15 May 2020

Arts organisations look to the post-COVID-19 future with hope and flexibility

| Genevieve Jacobs
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CSO brass

CSO brass players are among the musicians hoping to return to work post-COVID-19. Photo: Lindi Heap.

How do you keep the community engaged with the arts and creativity when gallery doors are closed, concert halls are shut and theatres are silent? And how quickly can you turn that all back on when restrictions ease?

It’s been a huge challenge for Canberra’s arts organisations large and small, from the likes of the National Gallery to the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and Ainslie + Gorman Arts Centres (which house 40 resident artists and organisations).

The answers have been all about flexibility and adaptation that the organisations hope will also pay dividends as restrictions ease.

The CSO was just about to begin rehearsals for their first mainstage concert of the year when everything shut down. CEO Rachel Thomas says while they knew it was likely, the impact was nevertheless powerful. With no venue at Llewelyn Hall, they pivoted fast to make the most of their audience’s last opportunity to hear the orchestra, working with the ANU School of Music sound engineers to record the concert for YouTube.

Henri Matisse

Works by Henri Matisse at the NGA. Photo: National Gallery of Australia.

It was the same for the NGA.

Caught midstream during their major Matisse & Picasso Exhibition after a horror summer of bushfires, smoke and hail, the black pillow slips came out to cover the artworks and the doors of one of the country’s most important art spaces closed.

“We had to think about how we could make this audience stay with us even if they cannot come physically,” says Natasha Bullock, the gallery’s assistant director, curatorial and programs.

“In monumental time, we turned our efforts to the digital space. We put love back into the community by commissioning artists to make activity sheets, videos, any home platform even if people can’t come into the building.”

In any ordinary week, the Ainslie + Gorman Arts Centres juggle 150 separate room bookings for everything from dance classes to choirs, along with the artists and organisations based in their premises. But Joseph Falsone says that in some ways the public health aspect was the most manageable part of the crisis as it was immediately clear what had to happen.

An Ainslie + Gorman performance space

The Ainslie + Gorman performance spaces have been empty during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo: File.

Working out what to do next was the big challenge, including how to help people migrate their work online and manage the welfare of staff.

All three organisations make the salient point that arts practise doesn’t turn on and off like a tap: exhibitions, performances and events take time to schedule, organise, rehearse and manage, and many in the sector work from project to project rather than having a single steady income source.

What’s resulted for the institutions is a longer-term focus: the CSO had been hoping that they might be performing later this year but Rachel Thomas says, instead, they’re looking towards both 2021 and 2022.

“We’ve revisited the 2020 program and will focus on engaging with the community, keeping enrichment present,” she says, adding that one aim is to ensure that “the musicians are still active enough that they have calluses on their fingers so they can get back and play. In our own small way, we’re trying to keep our community active.”

With the benefit of long-term institutional planning, the NGA has shifted programs like the major Know My Name initiative to recognise women artists into next year.

“We’re very focussed on families at home,” Tash Bullock says. “On-site programs are now online for primary, secondary and tertiary students so they can be delivered for several months. There’s also a focus on our team … across the organisation, people have shown great courage and camaraderie.”

Conversations with government remain important because they will dictate not only when activity resumes but also how another potential shutdown might work. There’s also a general sense that conversations in the arts have shifted from ambitions, projects and desires to what artists need to function and how they can fill social needs.

Rachel Thomas suggests that people who want to help can donate the cost of their concert tickets, going some way towards ameliorating the CSO’s massive loss in income and extending that to purchasing art sector gifts and merchandise wherever possible.

Tash Bullock says that as we glimpse the end of lockdowns, “I see a radical shift to the local, to our culture, to Australians stories and the people around us. I hope we’ll see that the people most affected are artists, look after those communities and keep them as buoyant as possible”.

Joseph Falsone is also optimistic about the future.

“People will continue to make art and experience culture,” he says. “Artists are resilient and used to dealing with all sorts of difficulties … creativity can come from that. The emphasis on local is important, people will want to be together again.”

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