We're in lockdown again, and the start of the pandemic - way back last year - is now all but lost in a distant fog of bad memories.
For most of us, that is; for those in arts sector, it's impossible to forget the trauma of watching plans, dreams, job opportunities and hope all but extinguished as Australia - and the rest of the world - bunkered down for months of hibernation.
Although much of Australia had opened up again and was thriving until recently, the pandemic has been especially challenging for the Canberra arts community. While last year theatres could stream content and art galleries could mail purchased items, options are far more limited during this more severe lockdown.
But institutions, leaders and artists have been dealing with this uncertain and difficult reality in various ways, ranging from providing support to members to continuing activities online where possible. And despite a loss of income and many having to postpone and reschedule events and (usually temporarily) lay off staff, many remain active and optimistic.
There's a sense the arts community is providing support for its members where it can - not just financially but in terms of emotional and psychological support in a time that's very uncertain and an industry that largely relies on contact with each other and a live audience - whether it's a play, a concert, an exhibition or some other event.
Taking on a new position in an arts organisation is a challenge. Doing so during COVID-19 is even more of a challenge, especially when there's a lockdown imposed. Not only are audience numbers affected but so are staff, revenues and artists. And given the uncertainty, making plans can only be tentative, at best.
Events and exhibitions have to be cancelled, postponed and extended, staff have been (usually temporarily) laid off and where possible there's been an increased focus on digital content, via websites and social media. At least that's something - not so very long ago such tools were not available and the silence really would have been deafening.
Canberra Theatre Centre director Alex Budd took on his job not long before the coronavirus struck last year. It played havoc with the 2020 schedule, but the theatre centre was still able to put on some programming, including specially created digital content, to keep things going.
This time, things are different.
"We have many ideas for digital programming, but we are in a different situation to last year's closure, where we could work in the theatre without live audiences," Budd says.
"Currently neither our staff nor any artists can access the centre, but we are keeping in touch with patrons electronically with streaming suggestions from our back catalogue and by some of our favourite artists and companies.
"When we know more about the path out of lockdown and the possible timing of the steps to COVID normal, we will work closely with ACT Health to develop plans to safely connect with our audiences again."
The Canberra Theatre Centre is 75 per cent self-funded and usually receives about $3.1 million from the ACT Government through annual Cultural Facilities Corporation funding.
Visit canberratheatrecentre.com.au to access the suggestions.
At least Budd had last year as experience. Both Craft ACT's chief executive officer Jodi Cunningham and Tuggeranong Arts Centre's acting chief executive Karena Keys took on their positions just weeks before the lockdown was imposed. Stephen Payne became director of Megalo Print Studio at the end of April, coming from Melbourne, so he didn't have much longer.
Payne says, "Everything so far is going really well ... This wasn't the shock that came last year."
When the recent lockdown was announced, Megalo staff did not simply go home. They spent some busy hours filming the current exhibition by Tony Curran to create an online tour, as well as displaying individual works, before the deadline.
Orders for works can be placed online but delivery will be delayed.
There is also an online intaglio exhibition containing works both from Australia and internationally.
Craft ACT has been particularly unfortunate: it's marking its 50th year at a far from celebratory time. Cunningham says in 2020 online sales had increased - but this year with no access to works this income stream had temporarily halted.
Keys - whose previous role was running the centre's gallery - says dryly, "It was an interesting time to come into the role."
"It appears our combined ACT government funding is approximately $1 million," she says. "This does not go incredibly far once you take out total staffing costs of around $960,000 and building and equipment costs that keep the doors open.
"Together [dance class] Fresh Funk and venue hire contribute approximately $200,000 to the budget although at this stage we don't know the ultimate impact of this lockdown and how long it will go on, any changes to their success is felt in the opportunities we can provide. Leena Wall is able to keep our dance community together online, however lockdown and restrictions do affect class numbers.
"Because of our lockdown experience last year, we have been able to transition some elements of our program online."
TAC's Messengers program for at-risk youth will continue with art kits sent to students so that they can create together online.
On a lighter note, comedian Chris Ryan is running her scheduled weekly workshops online via TAC until mid-September. See: tuggeranongarts.com.
To help keep people active, Ausdance ACT has also created online content with dance performances to watch and classes on its website. ausdanceact.org.au.
But it's hard to stay positive with things are so uncertain. The Street Theatre is supporting artists with a specially designed project.
The Street's arts program producer, Shelly Higgs, says the events of last year moved to ask artists what they needed. Higgs says that "there was an overwhelming need for connection with other people.
"They needed a framework to know how to move forward."
The result was Re-Storying: The Resilience Project, supported by ACT Health, that began in July. The six-module program from arts facilitator Zsuzsi Soboslay is open to artists in the ACT region and beyond whose livelihood and mental health have been affected by COVID-19. The modules incorporate bodywork, breathwork, tension-release, arts-centred activities, and the remodelling of ideas. See: the street.org.au.
"It helps people with their well-being by focusing on their strengths as artists - they have many strengths in many different ways," Higgs says.
Artistic director Caroline Stacey says she doesn't think this year's lockdown has been as bad as the one in 2020. "At least we knew what to expect," she says.
The Street gets about half its funding from the government. Stacey says staff have been busy reorganising schedules. The next First Seen play development session will be online on Friday, September 10 at 5pm for David Atfield's new work Just Wrong.
Among those who work for The Street are visual artist and photographer Abbey Mackay and her husband, videographer and musician Liam Budge, as Creswick Collective (creswickcollective.com) creating images and films of its activities.
Mackay - a native Canberran who met her husband when both were studying at the ANU School of Music - says being in lockdown with their son Julian, who's nearly three, has been challenging.
She felt Re-Storying was helpful in helping her and other artists feel valued and valuable during a time of great pressure that caused "a creative identity crisis".
The government is also putting its money where its mouth is in other ways to support the arts. An ACT government spokesperson says, "Each year, the ACT Government provides over $10 million in funding to the arts sector" and so far it has provided more than $7.6 million in total COVID-19 support."
In addition to providing COVID-19 Organisational Emergency Response Funding, it gave and financed rent breaks for tenants of government-owned buildings.
"Artists, as well as arts organisations, were directly supported during COVID-19. The HOMEFRONT funding program was developed to support individual artists in response to the impact of COVID-19."
It supported 125 artists with a total of $953,000. More than $700,000 from the ACT and federal governments has been committed to stimulating employment and economic growth.
All of the above organisations have various levels of government arts funding. Private, unfunded institutions face their own challenges.
Susie Beaver, co-director of Beaver Galleries (beavergalleries.com.au) with her husband Martin since 1992, says, "We have to be optimistic," despite thinking, "It's early days" in terms of coronavirus.
"Last year ended up a good year - people were very supportive and turned online," she says. They have extended the current shows until September 19 in the hope lockdown will end soon.
Nancy Sever, who established her gallery in 2014 (nancysevergallery.com.au) says in 2020 lockdown she was able to hold private viewings and sell works.
This year, despite the stricter lockdown, "I'm busier than ever on the computer. I get a lot of inquiries."
She says many people ask her for advice on art and she does what she can to help.
And she's had karmic reward, with support from artists and from her landlord.
Sever's attitude towards what she does will resonate with many artists. "I don't see it as a job, I see it as a way of life."
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