HomeArticlesArts & CultureRage against the virus – how the Gold Coast’s arts community are adapting to challenging times in the face of COVID-19
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Rage against the virus – how the Gold Coast’s arts community are adapting to challenging times in the face of COVID-19

Tim Baker | March 2020

Live streaming gigs and life drawing classes, rapid response artists’ grants from our major arts institutions, Facebook support groups – the Gold Coast arts community is banding together and finding innovative and creative ways to navigate their way through challenging times.

We’ve all seen the queues outside Centrelink offices, the cancelled gigs and festivals, and felt the anxiety and uncertainty as we confront the profound challenges of the COVID-19 virus. The arts sector has been hit especially hard, with an estimated $300 million in lost revenue and 250,000 cancelled gigs impacting 600,000 arts professionals nationally.

On the Gold Coast, the Home of the Arts was first out of the blocks with its rapidly deployed “Rage Against The Virus” program for artists ready to execute a short term project in a week for one of 50, $1000 grants. Outcomes needed to be delivered digitally and adhere to all physical distancing guidelines.

“It was HOTA’s commitment that actions speak louder than words. We needed to do something. We’re the home of the arts, we value artists so deeply and that needed to translate to action,” says HOTA CEO Criena Gehrke. “It needed to happen quickly, it needed to not be difficult for artists and it needed to honour artists.”

HOTA is adamant that any projects approved have to be completed in a week so that the $1000 grant represents a reasonable income. “We don’t want artists to work for more than a week. However we can, we will support art-making. We dug deep to find the money for that grant program,” says Criena. “We can be nimble and responsive, and we’ll keep looking for those opportunities. I’m really looking forward to seeing what our own Rage Against the Virus grants bring in, I’m hoping there’s stuff we haven’t even thought of.”

Criena’s well aware this is just a drop in the ocean, in terms of the challenges facing the arts sector, but has enormous faith in the arts community’s ability to adapt. “I’m deeply concerned about the wider impacts on a sector with inflated mental health issues and widespread vulnerability,” she says. “At the same time, no sector is better equipped to deal with this situation. We’re used to being lateral thinkers, thinking outside the box. We’re resilient, we get knocked down, we get back up.”

Placemakers Gold Coast (formerly Bleached Arts) is set to announce its own suite of rapid-fire grants, designed to keep artists engaged in their artistic practice. The Gold Coast’s leading independent arts organisation, which delivers the annual Bleach Festival, was already providing advocacy support for local artists, with help negotiating contracts, budgeting or pursuing international work, and have stepped up their support in the current crisis.

“At the moment keeping artists in practise is the biggest thing,” says Rosie. “What I’m committed to is, it’s for any stage in a project. Send a one pager, we’ll get money out the door in three to four weeks. Details will come on-line next week.”

At the same time, they are working on delivering Bleach the Gold Coast Festival in its new August timeslot, though how that looks or whether it will even go ahead remains unknown.

“We’re optimistically planning for the festival but assessing that every day. It’s a decision that will be taken out of our hands ultimately, legislation will come down to inform that,” she says. “We’re looking at a range of different scenarios, to keep artists engaged in their professional practice. Are we going to be able to gather as 10 people, 100 people? We deliver significant parts of the festival with private property owners so we can pull levers really quickly as things change.”

Rosie, too, has enormous faith in the arts community to bounce back. “Don’t panic because this is a moment in time. We’re phenomenally adaptable, we actually lead the way in being able to pivot, re-design, re-think, ask questions. As artists, we’re at the forefront of remaining curious about how we live in the world. That’s going to keep us engaged and part of a much bigger communal family. We’re all going to need story and that’s our role for the wider community.”

Long-time local arts leader and advocate Samantha Morris hurriedly convened a Gold Coast Arts Community Facebook page to share mutual support, resources, suggestions and work opportunities to foster a sense of connection and camaraderie in these isolated times.

