Since the move to the COVID-19 red restrictions, a large number of arts and entertainment events have been cancelled. Cancellations have been driven by a variety of factors including:
The situation over the coming months for the sector, as Omicron case numbers rise, is likely to become even more challenging. International experience suggests that audience hesitancy, performer and crew infections, and sector concerns about community wellbeing will have a major impact on the performing arts.
Audience hesitancy: Even where it is feasible to stage a live event for audiences capped at 100, it is likely few people will feel comfortable attending performances in enclosed spaces when Omicron infections are widespread in the community. This ‘soft lockdown’ effect, where people choose to stay home, means that even where artists and performing arts companies can offer live performance opportunities within red restrictions, they will struggle to attract audiences and earn income.
Audience hesitancy was already being experienced in 2021 by performing arts organisations with low and slow ticket sales, and a growing tendency to last minute ticket purchases adding to the white-knuckle experience of offering performing arts events. Even while Delta was under control, many people appeared reluctant to commit to attending a live performance. This may have been driven by fear of infection, or by an unwillingness to commit to an event in advance following two years of moves in and out of lockdowns.
It is likely that hesitancy will increase and continue to affect audience numbers well beyond the Omicron outbreak.
Performer and crew infections: Many organisations rely on a small group of key artists and skilled and experienced technical support crew to deliver their work to an audience. The Australian experience has shown that Omicron infections of key artists and crew have led to a number of last-minute cancellations of performing arts events, as staff cannot be substituted.
Community wellbeing: Organisations will be reluctant to draw audiences into spaces where less than ideal conditions may lead to infections. Many theatres and performance spaces have less than ideal ventilation. Organisations may also feel they lack the skills to manage public health requirements, without clear guidance.
As community Omicron infections reduce, it is unclear how quickly audience numbers could rebuild. The soft lockdown effect on the sector could extend throughout 2022.
Government support to sustain the arts, culture and creative sector during the first two years of the Covid pandemic has ensured that significant damage to the sector has largely been avoided. The wage subsidy, support for artists and arts companies, and Government underwriting for summer events, were all welcome investments. Some of this support was activated in response to formal lockdowns.
What we need now is a plan to sustain the artists and organisations that will be affected by the audience limitations imposed by red restrictions, and by a community-driven soft lockdown that is likely to significantly reduce audiences for any performing arts events that can be offered during red restrictions, and potentially throughout 2022.
Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi is asking Government to work with the sector on a response that addresses immediate needs while scoping possible sector impacts and responses to those impacts during 2022.
We are asking Government to take action now to address the immediate impacts of the move to red. We are asking for priority to be given to
Once the immediate needs of the sector have been addressed, we are asking Government to work with the sector to scope the likely impact over 2022 of the formal red constraints, and informal ‘soft lockdown’ effect that will drive audience hesitancy on those in the arts, culture and creative sector most dependent on live audiences. This scenario planning will allow potential responses to be identified and implementation of these responses can be planned for so they can be implemented in a timely manner if required.
We need to answer a number of questions including:
To understand the impact of audience hesitancy we need to understand:
As we look beyond Omicron, we need to plan for the two most likely scenarios that will affect the sector.
Optimistic: Omicron is the prelude to Covid becoming endemic and manageable with annual vaccination. In this case, the key question is how long it will take to rebuild audiences and create a sustainable future for the performing arts?
Pessimistic: If a new variant emerges, the arts will once again face a sustained period of uncertainty with low to no income. Modelling for this scenario, and consideration of potential responses, is also needed now.
Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi continues to push for the development of a long-term strategy for the arts, culture and creative sector. We need to address the short and medium-term impacts of the pandemic while ensuring we have a clear long-term vision for the sector that can inspire and sustain sector confidence. The disruption of Covid can be used as a springboard in the development of a long-term sector strategy to consider innovative changes to the current model for the sector.