Omicron and the ngā toi/ arts and culture sector - Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

Omicron and the ngā toi/ arts and culture sector
28 January 2022

Current situation

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:

  • Venue suitability for social distancing and infrastructure required for high quality ventilation
  • The economics of delivering events to audiences capped at 100 people
  • Anxiety over the risk of an event being a place of shared infection and transmission

Red restrictions and the ‘soft lockdown’ impact 

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.

Sustaining the sector

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.

Planning a response

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

  • extending the Arts and Culture Event Support Scheme beyond its current end date of 3 April
  • providing targeted financial support urgently for artists whose incomes have been affected by current cancellations and will be affected by audience caps and audience hesitancy during the Omicron outbreak

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.

Scoping the Omicron impact

We need to answer a number of questions including:

  • Who in the sector will be most affected by the formal constraints on audience numbers imposed under red restrictions?
  • What will the impact be on the income of those artists and arts companies affected if red is in place for three months, six months, or longer?
  • What options are there for direct support for affected artists and organisations through red restrictions?
  • How long will it take for these artists and arts companies to rebuild and begin to earn income again once the country moves back to orange restrictions?
  • What direct financial options are there for support for these artists and arts companies during the time required to reboot?

To understand the impact of audience hesitancy we need to understand:

  • Where has audience hesitancy been apparent over the last year? It is likely that a number of those in the sector who have been involved in marketing live arts and culture events will have insight into this.
  • What arts and culture events will be particularly affected by audience hesitancy?  Anecdotally, younger audiences appear to be less risk-averse when it comes to attending events such as live music, than older audiences who form a substantial proportion of the audience for live arts events such as theatre.
  • How can audience hesitancy be addressed once the threat of COVID-19 is minimal?

Beyond Omicron

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.

Sector strategy development

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.