The Carriageworks arts precinct. (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

Sydney arts venue Carriageworks became one of COVID-19’s victims this week.

Its board announced on Monday that it had appointed voluntary administrators following the sustained effects of cancellations across the arts.

Galleries in Australia are facing the same uncertain future as every other sector in the country, and like other sectors it’s showing up problems that have been present for a long time.

An immediate concern is the issue of donations. Arts organisations in Australia are hugely reliant on donations and bequests. To pick one example, the Art Gallery of New South Wales received $103.5 million from private donors in addition to government funding in 2018. 

National Association of Visual Artists (NAVA) chief executive officer Esther Anatolitis said the fallout from the pandemic highlighted long-term issues.

“Philanthropists and artists I’ve spoken to have huge concerns about philanthropy and donations contracting,” she said.

“The philanthropists I’ve spoken to are overwhelmed — there are so many people and organisations, obviously, that need help right now.”

Monash University lecturer and arts writer Ben Eltham told Crikey that the effects of a financial crisis went beyond people’s ability or willingness to donate.

“Philanthropic donations to cultural institutions are highly procyclical,” he said. “In boom times, galleries, museums and other cultural non-profits can enjoy windfall donations from cashed up billionaires looking for the social cachet that benefaction can bring, not to mention a handy tax deduction provided by the recipient’s charity status.

“But in times of economic crisis, there’s a lot less donor cash to go round. Not only have many benefactors taken a hit on their investment portfolios, but the sea of red ink means there’s no need to go looking for tax hedges.”

Further, the pandemic has shut down the “glitzy openings and clubbable vernissages that big institutions used to wine and dine prospective donors,” Eltham said. “It’s a perfect storm.”

The almost-certain drop in donations brings into sharper relief the long-term funding issues the industry faces, particularly since what the industry calls the “Brandis raid” in 2015.

Australia’s national cultural institutions — including the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the Australian Museum — face the same “efficiency dividend” as other Commonwealth agencies.

Curiously, the Australian War Memorial, nominally subject to the same rules, still netted an extra half a billion dollars to expand late last year.  

“[A crisis like this] really exposes how little helpful or strategic thinking about the arts sector there is at a government level,” Anatolitis said.

“These issues have compounded in the five years since the Brandis raid, as arts funding in that time has contracted considerably, and arts organisations are finding ongoing operational funding harder to get.”

And after the crisis hit, the stimulus directed at the arts industry (such as it is) misses the majority of workers in an industry dominated by casual and contract work.

The libraries, museums, performing arts and music sectors collectively produced around A$8.1 billion in economic output in 2020. As Eltham argued in The Conversation, providing the industry with a 2% stimulus would tally up to “around A$186 million — barely a rounding error in the context of the Morrison government’s spend”.

In the US we have seen cultural institutions stretched to the point that the powerful Association of Art Museum Directors, in an unprecedented move, relaxed its strict guidelines around selling valuable art works to stay afloat.

Anatolitis said any move of that sort would likely be a “last resort” for any Australian galleries.

“Generally it would be the last thing a gallery would want to do,” she said, citing the example of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, owned by the National Gallery and which right-wing politicians argue should be sold from time to time: “It has a dollar value of course, but its ongoing value, in terms of the visitors it attracts, the prestige it brings, is very hard to quantify.”

Indeed, NAVA has asked that the government increase the acquisitions budgets of our key national institutions as a priority.

After the Carriageworks announcement, one proposal being considered by the NSW government is that the Sydney Opera House would take over operations, though that’s prompted immediate push back.

Anatolitis said it was an example of the lack of strategic thinking on arts policy.

“They are completely distinct, they have different communities, different approaches to art,” she said. “The idea they could be homogonised is fanciful at best and deeply disappointing at worst.”