How Irish arts is coping with Covid-19

The Covid crisis has created an uncertain time for the culture sector, an area where many people’s incomes are linked to events that have been cancelled, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

How Irish arts is coping with Covid-19

The Covid crisis has created an uncertain time for the culturesector, an area where many people’s incomes are linked to events that have been cancelled, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

While fears for SMEs and workers in the hospitality sector have dominated news headlines as measures to control the Corona virus in Ireland escalate, the arts sector is proving particularly vulnerable to the raft of events cancellations and venue closures.

For many who work as creative freelancers, quite literally in the “gig economy,” the situation has highlighted the precariousness of their working conditions.

St Patrick’s Day parades rely on the collaborative work of thousands of Irish performers, theatre-makers, set designers and musicians. With the St Patrick’s Festival calling a halt to its largest congregations well in advance of the most recent shut down of smaller venues and pubs, there was at least some notice for street theatre companies.

Mike Leahy is artistic director with Spraoi, the Waterford-based street theatre company who put on their own festival in August, but who also make substantial contributions to St Patrick’s Day parades all over the country.

This year, they were set to perform in five parades nationally, in Cork, Waterford, Dublin, Limerick and Kilkenny. Over 250 people including community volunteers as well as professional arts workers, were due to perform with Spraoi in the cancelled parades.

Due to the publicly funded nature of the parades, Leahy says that so far, Spraoi are not out of pocket, but they retain serious concerns for the rest of their summer events.

“The big festivals are holding up any payments they agreed to so we’re not too bad; any money we had already laid out has been covered,” he says. “We’re honouring any commitments to professionals working with us in areas like costumes, music, direction and the like.”

Spraoi’s work involves building huge set pieces in line with the themes outlined by Local Authorities for their parades, he explains: “Normally, we’d build a load for Dublin and then adapt them for other pieces throughout the year, so we really don’t know where we stand with all that. If we’ve created shows for this year, do we store them for a year and do they expect to get them next year? All that kind of thing needs to be worked out when the dust settles.”

Irish Street Arts Circus And Spectacle network (ISACS) reports a “stark increase” in enquiries from members on the extended social welfare scheme for artists since the cancellation of St Patrick’s Day events.

Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan announced last week that the Arts Council will honour all funding commitments to fund recipients and that there’ll be no penalty for organisations unable to deliver funded projects because of the Covid-19 response, and urged organisations to prioritise paying artists and third parties.

Reports from musicians and performers hit by venue closures have been that Social Welfare offices on the ground are responding well, given the difficulties performers have in providing evidence of unemployment.

Creative ingenuity will out for some performers: Gaeilgeoir gangster rappers Kneecap, having self-funded a US tour to the tune of “thousands” only to find six of their seven US tour dates cancelled, launched a crowd-funding campaign on Friday and raised €14,500 on a stated goal of €9,500 in three days, mostly from their domestic Irish fan base.

Dundalk folksters The Mary Wallopers, due to support Lankum in Cork Opera House on St Patrick’s Day, have announced a live-streamed gig from their house.

Freelance fears

But performers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the workers hit, Dublin- based freelance music photographer Ruth Medjber points out.

“Part of being a freelancer is being flexible, and if the work isn’t coming from this avenue, I’ll get it somewhere else,” she says. “But what about the sound engineers, the event organisers, the production managers, whose jobs aren’t as flexible, who rely on crowded venues to survive?”

The closures have led her receiving “non-stop emails and phone calls with cancellations until the end of April and into May,” and the loss of thousands of euros’ worth of work, Medjber says.

“I haven’t even begun to work out how much I’ve lost,” she says. And the atmosphere of uncertainty over whether restrictions will be extended beyond March 30 is also wreaking havoc:

“I’m a festival photographer. If there’s no festivals, what do I do? At the moment, I’m clueless. I spoke to my mortgage lender over the phone and they assure me there will be ways around it if it comes to it and I can’t pay the mortgage.”

Medjber says the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the precarious conditions endured by freelance arts workers.

Peter Power, Cork-based theatre sound designer and composer and a member of the Irish Association of Stage and Screen Designers, agrees. He estimates he’s lost an eighth of his annual income through cancellations to date.

Designers get paid in lump sums, so it’s not about my week’s wages.I’m looking at whole portions of my income being obliterated

“I work with a lot of artists and I’m watching them check their phones and they’re getting messages saying ‘we have cancelled, sorry.’ Not ‘we have cancelled, here are your circumstances and these are your rights.’ And the saddest thing is the tendency amongst freelancers to go, ‘oh well,’instead of saying ‘hang on a second, this is not acceptable.’

Power is in rented accommodation, and he points out that most arts workers he knows are, meaning they are at the mercy of the disproportionate response from government to rents on the one hand and mortgages on the other. “Mortgage reliefs have been announced, but they should be freezing rent,” he says.

Across the arts, Power points out, there are months of behind-the-scenes preparation before the audience gets to see a performance.

Left, the closure sign on Cork Opera House; right, sound designer Peter Power.
Left, the closure sign on Cork Opera House; right, sound designer Peter Power.