“More than 500 arts workers joined in the first week,” says Samantha, well-known as co-founder of Blank GC and the Gold Coast Music Awards. “Most of the conversations are around people sharing ideas, resources and support to get through this. Artists are sharing ideas for digital collaborations, streaming events and using video conferencing to stay connected. Lots of creative people are coming together. We’re also using it as a platform to share policy and funding advice for arts workers, many of whom are freelancers or sole traders and often sit outside the scope of government support.”

But there’s no denying the financial impact of the closure of venues and restrictions on gathering. “People are rightly concerned about their careers and livelihoods right now. Overnight, the local arts economy was shut down. All of our major events are in hiatus and there’s nothing but uncertainty on the horizon for the entire sector. We know we’re not alone,” Samantha says. “One artist I know of recently invested $45,000 to get a national tour up and running to launch a new album. The entire tour was cancelled and obviously there’s no way to recoup that investment.”

Samantha recommends Support Act, a charity devoted to providing support to the Australian music industry and allied workers. “Checking in with fellow artists is critical right now. It’s the human connection which will help us get through this together,” she says. “It’s times like these when the arts really pull a community through devastation. Some of the best art we’ve got was created during times of extreme hardship. Artists are already working out how to deliver concerts, art and music lessons, life drawing and on-demand sets to their fans. I imagine some of those artists will recruit a whole heap of new fans. That’s an awesome outcome. Unfortunately, it’s hard to monetise those projects, but society should be ready to open their wallets and pay for good art.”

She cites a series of creative responses from local creative professionals that offer bright spots of hope amid the doom and gloom. Local artist Elska Mia is pulling together a live streaming festival, due to roll out April 11. Yoga teacher Erin Bourne is curating Gold Coast playlists for her now-digital yoga and pilates classes. Samantha herself is staging a series of small group gatherings via Zoom to share specific skills and knowledge. Music industry mingles (networking events) are going on-line with guest speakers and industry panels. Artist Rebecca Cunningham is taking her popular life drawing classes on-line, set to a shared playlist. “It has been proven that drawing produces positive brain chemistry like serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine which we could all use a lot more of right now,” Rebecca says.

Local electro-pop artist Ella Fence is staging “Saturday Nights At Home,” live streaming a selection of her originals and covers for a $5 admission fee. “Let’s say no to feelings of separation and loneliness in these isolating times and stick together through the uncertainty and anxiety,” Ella writes on her Facebook event page.

Luke Stapleton is a fairly typical working musician who’s been hit hard by the cancelled gigs and general uncertainty. Luke’s well-known locally for his role in Water Songs, a musical collaboration with Kacey Patrick, Pearly Black and Karl S. Williams, for last year’s Bleach Festival. He teaches music at Currumbin Valley State School, performs as session guitarist for the Tugun community choir, Just Sing, and runs private lessons.

“Between teaching and gigs that’s 100% of my income. Gigs have all dried up and it’s a waiting game for schools,” he says. He’s developing on-line lessons for his private students, and taking a keen interest in the shift to livestreaming gigs on Facebook. “Everyone who purchases a ticket gets invited to a private Facebook group, and you can watch that at home,” he says. “You can be commenting as the video’s happening, and after they can be saved and re-watched again. Once the gig’s done, they can make the video public and they can share it.”

His other focus right now is writing, recording and producing fresh material so he’s ready to rebound on the other side of this. “I think fresh material is going to be a big thing. It’s going to change the industry quite profoundly. I think the on-line gigs and streaming are going to become much more prevalent,” Luke says. “But I think once we get out of this, everyone’s going to be so excited to get out and see live music in a live atmosphere.”

And our city’s arts leaders are acutely aware of their role in providing hope and support for the arts community, and the role the arts can play in helping the wider community. “We need to be human in this moment, we are hurting and that pain is very real,” says Criena Gehrke from HOTA. “What I think we need to do as an arts and cultural sector and community – and this is not my quote but from a highly regarded colleague – is be kind, but be fierce.”

Rosie Dennis at Placemakers Gold Coast agrees. “We’ve got to remain hope-filled and altruistic, and always look for the good in who we are.”

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