Tough times for the arts

Regent Theatre technical manager Nelson Miles positions an elevated working platform on the stage...
Regent Theatre technical manager Nelson Miles positions an elevated working platform on the stage, ready to do maintenance work on the lighting rig while the theatre remains empty. PHOTO: BRENDA HARWOOD
The essential role played by the arts in people’s lives and the sheer passion of arts practitioners make it both beloved and adaptable. But, the impact of the  Covid-19 Delta outbreak, with its accompanying cancellations, delays and restrictions, is putting a sector that often operates on a shoestring under intense pressure. The Star chief reporter Brenda Harwood spoke with Dunedin arts organisations about how they are coping in tough times.

For Dunedin’s many arts lovers, both audiences and creatives, the past month has been a difficult time.

When New Zealand went into lockdown to combat the Covid-19 Delta outbreak, a cascade of cancellations and postponements followed — from the NZ Ballet to Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, City Choir Dunedin to Fat Freddy’s Drop.

But what has been merely disappointing for ticket holders has led to revenues dropping to zero for some Dunedin arts organisations and practitioners.

Regent Theatre director Sarah Anderson said activity at the theatre had come to a halt, as both local and touring shows held off.

‘‘Financially, it is not possible for us to hold events under the current restrictions,’’ she said.

‘‘The performing arts have been heavily impacted by Covid-19 around the world, so this Delta outbreak has been a real blow, just when renewed interest was starting to come in from overseas.’’

With 100% of its income gone, the theatre has accessed the government wage subsidy to support its small paid team.

‘‘Our box office staff are very busy processing refunds at the moment.’’

Ms Anderson is hopeful that the next show scheduled, Indian Ink’s much anticipated Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream will be able to go ahead on October 13.

‘‘In the meantime, we have to be philosophical about the situation — there is no guide book for dealing with a global pandemic,’’ Ms Anderson said.

Dunedin Symphony Orchestra general manager Philippa Harris said the Covid-19 outbreak had affected both the orchestra and its Hanover Hall home base.

‘‘Hanover Hall has been really taking off as a space for rehearsals and performances by a growing number of groups, so it’s sad that it has all stopped for the moment,’’ Ms Harris said.

The orchestra had been forced to cancel its ‘‘Romantic Landscapes’’ concert, scheduled for September 4, and had been preparing for Opera Otago’s Die Fledermaus — postponed to 2022.

Losing venue hire and performance revenue has resulted in a financial hit, and the DSO is applying for government support to meet its costs.

Ms Harris remains hopeful that the DSO’s next concert will go ahead on November 26.

‘‘It’s not easy planning amid so much uncertainty, but we know there is no substitute for performing for a live audience.’’

Dunedin Fringe Arts Trust director Gareth McMillan said events such as the Amped Music Project and NZ Young Writers Festival had been delayed.

‘‘We're hoping to produce events this year but will always be ready to pivot and adapt,’’ Mr McMillan said.

While the trust was not experiencing a huge reduction in income, he predicted sponsorship income could fall due to the pressure on businesses.

He hoped independent contractors were getting the support they needed as they were ‘‘the backbone of the sector.’’

Mr McMillan said the arts were always vulnerable and Covid-19 intensified underlying systemic issues, particularly around financial viability.

‘‘I believe now is the time to change how we value the arts, fund artists, and find a way of working that upholds the mana of people who have been traditionally disenfranchised.’’

City Choir Dunedin postponed its October 2 performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle to 2022, and choir director David Burchell was unsure what was next for big arts organisations.

‘‘With the limits on gatherings, we may not be able to do large-scale performances, or even rehearsals,’’ he said.

Being unable to get together affected the ability to raise funds, and the choir would apply for government support.

Ongoing uncertainty about Covid-19 restrictions made it difficult to plan for concerts such as Handel’s Messiah in December.

‘‘Obviously, the Delta variant is a much more tricky beast, so we will have to be adaptable — hopefully there will be more clarification soon,’’ he said.

Mr Burchell was creating practice resources for choir members, to help keep their focus on singing until rehearsals could resume.

New Athenaeum Theatre manager Ellie Swann said 14 event bookings for the Octagon theatre had been cancelled in the past five weeks. The theatre was taking a cautious approach, and would not host shows until Alert Level 1.

‘‘We are taking bookings for October to December, but everyone is on the treadmill of wait and see,’’ Ms Swann said.

The government wage subsidy and a recent DCC grant would give the theatre some breathing space until more normal activity resumed.

‘‘In the meantime, we are trying to get on with it as much as possible.’’

With the loss of work opportunities and incomes for many artists, now would be a good time for an urgent conversation about support for arts practitioners and infrastructure, she said.

‘‘Artists need support to create work and to be ready for when audiences need us again.’’

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