Rebuilding SA’s creative industries requires more than a return to normal

A new report from the University of South Australia suggests the plight of Australia’s creative industries, both before and after COVID-19, indicates the nation needs a drastic rethink on how it values the sector – not just as a source of employment, but as an essential part of society. (Image source: Dan Boud/Sydney Opera House)  

By Jasmin Teurlings | @JasminTeurlings

Rebuilding South Australia’s creative industries after COVID-19 will require more than a ‘return to normal’ according to a new University of South Australia report.

The research reveals that cultural employment in the state had already flatlined before the pandemic, while this sector was still growing nationally – albeit moderately.

The same is true for wages which remain under the industry average with a significant over-representation in the $38,000 per annum income bracket.  

UniSA’s Professor in Creative Economy, Justin O’Connor, says the COVID-19 crisis has hit the sector which was already struggling after years of declining job security. 

“Right across Australia there has been a massive shift towards freelancing, but it has been really prevalent in the arts and cultural sector,” he said.

“If you count freelancing as an industry … then it is the third fastest growing. Which is why the JobKeeper has missed its mark for many.”

Almost one-in-five cultural workers have been ineligible for both the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments, according to a recent survey of more than one-thousand Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) members.  

Among these workers is local cabaret artist, Millicent Sarre, whose earnings totalled just $200 throughout May.

Sarre had planned to debut a show in the Adelaide Cabaret Festival this month and had a national tour lined up later in the year before these were subsequently cancelled or postponed.

“Up until this point I was able to generate the majority of my income from performing and producing, but I feel that I am the exception to that rule rather than the norm,” she said.

“I think that this entire situation has really put into perspective to the arts community how undervalued our sector is.

“We see that in public opinion, we see that in how often artists are asked to work for free, and we see that in government funding and budget cuts.

“It is going to take a really big overhaul of our industry for things to get better for artists.”   

Millicent Sarre performing in her show Friendly Feminism for the Mild Mannered

Professor O’Connor said this is a particular issue for South Australia, as the state continues to lose creative freelancers to the bigger agglomerations on the east coast – which now account for over three quarters of new jobs in design, advertising, architecture and creative freelancing. 

“If you are on three or four short-term contracts a year or running multiple contracts at the same time then you go to where the jobs are,” he said.

“You go to Melbourne or Sydney.” 

Sarre was facing that very proposition before state borders closed earlier this year.

Last year alone she had to travel to Melbourne and Sydney five or six times for auditions and other professional development opportunities.

“There are two great times to be an artist in Adelaide and that is during Fringe and the Cabaret Festival. Every other month of the year it’s slim pickings,” she said.

“I don’t think that it would even out to say that the money I save in airfares would account for the cost of living in Melbourne.

“But in my head, it makes more sense to travel back to Adelaide for Fringe and Cabaret Festival than it does for me to travel for every other opportunity on the east coast.”

However, Professor O’Connor said there is still a huge potential for growth in South Australia if government policies move away from ‘picking winners’ among a few high-growth companies and look to the creative ecosystem as a whole.

“If you start with economics you will not get cultural benefit: you will just get an advertising sector and maybe architecture. And it’s crazy that the state can grow a whole sector based on those two,” he said.

“You build audiences not by getting more bums on seats, but by building a culture that Adelaide is a place where you go out, listen to gigs and watch plays.

“So, unless you have a creative culture you won’t get economic growth.

“But to what extent? Let’s see.” 

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