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'Crabs in a bucket': Arts industry ponders grim future post pandemic

Culture

Senior Australian arts figures fear so many artists are ditching their craft and switching to jobs like real estate, that the national arts industry may take decades to recover.

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The mass exodus also meant performance-starved audiences may suffer “cultural amnesia”, while the remaining players in the industry had to stop behaving like “crabs in a bucket” in the fight for funding and attention if the industry was to survive, they warned.

Queensland playwright and director Wesley Enoch, who has returned to Brisbane after five years as director of the Sydney Festival, said the “double whammy” of ongoing pandemic shutdowns and decimation of artists and performer numbers meant the nation was losing its cultural core.

Delivering the brutal assessment about the future of the arts at Griffith University’s In Conversation series held at the Gold Coast’s Home of the Arts (HOTA) Monday evening, Enoch said after 18 months of cancellations, closures and restrictions of performances, festivals, tours and events, the arts in Australia was facing a moment of reckoning.

“It’s not just the performers who are going into other industries,” Enoch said.

“We are seeing an exodus of experience and expertise from the arts that I just hope we’ll be able to replenish.”

Veteran actor, artist and creative director Rhoda Roberts, who recently stepped down after nine years as head of Indigenous Programming at the Sydney Opera House, said the loss of artists and audiences had to be stemmed.

“My fear is, I hope that cultural amnesia doesn’t spread across this county,” Roberts said.

“We need to get back to regaining our artists and their faith in the industry. But you can work in real estate and do really well so why would you go back?

“We can’t lose our artists. Our artists are the people who give us depth, our artists do the truth telling and they give us an escape when we need an escape.”

Roberts said the arts could not go back to the same way of operating.

“We really have to look at what shackles us,” she said.

“We’re constantly having to convince people that the arts is more than simply sitting in a theatre. We have to shift our mindset.

“It’s quite a difficult thing when you’ve got fires, or you’ve got people dying or in ill health due to a pandemic, or you’ve got people losing their homes or their jobs to the point of being homeless or living in their car, and then we come along and go ‘we want funding to put on this arts thing.’

“So, we have to do more to enable the community to know what art actually brings and unpack it, because they just see it as frivolous up against some very severe issues in housing education, health that we all have to deal with.”

Enoch said the pandemic was an opportunity for the arts to reboot given “more people went to museums and art galleries than go to sporting events in Australia”.

“It’s not just the value of the arts but the values that we hold,” he said.

“The pandemic offers us an opportunity to reset and re-articulate some of those values, but it’s difficult because we’ve been placed as crabs in a bucket, as old uncle would say.

“Like crabs in a bucket we’re pulling each other down – anyone who gets up gets pulled down.

“Arts has lost the reason why we exist, we’re just there because we’ve always been there and it’s time for us to reinvigorate why the arts is here and the pandemic gives us the opportunity to do that.”

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