17 March 2020

Event organisers sweat on arts ministers' coronavirus meeting

| Ian Bushnell
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Photograph shows ballerina dancing on stage as Cinderella

Canberra Theatre is taking advice on how to deal with the coronavirus situation. Photos: George Tsotsos.

Event organisers and arts organisations will be looking to Thursday’s meeting of the nation’s arts ministers for certainty as music festivals, concerts and other performances continue to fall like dominos to the coronavirus containment measures.

An ACT Government spokesperson said Minister for the Arts Gordon Ramsay will be meeting with his Federal and State counterparts to discuss the implications of event cancellations as many warn of job losses and organisations themselves face closure, particularly if the threshold for mass gatherings is reduced from 500.

He said the ACT Government Solicitor was providing advice to Government-owned assets such as the Canberra Theatre on the legal implications of closures, including cancellation of contracts.

“Decisions being made across Australia to help ‘flatten the curve’ in regards to the spread of COVID-19 will significantly impact a number of industries, including events, arts and entertainment,” the spokesperson said.

“Further discussions on mass gatherings will continue at the National Cabinet level. This includes further discussions on what Federal support may be made available and ensuring that the ACT’s approach is in line with other jurisdictions.

“We are working with event organisers, clubs, venues and artists to support them to develop a detailed list of upcoming events that may be postponed or cancelled.”

Uncertainty about liabilities, contractual obligations and insurance cover has seen organisations and some event organisers hesitate before committing to cancelling their events.

National Folk Festival managing director Helen Roben said the event had to wait on official confirmation of the ban on mass gatherings of over 500 people before announcing the festival was off.

“It would have been easier to manage our stakeholders had that directive come sooner,” she said. “We’ve been inundated across all our stakeholder groups, asking ‘what are you doing?’ And we’ve had to follow due process and try to find levels of clarity around our position as a festival within the Territory.”

Helen Roben

National Folk Festival managing director Helen Roben will initially be looking for support in the Federal stimulus package, as well as from the ACT Government. Photo: Supplied.

Ms Roben said the Festival would need help and as a small business it was initially looking to access whatever is available through the Federal Government’s stimulus package.

“There’s a stimulus package already on the table so let’s utilise that because we would love an injection of cash, and we are the National Folk festival so why would we not take advantage of something that is on offer?”

The Festival would also be looking for support from the ACT Government and relief from a commercial point of view from its suppliers.

But Ms Roben said support may not necessarily only come from government, saying the private sector could provide help in kind or through seed funding.

“There could be philanthropic dollars out there that needs to be utilised now that we’re in this state of emergency and flux at a business level,” she said.

Ms Roben said organisations needed to be creative and collaborate and share ideas with businesses about how they could confirm their long-term financial sustainability.

“I really do think it is a time for the community to work together across all levels. It’s community collaboration that’s going to be most helpful at this point.”

The reality is that half the Festival’s workforce, about five employees, will lose their jobs, and while staging next year’s Festival will have to be uppermost in mind, Ms Roben said no one knew where the ACT would be in six to eight months’ time.

Canberra Symphony Orchestra CEO Rachel Thomas agrees with Ms Roben that it is time to get creative, exemplified by the CSO recording a performance of Saint Saens’ Organ Symphony with organist Joseph Nolan to share online with audiences who would have turned out this week at Llewellyn Hall.

She said the CSO was thinking creatively about moving forward and supporting its musicians in whatever way it can so they can continue to perform together, depending on the limits on mass gatherings.

The CSO was still coming to grips with the financial implications of the coronavirus mitigation measures, and how the orchestra could continue within its funding framework it had, but Ms Thomas had been heartened by many orchestra supporters donating their ticket values rather than seeking refunds.

“We’ve always had to be pretty nimble and agile with the sorts of things that we do with the funding we have,” she said. “These unfortunate circumstances present us with an opportunity to think about things very differently.”

Rachel Thomas

CEO of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra Rachel Thomas. Photo: Martin Ollman.

Ms Thomas said the arts ministers’ meeting would be crucial for understanding the position of artists in this crisis.

“We play a big part in employing musicians and staff and discussion around ways to support our artist is very important, for the industry as a whole, not just the CSO,” she said.

“I am confident we’ll get some pretty creative solutions from a lot of organisations.”

The Street Theatre Artistic Director Caroline Stacey said there needed to be clarity about public gatherings, what measures are in place and for how long, as well as what support will be available for those affected.

She said the sector employed many sole traders, suppliers and freelancers who were not salaried but depended on project and casual work.

“We obviously want to see people able to live and survive over the next four to six months,” she said.

There were very pragmatic practical questions that had to be addressed such as welfare and sickness benefits, and insurance cover, Ms Stacey said.

The Street was working through its program week by week and had so far cancelled or postponed 30 individual events, including the Canberra Comedy Festival.

The next step after the ministers’ meeting is to talk to the ACT Government.

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