Arts in crisis in WA as survey finds COVID restrictions put 75% of sector at risk of closure

A survey by WA’s top arts sector body has painted a picture of an industry in crisis due to the impacts of COVID restrictions.

The survey had 296 industry respondents from regional and metropolitan areas and was conducted by the Chamber of Arts and Culture.

Alarmingly, between 58 and 63% of small and medium organizations said they would operate on reserves or would have to cease operations in the next 12 months.

While 75% of all organizations said they would not be able to continue operating on current revenue streams if there were new restrictions forcing shows and programs to be canceled.

Regional musicians are losers

Chamber executive director Kim Jameson said West Australian Music (WAM)’s recent announcement that it was letting its regional team go was proof of the fallout.

Kyron Smithson says he’s barely been able to pay his bills.(ABC Esperance: Madison Snow )

Kyron Smithson runs a small business, KyzaPresents, which coordinates much of the music industry in Esperance on the south coast of WA.

Mr Smithson said paid shows were the backbone of his business’ financial viability, but recent restrictions have prevented him from holding any this year, leading him to lose 90 per cent of his revenue compared to the same period last year.

He said he had been forced to dip into reserve funds.

Mr Smithson said WAM’s decision to ax its regional team was a ‘massive’ loss to the industry and that regional manager Nigel Bird, who lost his job in the cuts, had backed the Esperance musicians for years.

“He’s just someone I could turn to and talk about anything and everything and his work has created a lot of opportunities for Esperance artists,” Mr Smithson said.

Widespread impacts on mental health

The survey also revealed that 8,000 freelance artists, entrepreneurs and arts administrators were at risk of losing their jobs.

Perth-based singer-songwriter Michael Dunstan has toured Australia and the WA region frequently in the past and usually visits Esperance, Albany, Margaret River, Exmouth and his home town of Northam.

But for the first time, the 26-year-old was unable to support himself through music and was forced to put his career on hold to work full-time in retail.

“Working hard isn’t a problem, I just feel like with music it’s working towards something that gives me a lot of meaning and purpose in life,” he said.

The survey found that 58% of respondents had experienced mental health issues in the past two years and 91% of organizations were concerned about the well-being of staff and volunteers.

A man in a hat near the water.
Michael Dunstan says putting his music career on hold has had an impact on his mental health.(Provided.)

Mr Dunstan said the statistics did not surprise him.

Access to financing difficult for some

In the Goldfields, Stage Left Theater Troupe is a volunteer-run non-profit organization operating out of a quaint old building in Kalgoorlie-Boulder.

Stage Left vice-president Kylie Ward said the most recent restrictions and public hesitation had forced them to cancel their first show of the year.

“We couldn’t sell [tickets to] 50% of our audience anyway and then we had very few presales,” she said.

A guitarist wearing a red sweater stands with his back to the camera alongside other musicians in a recording studio.
The Arid Ones album with the WAM team at the Théâtre Bijou de l’Espérance.(ABC Esperance: Madison Snow)

Ms Ward said they had not been eligible for many government grants and were relying on ticket sales to pay for the shows, which cost up to $7,000.

“We are not commercial and we are small, so generally larger groups like large arts centers are eligible for funding, while smaller community-run ones it is a bit more difficult to try to access some of the relief funding,” she said. .

Like Mr Smithson, the cancellations had also forced the theater to dip into reserves to meet bills and building maintenance.

Calls for support

Ms Jameson said the chamber presented the inquiry to WA Arts and Culture Minister David Templeman and called for an immediate $30million stimulus package to help small organizations that lack access to financial support.

“We also call on local governments to support their local arts organizations,” she said.

The chamber also asked for $23 million for a long-term recovery program and $5 million to support independent traders and artists.

A statement from the minister’s office said the state government had awarded several grants this year to community groups, independent artists and organizations.

These included the $5 million Creative Communities Program, the $77 million Safe Transition Industry Support Program, the $1.8 million Nightclub Assistance Program and the $1.3 million Performing Arts, Theaters and Cinemas Assistance Program.

The statement said the department is working with the chamber and other stakeholders to determine the best mechanisms for future support.