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Back on stage
In nearly three years as Commonwealth Arts Minister I’ve been lucky to see some very special shows: Hamilton and Come from Away in Sydney, Moulin Rouge the Musical in Melbourne, Midsummer Night’s Dream in Adelaide, Queensland Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty in Brisbane, Alice (in Wonderland) in Perth, Sunset Strip in Wodonga, The Gospel According to Paul at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre and the amazing Electric Fields playing at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Awards in Darwin.
But like many others I’ve found it immensely frustrating that for the past couple of years there have been extensive periods when venues were shut, performances cancelled and artists were losing their gigs.
Things are certainly improving. It was great to get to some Sydney Festival shows recently - including Girl From The North Country and Wudjang: Not the Past - and wonderful that these shows proceeded despite the moronic efforts by the ‘useful idiots’ choosing to advance the agenda of murderous Palestinian terrorist organisation Hamas by trying to sabotage this important festival.
But the impact of COVID on the arts sector has been severe - and it is important that we work to stimulate and support the sector to recover.
This is why the Morrison Government has worked to provide targeted support to the arts and entertainment sector through initiatives such as our $200 million RISE fund and our $59 million COVID-19 Arts Sustainability Fund, on top of the general economic assistance we provided through JobKeeper.
RISE aims to get arts events up and running again, as the full title of the program suggests: Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand. The purpose of the Sustainability Fund is to support systemically important arts companies whose viability was threatened by COVID, and whose loss would have hollowed out the entire sector.
For example, Opera Australia—which employs more than 400 arts workers and in a normal year delivers hundreds of performances across Sydney, Melbourne and other cities—was forced to cancel its winter season in 2021, and postpone its production of Phantom of the Opera.
In response, our government provided $10 million of support from the Sustainability Fund - on top of more than $13 million in JobKeeper payments.
As well as Opera Australia, the Sustainability Fund has supported organisations like Melbourne Theatre Company, Queensland Ballet, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Circa Contemporary Circus, National Institute of Dramatic Art, and the Australian Ballet School. These organisations are critical to our national arts identity, not just because of the important cultural contribution they make, but also because of the specialised resources and capabilities they offer which would have been lost if the organisation had been lost —something we were never going to allow to happen.
So far the six rounds of RISE have seen grant funding of $180 million distributed in 450 grants for shows all across Australia. The impact has been powerful and diverse. RISE has funded big musicals (Hamilton, Come from Away, Moulin Rouge, Harry Potter, The Wedding Singer, Westside Story, 9-5 the Musical); festivals (Adelaide Festival, Melbourne Fringe, Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, Perth International Arts Festival etc); music festivals (Byron Bay Bluesfest, Yours and Owls Festival, Falls Music and Arts Festival etc); tours by big name bands (Guns ‘n Roses; KISS, Keith Urban etc); theatre (Terrapin Puppet Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company); classical music (Australian Ensemble (AVÉ) - National tour 2022, Das Rheingold, Opera at the WACA – Carmen, Australian Chamber Orchestra Studiocasts); jazz and folk music (National Folk Festival, Perth International Jazz Festival, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues Artistic Program etc); literature (Byron Writers Festival 2021, Blue Mountains Writers' Festival Reboot) - and much else besides.
RISE is supporting jobs for arts workers across Australia - and when you go and see a show you probably go to a bar or cafe or restaurant, you might stay a night in a hotel, you might even jump on a plane to go interstate to see a big musical. So RISE is generating jobs in lots of other industries as well.
The Morrison Government wants the arts to be accessible and available to all Australians - and RISE is a powerful way of achieving that.
But we have also shaken up the business as usual arts funding, delivered through the Australia Council. There used to be thirty so-called Major Performing Arts companies, which got the lion’s share of the money.
We have added eight new organisations around the country - and changed the rules so it is no longer a case of being in the club for life. If your company is in what is now called the National Performing Arts Partnership Framework, you know that your performance is monitored - and if you do not maintain it you could be out and another organisation could take your place.
A big reason we did this is the Morrison Government’s belief that the arts should be for everybody, not just those in the inner city areas of our capital cities. It is no coincidence the eight new organisations include those based in the Northern Territory and regional Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria.
I am a big believer in the inherent value of the performing arts and its importance to our community and national identity. But I also believe in the economic importance of the cultural and creative sector - and its role in our economic recovery and continuing prosperity.
Clear principles underpin both the Morrison Government’s ‘business as usual’ arts funding and our COVID-specific funding support for the arts. We respect the inherent value of the arts; we recognise the economic importance and job-generating power of the cultural and creative sector; and we seek to make the arts more accessible and available to all Australians, not just a privileged minority in our inner cities.
As Minister for the Arts, I want to see the arts in Australia storming back; to see strong ticket sales and great experiences for audiences and renewed opportunities for those who make their living in the arts.
It has been a tough couple of years for the arts and entertainment sector - but the future is beginning to look brighter than it has for quite a while.
This article appeared online in ArtsHub on 21 February 2022