A significant number of arts workers have fallen between the cracks of government support measures such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker, finding themselves ineligible for the schemes due to their contract-style working arrangements or visa conditions.
As the sector rallies to map out strategies for a post-COVID future, there has also been need for support services for arts workers grappling with these challenging day-to-day realities.
Several industry-specific services which have sprung into action in response to COVID have brought particular mental health and wellbeing themes to the surface, whilst also pointing to shifts underway within the industry.
Bron Batten is a Melbourne-based theatre-maker, performer and producer, and one of the administrators of the Facebook group Australian Arts Amid COVID. She explained how the group has come to prominence as a vital support service for many creative professionals during the pandemic.
‘The group was founded by Perth-based artist Alex Desebrock back in March when everything first started to hit,’ Batten said.
‘Initially Alex intended it as a way for her personal network of artist friends and contacts to stay in touch and support each other as everything was changing – but it just took off.’
‘After a few days there were about 300 members, then after a week there were 5,000, and now we have around 18,000 members.’
The group is so large that there are currently 25 administrators who share the workload of post moderation and identifying common concerns which they use to inform ongoing strategic support responses and advocacy.
‘We’ve found it has attracted a large number of independent practitioners from all art forms,’ Batten said.
‘Initially people were sharing a lot of practical concerns,’ she continued. ‘Answering each other’s questions about negotiating Centrelink and government online systems and supporting each other through those processes.
‘But also there was a huge sense of people’s relief and gratitude at being able to maintain regular social connections with peers,’ she said.
‘Our industry is inherently social,’ Batten explained. ‘There is so much interaction that happens at shows and openings, so missing out on those frequent incidental interactions has been very hard.’
As well as filling the void left by the lack of routine in-person exchanges, Batten said the Australian Arts Amid COVID group is allowing expanded networks and more cross-art form ties to develop.
‘Before COVID, we did have a tendency to silo ourselves off in our own art forms. So what’s been really important about the group is that those silos have come down and there’s a much greater feeling of inclusivity and community across art forms.’
As well as leaving some old industry cliques behind, Batten has also identified a call for change around longstanding unhealthy workplace practices.
‘There’s a recognition that pre-COVID [arts industry] workplace issues like burnout, exhaustion and exploitation cannot continue and there’s a lot of dialogue around finding new ways of working,’ Batten said.
‘I think there’s a sense that no one wants it to go back to the way it was before.’
TOWARDS NEW WAYS OF WORKING
Perth-based clinical psychologist (and former actor) Sarah Borg is also aware of how particular workplace cultures in the arts can have adverse impacts on people’s mental health.
Borg’s practice, Greenroom Psychology, was established in 2017 with the intention of providing specialist support for anyone involved in the creative and entertainment industries. Since setting up her practice Borg has noticed arts industry attitudes changing towards a greater acknowledgement of individuals’ mental health needs.
‘If you look across the industry in the last couple of years there’s certainly greater appetite for these concepts of self-care being a professional skill now,’ she said.
‘It’s also being more widely recognised that having a sustainable and long-lasting career [in the arts] is not an end point of a lot of burnout and running yourself into the ground early on.
‘I think COVID has accelerated a lot of those ideas. So in some ways it has been a big fast forward for us to a point of change – we might achieve that change in less time, which will be a positive for the industry in relation to mental health.’
Most recently, Borg has been involved in a COVID-response artist support service named The Connection Project in WA, which, as the name suggests, was designed to keep Western Australian creatives as connected as possible during lockdowns and COVID.
Initiated and funded by the Perth Festival and Circuitwest (a service organisation for the performing arts in Western Australia), The Connection Project ran for two months over April and May, delivering a series of weekly, discussion-based group Zoom sessions for WA arts practitioners located anywhere in the world, led by three clinical psychologists (including Borg).
Borg describes the design of the initial sessions as ‘like entering an emergency room but being welcomed there with warm open arms.’ She said the project was not intended to offer counselling or psychological consults, but was more of a way for people to feel heard and supported in a safe community.
‘It’s interesting,’ Borg commented, ‘as creative practitioners we are very good at being nimble. But when the pandemic first hit, we naturally went into a state of high stress, and we momentarily forgot that.
‘Some of the dialogue that came out during the first weeks of The Connection Project included reminding ourselves of those abilities, and remembering that as creatives, we are routinely capable of working in uncertain and changing conditions,’ she said.
‘At the same time, we needed to remind ourselves that in times of such high-level stress we can’t function as we normally would. So, the show must not go on in these times. It’s actually very important to recognise that and find ways to practice compassion in those situations.’
One of the notable theme that came up during The Connection Project’s sessions was a strong sense of grief around artists and arts workers being perceived to be inessential workers, Borg explained.
‘This came out as people were confronted by public sentiments that artists shouldn’t expect government COVID support because their jobs aren’t really “proper jobs”… And those comments were against the backdrop of everyone in lockdown bingeing on Netflix and being such huge consumers of artists’ work,’ she said.
‘So the realisation that there is a lack of value placed on the work of arts industry workers in the country was something that I think we were all grappling with.
‘But The Connection Project provided a useful means for people to deal with some of those negative feelings, through sharing and helping others in the group.’
As well as building stronger ties within and across the local sector, The Connection Project seems to have encouraged greater awareness of personal mental health strategies for the individuals involved.
‘Through the conversations, some people made discoveries about themselves and their coping mechanisms that they might not have made otherwise, so that’s a very positive outcome that will hopefully be useful for those individuals long term,’ Borg said.
‘The project was so much about maintaining social connections and staying in touch with a strong and supportive [WA arts sector] community,’ she concluded.
The Connection Project is now reviewing the experiences of those involved to help inform effective industry-specific support structures into the future.
Like the Australian Arts Amid COVID Facebook group, The Connection Project has revealed some of the particular nuances within the sector around mental health and wellbeing, while providing much needed (virtual) social frameworks for gatherings and dialogue to continue during crisis periods.
As Batten explained: ‘Social connection, solidarity and community are the resounding ideas that keep coming back to us as the most important things it [the Australian Arts Amid COVID Facebook group] has done for people during this time.
‘Everyone has had a different experience of the crisis, but a very strong sense of inclusiveness has come out of it, which we hope can be used to find ways to do things better in the future.’