the arts like you were born to do it. 

If you’re a funder, the industry is moving so fast you’re probably struggling to keep up. Be generous. Be empathetic. Be human. You’re most likely feeling as blindsided as we are out here. Advocate for the importance of the arts like you were born to do it.

If you’re a politician, we’re also probably moving a lot faster than you can – but these are extraordinary times, akin to war, and with them comes a need for agility on all levels. Act now to minimise the blow. Seek the advice of simultaneously wise, pragmatic and creative people; secure the funds from Cabinet and act on it as quickly as you can.

The solution to the problem the arts face is akin to the way the virus is best dealt with: through collective action and individual self care. As an industry we can support each other and as individuals we can take care of our emotional health. Let’s hope the government can deliver the swift and meaningful financial inoculation need for the arts to recover too.

About the author

Kath Melbourne is a Tasmanian arts executive who has led multi art festivals, innovative government initiatives and produced large-scale dance, circus and theatre productions in Australia, Asia and Europe. She's worked in Aboriginal communities, outback towns and off the side of 20 storey buildings. Right now she's consulting on projects nationally and internationally, and reviewing for Arts Hub Australia. She does not tweet.