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How will the arts and cultural sector bounce back from COVID-19? The answer lies in innovative, flexible management.

Alongside tourism, one of the areas most impacted by COVID-19 has been the creative arts and culture sector.

When lockdown restrictions forced venues to close during 2020, thousands of artists, organisations and companies were plunged into the abyss of unemployment – a situation made worse by the freelance status of many creative professionals unable to qualify for government job subsidies.

No audience, no income

For the arts and cultural sector, the impact of COVID-19 in early 2020 was swift.

By April, the Australian Bureau of Statistics was reporting it represented the largest business sector drop with more than half the nation’s arts, cultural and recreation businesses shutting up shop in the space of a month.

‘It took away live audiences from museums, galleries, theatres, live music performances, festivals and literary events,’ explains Dr Anne Kershaw, Course Director for Deakin’s Arts and Cultural Management programs.

‘Not only is presenting work to an audience the aim of artistic and cultural practice, but audiences are also the key to income generation. No audiences mean no ticket sales, no customers, and no income,’ she says.

The creative response

In its own right, the arts and cultural sector plays an important role in the lifeblood of a nation’s economy, employment and social and personal wellbeing – it’s a conduit for self-expression, creativity and community-building.

So how has the sector responded to this unparalleled curtain call?

Dr Kershaw says that true to form – and perhaps not surprisingly – artists and arts organisations have tackled the COVID-19 challenge with creativity, courage and innovative thinking.

‘What has emerged is a growth of digital and virtual events – such as online collections and programs with the National Gallery of Victoria and online, digital programming which the Melbourne Recital Centre was experimenting with before the pandemic,’ she explains.

‘Other organisations have had to remodel their businesses.  For example, one company which produced staging equipment is now delivering home office equipment. But we’ve also seen some sectors in the creative industries, for example gaming and television, undergoing a boom because of their role in helping people manage social isolation.’

Nimble-thinking managers needed

With the COVID-19 pandemic still being played out across the world and the full impact on the sector yet to be revealed, Dr Kershaw believes that some organisations may maintain the changes forced on them by COVID-10, even after the return of audiences.

‘The sector is likely to be very different post-COVID. But it’s important to remember that arts and culture can play an important role in economic and social recovery. Events in this sector are an opportunity to reclaim our social lives and help build tourism and regional economies,’ she says.

Despite a roll-out of federal and state government support packages, the task of navigating through rapidly-changing and unique obstacles has fallen directly on managers of arts and cultural organisations.

‘They’ve had to respond quickly to challenges that were completely unexpected,’ says Dr Kershaw.

‘But those who’ve been nimble and innovative have pivoted and radically – they’ve re-thought their business models and the services they offer, along with their relationships with audiences, customers and stakeholders. Small to medium-sized arts’ organisations are perhaps best able to do this. This hasn’t been the time to focus on traditions, or the arts and cultural as prestigious and elite institutions.’

No looking back

What the pandemic disruption has highlighted, adds Dr Kershaw, is the opportunity to do things differently.

‘It would be disappointing,’ she says, ‘if there was a return to conservative and old-fashioned practices.

‘Arts and cultural managers need to assess what they’ve done over this last year and ensure they build on the opportunities they’ve discovered. Designing new services and cultural offerings, implementing new employment practices, building relationships with new audiences and stakeholders are the sorts of changes that will aid recovery and rejuvenate the sector.’

And in it’s in this new, unplanned setting that arts and cultural professionals have also taken the opportunity to return to study.

‘Work commitments can tend to get in the way of study commitments, so we’ve found that the interruptions to work in the arts and cultural sector has been an opportunity for many people to now put their study plans into place,’ says Dr Kershaw.

Deakin Business School offers a range of postgraduate courses for those wanting to build robust, adaptable management skills in the arts, cultural, and creative sectors and Dr Kershaw says working in a post-COVID environment will be a feature of arts managers’ careers from now on.

‘While the skills we develop in our graduates – which include management, marketing, finance, human resources, fundraising and project management – are the hallmarks of a tailored business education, most importantly we explore the application of theory to practice. Our programs prepares change-oriented and reflexive managers and leaders, who are able to address the current and future needs of the sector.’

DBS offers a Graduate Certificate of Business (Arts and Cultural Management), a Graduate Diploma of Business (Arts and Cultural Management), a Master of Business (Arts and Cultural Management) as well as a cultural industries specialisation as part of Deakin’s prestigious MBA program.

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