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Changes in the arts: an interview with Claire Spencer

06 May 2020

Changes in the arts: an interview with Claire Spencer Image

By Meg Hill

The arts sector could be very different in a post-COVID-19 world. It’s too early to trace the exact contours of that future, but its possibilities are being explored at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Its CEO Claire Spencer AM spoke to Southbank News about the organisation’s experience of the lockdown, the impact on employment, the logistics of opening back up and potential changes in arts creation and consumption.

“Our work during the lockdown has changed a lot over the seven weeks,” she said.

“The first three to four weeks was very much about the crisis and people, cancelling performances, refunding tickets, it was very intense, and we have 1000 people who work at the Arts Centre and up until very recently we were communicating with them every day.”

“It was a very intense period, utterly relentless and exhausting. We were constantly having to think about big decisions and while not having perfect information.”

“But now we’re very much thinking about the future and not just about reopening the venues but about how this is going to change us as an organisation and how it’s going to change our audiences.”

Of the 1000 employees, 600 are casuals. This is typical in the sector, even for big state-funded institutions.

“When we closed obviously their work dried up because they’re very much attached to those events and audiences,” Claire said.

“When we closed on that Sunday night, we committed to paying them for the roster period of two weeks.”

“We held out a lot of hope about the JobKeeper payments, but it was a blow when it was made clear that State-owned organisations wouldn’t be supported, that was a big kick in the guts for us and our casuals.”

Claire said the Arts Centre was assisting those casuals with JobSeeker and Work for Victoria and had staffed someone to help those employees navigating Centrelink – knowing that many of those now reliant on welfare had never been before.

“The last thing we’re trying to do to help those casuals is get them redeployment somewhere else in the public service,” Claire said.

As for the other 400 employees, Claire said those with jobs that could be managed from home were working remotely, and those who couldn’t were being paid salary maintenance – one lifeline the Arts Centre has been able to grasp due to its public service stature.

But Claire also told Southbank News that the impact of the pandemic extended far beyond the logistics of lockdown. Like most parts of our society, the arts industry will not be returning unchanged from this experience, both logistically and creatively.

“We are watching with great interest the research coming out of the US about audience preparedness to return to venues so there’s a practical side of what we will need to do to make that safe.”

“In terms of the actual work I think the whole digital space which has been so crucial in this time will become a real feature of our organisation from now on.”

During the pandemic Arts Centre Melbourne has introduced Together With You, a new digital initiative aimed at uplifting, comforting, educating and entertaining while the venues’ doors are closed.

The program includes free performance broadcasts, family activities, podcast and long-form articles and features never before seen items from the Australian Performing Arts Collection and the Australian Music Vault.

“We’d done a bit of this stuff before, but not on this scale, and I think it will be part of everything we do from now on,” Claire said.

“We don’t know for sure how everything will change but I also think there’s an element around how artists are perceived by the broader community.”

“I’m hoping everyone will reflect on what an artist actually is and how those working in the creative sector have sustained people’s mental health through books or Netflix series or whatever it is you used to keep entertained in isolation.”

On April 26, the state government announced a $16.8 million survival package providing immediate support to Victoria’s creative industries to sustain employment, develop new works and provide opportunities for creative community participation.

The package includes support for non-government arts and cultural organisations, as well as grants for independent creatives and micro-organisations with at least five years of professional experience.•

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