COVID-19 impacts on the Australian arts industry


3rd August, 2020

State of the Australian arts industry: Impacts of COVID-19

One of Australia’s largest industries, the arts continues to be deeply impacted by closed borders and social distancing restrictions. Kellie Byrnes investigates.

The arts industry in Australia contributes over $111 billion a year to the economy and employs around 600,000 people – more than mining and aviation combined.

But in recent years, support for the sector has declined as the Government decreased spending to the arts.

Plus, at the end of 2019, the Federal Government eliminated the Department of Communications and the Arts. It was incorporated into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, and Communications.

Add this to more recent events and the fallout has been devastating. With so many artists and creatives working in fields requiring large audiences, the impact of restrictions has been immediate and resounding.

As Katherine Connor, executive director of Performing Arts Connections (PAC) Australia noted, it was “the first industry to be shut down and likely the last to start again”.

Three main barriers need overcoming, namely, “social distancing, economic impacts, and consumer confidence”.

Read on to find out how the Australian arts industry is faring under COVID-19, or click through to find out about available funding and stimulus support.

Performing arts

According to the June 2020 PAC Australia Update about the impact of COVID-19 on performing arts centres, dismissals occurred for 74.5 percent of the casual workforce.

Katherine Connor acknowledged, too, that “casual staff generally have more than one job. Their fall-back is often hospitality”.

With this industry hit so hard, too, these workers likely had most of their work dry up immediately.

Furthermore, at the time of the study, 55.3 percent of full-time/part-time staff were working at significantly reduced hours.

According to the report, in 2018/19, metropolitan and regional performing arts centres delivered more than 64,000 performances, with over 12 million attendances.

This activity provided $313 million in direct employment to local economies, which doesn’t even include those who earned income from related activities, such as local supplier contracts.

With all of the recent centre-related impacts, not to mention the independent, individual performances that occur annually, that leaves many workers facing financial hardship.


The outlook of the music industry is less rosy than at the beginning of the year.

The chief executive of ARIA, Dan Rosen, wrote about the impacts in an article for NME.

“COVID-19 will unquestionably impact industry revenues for 2020…We were certainly gearing up for another strong year of growth off the back of five straight years of growth and having our best year in 2019 since 2004,” Rosen wrote.

But then the pandemic hit.

The recorded music side of the business has been less impacted than the live sector, with demand still strong on subscription services and via audio-visual services like YouTube.

Yet, according to Rosen, “there is no doubt there will be a material impact from COVID-19”.

For the live sector side of things, though, the situation is worse.

“Artists have suffered a distressing loss of live income,” said Rosen. “During this crisis, many artists have been performing online for no money. That, to me, cannot be a sustainable model.

“We’ve worked for years to make sure that artists’ intellectual property is protected online and that people pay for music and recognise its value. It would be tragic if, overnight, we lost that.”

Worrying figures came via the I Lost My Gig Australia (ILMG) website, an initiative of the Australian Festivals Association and the Australian Music Industry Network.

It was established to quantify the immediate impact of the pandemic on live event and entertainment industries (mainly sole traders, casuals, and contractors).

As at 27 April, the total lost income reported by more than 12,600 respondents was $340 million, with the loss of almost 300,000 work opportunities.

Plus, 96 percent of participating sole traders and small businesses expect financial losses beyond September.


While many dance workers have been able to pivot to online processes in some way, losses are still the norm.

“While COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact for all dance businesses, many have experienced compound impact due to continued funding cuts to the Arts which have, over time, reduced sustainability and stability,” said Lizzie Vilmanis, a national VP of Ausdance.

Subsequently, “many dance businesses entered the COVID-19 pandemic without the in-built financial resilience to afford them time to step back and assess the unfolding events…and respond accordingly”.

Also, venues holding dances activities in person were forced to close.

“This had enormous financial implications, as generally, dance requires a lot of space and related leasing and maintenance costs are extremely high,” said Vilmanis.

Another problem for many is that much of their work is “subsidised by other jobs…either alongside, or in conjunction with their independent dance careers”.

With so many industries severely impacted by COVID-19, this means dancers have lost multiple income sources.

To learn more about the impacts, Ausdance QLD is currently collating initial results from a COVID-19 Impact Survey, which asked dance practitioners and related workers to share their experiences.

A recent update from the survey reports impacts on at least 1,753 workers, and at least $7.5 million in lost income.

Yet, Vilmanis highlighted the resilience and creativity of artists and their rapid innovations.

“The dance sector is skilled at finding ways to make things work when resources are limited, or parameters are changed… Many activities and services pivoted, shifting service and activity platforms online.”

While online activities and digital products did already occur in some capacity, Vilmanis recognised an enhanced appetite for those in the arts to adopt new technologies in order to reach remote audiences.

“[The] greater use of online and digital platforms increased opportunities for many to connect and interact across geographical distances.”

Literary arts

People in the literary sector haven’t been immune to the effects of COVID-19, either.

The chief executive of the Australian Society of Authors (ASA), Olivia Lanchester, admitted there isn’t yet much concrete data about the direct impact of the pandemic on authors and illustrators.

What’s clear is that “there was an immediate loss of income from cancelled school, library and festival appearances”.

Revenue from these events is how many authors make a living.

Another financial impact in the literary arts relates to royalties.

“Some authors are facing a reduction of income from royalties due to the temporary decline in book sales,” said Lanchester.

The impact of the coronavirus varies significantly among writers and is layered. For instance, Lanchester pointed to another area of concern – future sales.

“I think there will be a general slowdown that comes from uncertainty in the industry internationally.

“That’s a concern for authors doing something different, as publishers are likely to be more risk averse.

“We have heard anecdotally that there has been a slowdown of international rights sales and a deferring of some titles by publishers.”

Time will tell the extent of the impact. Vital information will come from the next royalty payment for creators, due late September.

“That’s the first royalty payment which will quantify the interruption in book sales… If you’re a new author without an established readership, I imagine it’s been a tough year to gain traction,” said Lanchester.

There is some good news, though, related to bookshop sales.

“Some retailers with online sales capabilities have reported strong sales throughout the lockdown, and booksellers have explored innovative new ways to reach their customers,” said Lanchester.

“Many bookshops have also pivoted to online events programming, hosting their usual book clubs, book launches, and in-conversation events via Zoom or social media, ensuring the promotion of new titles can continue, in some form.”

Continue on for information regarding funding support for arts industry sole traders and small businesses.