Reviving Melbourne’s arts sector calls for long-term plan from Victorian government

In early 2021, burlesque artist Moira Finucane declared it a ‘phoenix year’, one in which Melbourne’s arts communities would rise from the ashes of a COVID-ravaged 2020. Ahead of the end of lockdowns and restrictions, the state budget set a year. target of 1 million for the public at large performing arts organizations.

It turned out that the Melbourne pandemic was not over yet, and the total viewing figure for 2021-22 will be a fraction of that number, with less than 200,000 people. As Live Performance Australia chief Evelyn Richardson told: The age last monththe industry is facing another winter and summer touring season with COVID still circulating. All over Melbourne there are also signs of a marked change in behavior from the public, who are often reluctant to book ahead. For shows that need strong presale to guarantee a run, it’s a combination that can prove fatal.

Melbourne’s reputation as a cultural capital is all about depth, from La Mama to the State Theatre, from the quirky upstairs gallery at Motley Bauhaus in Carlton to the latest NGV blockbuster. The mixed results of our first Rising festival and the warm but vague commitments from the new federal government to rethink arts policy will not in itself be enough to restore confidence. A more comprehensive plan is needed for an arts district that weathered the storm by taking a collegiate approach to adversity, but was underfunded and undervalued by governments before the pandemic.

Just before COVID-19 hit the state, the Victorian government was poised to release the second iteration of its Creative State strategy. While it was a strong regional and First Nations policy, the four-year plan was intended to broaden, not save, the sector. Two years of crisis mean Spring Street has to go back to the drawing board and rethink how support for the arts will work, not just in the next five years, but the decade after that.

So far, insuring the industry against COVID losses has been tied to whether the government has activated its own restrictions. But this doesn’t take into account thousands of hours lost due to illness of performers and staff or the difficulty of restoring the audience. A new approach is needed that supports organizations, large and small, in taking risks to innovate, or something like the federal Rise program, minus the culture wars element that stuck with its decisions under the previous administration. It would also help if the federal Labor party recovered some of the losses suffered by the Australia Council over nine years of coalition government.

But the Andrews administration also needs to rethink its preference for large structures and large events and realize that the key to a healthier scene is providing stability for the vital asset of all art projects: people. Whether it’s helping artists with long-term leases in the CBD or supporting skilled workers to stay in the industry, this investment will be harder to spot than a new contemporary art gallery, but far more effective at supporting new job.

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Recovery takes time, and the Victorians’ pride in their art institutions and willingness to hit the road year round to support artists has not died down. But maybe the arts should meet them half way, literally. We’ve rediscovered our local areas and it’s good to expect the arts to respond by creating experiences closer to home, as a gateway to a still vibrant city center.

Funding for arts and culture has long been a politically difficult sell, despite the sector being a major driver of the economy and job creation. But at a time when we’re trying to revive downtown Melbourne, it’s an indispensable part of what has made this city so famous for being livable. If the state and federal governments can coordinate their actions, we might find our phoenix years after all.

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