Global arts crisis: how does Australia’s federal stimulus compare?

As governments around the world bail out battered creative industries, it’s clear there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Does Australia’s stack up?

On 25 June, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, revealed a long-awaited rescue package for Australia’s hard-hit arts and culture sector.

Smashed by industry-wide shutdowns due to Coronavirus restrictions, thousands of Australian entertainment businesses and cultural organisations have shut down. As a result, unemployment in the arts and entertainment sector has soared.

Morrison unveiled a $250m package that includes loans and grants to the screen, live performance and arts sectors. “This package is as much about supporting the tradies who build stage sets or computer specialists who create the latest special effects, as it is about supporting actors and performers in major productions,” he said.

When added to the $27m already promised by arts minister Paul Fletcher, the federal government is pumping $277m into the Australian cultural sector this year.

While this figure falls short of the $850m that Live Performance Australia has called for, it will certainly help a sector that has been one of the worst hit by the economic consequences of Covid-19. But how does it stack up to the rest of the world?

Bailing out the arts: how much is enough?

Australia’s government is not the only one under pressure to bail out a struggling arts and culture sector. In recent months, rescue packages for live entertainment, screen, music and publishing industries have been announced in dozens of different countries.

Last weekend, the UK government announced a £1.57bn (A$2.84bn) bail-out for the industry, with the prime minister, Boris Johnson, saying, “We must protect and preserve all we can for future generations, ensuring arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat.”

While many in the industry believe the emergency fund has come too late, on any analysis the UK stimulus package is comparatively substantial. According to the Johnson government’s own statistics, the British cultural and creative sectors together contributed £144bn to the UK economy in 2018, or around 7% of GDP. If those sectors grew in line with GDP, a £1.57bn stimulus is equivalent to a little over 1% of the economic activity of these sectors.

Comparing the size of various nations’ cultural sectors is not easy. The definition of what counts as culture is bedeviled by academic debate and statistical argument. Headline numbers in government reports can appear precisely calculated, but as the University of South Australia’s Justin O’Connor points out, such data is based on statistical assumptions that may not always make sense. Nonetheless, we can make some ballpark comparisons.

Australia’s cultural and creative sector is not as large as its British counterpart – but neither is the Morrison government’s stimulus. According to Bureau of Communications and Arts Research data, Australia’s cultural and creative sector was worth $111.7bn in 2016-17, or about 6.4% of gross domestic product. If Australia’s cultural and creative sector grew in line with GDP, it would be worth $127bn this year. The Morrison government’s $277m package is a far smaller stimulus than its UK counterpart in this context – equivalent to about 0.22% of the industries’ economic value.

New Zealand’s federal arts rescue package, meanwhile, is NZ$248.4m (A$233.77). According to the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who is also the country’s arts minister, the cultural and creative sector in New Zealand was worth NZ$17.5bn in 2017, or about 1.5% of GDP – making it worth around NZ$19.6bn in 2020. So New Zealand’s stimulus package amounts to about 1.27% of cultural and creative GDP – or about five times that of Australia’s federal bail-out.

That’s not to say Australia’s stimulus is small in absolute terms, or compared to all other countries. In the United States, where policies have typically favoured private rather than public investment in the arts, the Trump administration’s US$2.2tn Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act stimulus bill contained a measly US$75m (A$107.30m) for the National Endowment for the Arts. In the context of the US creative sector, estimated by the cultural lobby group Americans for the Arts to be worth US$764 bn or 4.2% of GDP in 2015 – growing to around US$904.7bn in March 2020, by our calculations – this stimulus is tiny, amounting to just 0.01%.

Table comparing federal arts bailouts in US, Australia, NZ and the UK

Live Performance Australia’s Evelyn Richardson has praised the UK arts rescue package as “very significant”, telling Guardian Australia it “would appear on the face of it to be more than what industry expected”.

In Australia, Richardson said, “We really need to see jobkeeper extended. The PM has flagged that arts and entertainment is being considered as part of that extension – that’s going to be absolutely critical for us.”

From cash to tax relief: the many faces of arts stimulus

Guardian Australia has analysed 45 national government policies responding to the cultural impacts of Covid-19. State and local government relief packages did not form part of this analysis, but in some cases have been substantial: the most prominent example was the provincial government of Berlin’s provision of half a billion euros for artists and freelancers in the famously “poor but sexy” capital of Germany, which has offered no federal bail-out for the arts.

Stimulus packages for the arts and culture range from the £1.57bn package announced by the UK this week to smaller packages in countries such as Zimbabwe, Estonia and Costa Rica.

The policy analysis draws on published documents from national governments, as well as secondary analyses by international bodies such as the OECD, Unesco and the IMF, and academic cultural policy researchers such as the Compendium for Cultural Policies and Trends.

Overall, the analysis shows that around the world, artists and cultural organisations have been able to win government support as they struggle to respond to the crisis of Coronavirus.

Graph comparing arts bail-outs around the world

The most common form of support for arts and culture so far has been cash stimulus payments to artists and cultural organisations. Other common measures included access to broader government stimulus programs such as wage guarantees and unemployment benefits; tax relief measures and deductions; loans and other repayable financial benefits; and advances on future royalties from copyright agencies. The precarious nature of cultural work was also recognised by a number of policies specifically directed at freelancers and self-employed artists.

If anything, examining the various cultural packages country by country shows just how different the approach to culture can be. Germany has a reputation as a generous funder of culture, for instance, but German federalism leaves much of the cultural heavy lifting to the German states. Canada is in a similar situation, but the Justin Trudeau government has stepped up with a half-billion dollar package. Artists in France and Italy, meanwhile, continue to campaign for better bail outs.

Comparing international cultural stimulus policies also shows how difficult it has been for creative workers around the world to demonstrate the hardships they face. In France, artists lobbied hard to win the special exemption on their unemployment insurance announced by the president, Emmanuel Macron, in May, and some artists and freelancers were able to access the €7bn “solidarity fund” – but specific stimulus measures for French culture are relatively small, totalling €28.5m.

In the US, the National Endowment for the Arts received just $75m through the CARES Act stimulus bill, a rounding error in the context of the American cultural sector. In June, a coalition of American arts lobbies penned an open letter to the US Congress and the Trump Administration calling for a dedicated cultural stimulus package for the US cultural sector. So far, the call has not been heeded.


Ben Eltham

The GuardianTramp

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