“A lot of productions that might be due for June or July might seem safe, but if we can’t do our work now, those things are in danger too,” he says.

Wait and see

Large festivals with dates towards the end of summer seem to be focusing on “business as usual” or at least a wait and see approach.

Electric Picnic announced its line-up last week, and its September date gives it some breathing room.

In the meantime, for smaller festivals without cancellation insurance, it’s a different story.

Louise Tangney is the Cork-based owner of boutique 4,500-capacity music festival Vantastival in Co Louth; calling it early, they announced early last week that they were postponing their May festival until September.

“We’re now 10 weeks out from when Vantastival was due to happen, and we already had a lot of things ordered and payed for,” Tangney says. “There would be no come-back for us on deposits so we basically couldn’t wait any longer and had to call it.”

“Even before the government directive, we still weren’t selling tickets so we felt we didn’t have a choice and we knew that we would have to postpone. Our insurance is due at the beginning of April and we knew that there was no way they’d cover us for a cancellation on the basis of this.”

Eibhlín Gleeson is the CEO of Cork Opera House. She says she hopes she’ll be able to reschedule the majority of the 17 shows due to take place in the Opera House by March the 30th.

“Right now, we’d ask our patrons to hold on to their tickets for the cancelled shows and we’ll be in touch over the next few weeks to relay new dates and arrangements,” Gleeson says.

“We’re hugely grateful for the understanding and patience that our patrons, staff and artists have shown since the situation developed.”

She says the venue is preparing contingency plans in case the restrictions are extended.

“This is an unprecedented situation for the arts and entertainment industry. There is no doubt that the longer we are closed, the more vulnerable we will become. But Cork Opera House has overcome a huge amount over the years and I have no doubt that while there are difficult times ahead, we will overcome this too.”

View from abroad: What are other countries doing?

Australia: All events of over 500capacity have been banned since last Friday. Live Performance Australia says that over three months, the ban would cost half a billion Australian dollars and thousands of jobs. The organisation has called for greater clarity regarding the duration of the restrictions as well as an “emergency industry support package.”

The UK: As the British government drags its feet over imposing outright bans on mass gatherings, the onus has been on individual bodies to make a call, but cancellations from international touring acts are still having an impact. This could all change next week, but in the meantime, Glastonbury has tentativelyannounced its June line-up and the UK arts council has said it will refocus grant programmes to compensate artists and arts freelancers.

All gatherings of more than 500 people have been banned in Australia since last friday.
All gatherings of more than 500 people have been banned in Australia since last friday.

The US: The Centre for DiseaseControl has recommended against gatherings of over 50 people for the next eight weeks. Well in advance of this most recent announcement,festivals had made their own call: Coachella postponed from April to October, while South By South West, in Austin, Texas, at which several Irish acts were set to perform, was cancelled outright. Hollywood has also been impacted with several film releases postponed.

The EU: Individual EU countries including France, Switzerland and Germany have instituted bans and restrictions of increasing severity.Berlin museums and galleries, as well as its famous nightclubs, are now set to stay closed until mid-April and the German culture minister has announced she plans to push for artists and arts workers to be included in any emergency relief packages announced for German workers in general. France has closed all restaurants, bars, cafés, cinemas and nightclubs since Saturday. Italy is in full quarantine, with only vital services in operation, until April 3. Tourism, hospitality and arts workers are amongst those predicted to beheaviest hit by the resultingeconomic crisis.

Australia: All events of over 500 capacity have been banned since last Friday. Live Performance Australia says that over three months, the ban would cost half a billion Australian dollars and thousands of jobs. The organisation has called for greater clarity regarding the duration of the restrictions as well as an “emergency industry support package.

How can I help the arts?

    Get physical
  • Books, music, prints, artworks and band merchandise: every physical item that Irish artists have to sell can be found online and will provide an income stream while events are still a no-go.
  • Follow
  • Follow artists on their social media platform of choiceand look out for ways to support them in new creative endeavours as they diversify.
  • Get a refund... or wait?
  • If events are cancelled you are entitled to a refund. If an event is postponed, you are still entitled to a refund if you can’t make the new date.Some organisations, including First Music Contact, have advised punters to ask venues or organisers if the value of tickets for cancelled events can be held onto for use at a different, future event. But Theatre Forum Ireland warned this could create a costly bureaucratic nightmare, plus GDPR issues, for box office staff. It seems that, if an event is fully cancelled, it may be better to let the ticket agent’s automatic refund mechanism kick in as usual. But remember to double check.
  • Plan ahead?
  • There are standard terms and conditions on ticket sales, so in theory, there’s no reason not to book any event or show you were planning to attend further down the line, even though the rest of the summer may now seem plagued by uncertainty.
  • Tune in and listen
  • For music fans, RTÉ 2fm have announced an ‘All Irish, all week’ playlist playing a non-stop selection of Irish artists for a week to support Irish musicians. There has been some debate around whether streaming platforms like Spotify are really of value in providing income tomusicians, but certain websites, like Bandcamp, do offer good returns.

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