In times of crisis, we turn to the arts. Now the arts is in crisis – and Scott Morrison is silent

Benjamin Law
Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA

Across Australian cities and towns, street lamp banners advertise exhibitions no one can attend and film festivals that will never happen. It has only taken days for the coronavirus to obliterate programs that took years to produce. Now in our increasingly empty streets, it’s as if these banners herald events scheduled to take place in some parallel universe.

In that parallel universe, Torch the Place – the play I wrote for the Melbourne Theatre Company – would’ve wrapped up its sold-out season this week. We’d be celebrating closing night. Instead our actors are taking curtain calls on Instagram and we’re asking ticket holders who missed out to consider donating their ticket to cover costs and keep the theatre alive.

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Our production is one of the lucky ones. On Wednesday, Melbourne Theatre Company cancelled its next six productions. Melbourne international comedy festival has closed its curtains. Sydney’s Vivid festival has switched off its lights. Programmers, directors and producers haven’t made the right decision. They’ve made the only decision.

What we’re left with – at last count – is at least 255,000 events now cancelled across Australia, with an estimated combined income loss of $280m. With coronavirus cases only anticipated to climb – now projected to peak in August 2020 – the only thing guaranteed is that those eye-watering losses to the arts will deepen.

One person who’s felt that loss personally is my friend and colleague Patrick Howard, a Sydney-based freelance theatre artist. On the day Australia banned “non-essential” gatherings of over 100 people, Patrick had two hours of phone calls, emails and Zoom video conferences in which his remaining wages for 2020 disappeared.

What hurt more was that 2020 was to be the first year Patrick finally pulled off working full-time as an artist. When I ask if he’s tallied up his lost earnings yet, he laughs grimly and says he’d been avoiding it. But he’s done the sums for me now. All up, he lost $32,000 in those two hours alone.

It doesn’t matter what sector we work in and where we live: no human being will be left untouched by Covid-19 by the time it finishes boiling its way through our communities. In the meantime, we’re in survival mode. After taking stock of whether we have enough toilet paper, groceries and medical supplies, our next instinct is to seek comfort – anything to settle our heart rate and combat the stultifying dread and silence of self-isolation.

In our most dire hours, art keeps us sane, lights the dark and ensures we stay human

And we always find that comfort in the arts.

Video games? The arts.

Comfort novels? The arts.

Streaming TV? The arts.

Podcasts? The arts.

Chillout music? The arts.

In our most dire hours, art keeps us sane, lights the dark and ensures we stay human. Even now, artists are stepping up to help us and their colleagues by entertaining us for free. At last weekend’s Isolaid festival, 76 Australian musicians played free 20-minute sets to raise money not for themselves, but for industry non-profit Support Act; globally, Moses Sumney and Robbie Williams have been doing live karaoke, classical music organisations are streaming online concerts, and Madonna is doing spoken word from her bath.

We rely on the arts, but in Australia, conservative governments have had a consistent allergy to robust its funding, often happily cutting funds and resources with the implication the arts are some luxurious indulgence. Only last December, the Morrison government folded the arts department entirely and absorbed it into a portfolio that didn’t even bear its name: the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. That department also oversees road and rail.

All world governments now are in a state of desperate triage, but some have immediately stepped up for the arts. New Zealand quickly announced multimillion-dollar help for artists. When Germany neared 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the culture minister immediately promised financial assistance. Canada budgeted to pay musicians $1,000 grants to livestream gigs.

Australia is following suit, to a modest extent. Some state and territory governments have announced new initiatives to support artists and organisations, but the federal government is still missing in action.

Meanwhile, Australian airlines are scheduled to receive a $715m bailout. And while it’s never fair to directly compare sectors, it’s worth noting Australian airlines contribute an estimated $18.42bn to the Australian economy every year. According to the government’s own figures, Australian arts and culture contributes $111.7bn over the same period.

How we can best support artists and the arts will become clearer in the weeks and months ahead. Already it’s likely your local independent bookshop offers free delivery within certain postcodes, with staff delivering books by bicycle. We should pay musicians directly for their music instead of streaming it. Bandcamp recently waived fees for 24 hours to ensure artists got all the money directly.

Related: Coronavirus: Australia's performing arts industry 'could be brought to the brink'

In the meantime, Patrick Howard is administering paperwork for Centrelink and preparing to move from Sydney to his parents’ place in the country. His recommendation? Check in on your friends who work in the arts. “Make sure they’re OK,” he says. “We’re quite sensitive people, always on the brink of disaster. And now it’s really hit.”

In times of crisis, humans turn to art for help. It’s vital we help the arts through – and on the other side of – this. For those of us fortunate enough to come out of this physically unharmed, it’s likely our mental health will be shattered. The arts will help.

Staying indoors and washing our hands will help us survive. Protecting the arts will help us live.