The death of singer Helen Reddy this week at the age of 78 was a reminder of her unique contribution to Australia’s national identity. The 1970s in this country are unthinkable without her singing I Am Woman. It was not just a global No.1 hit, its words and her performance inspired a generation of women to stand up. She sent the message to the world that Australia was a bold country with a complicated appreciation of humanity. It’s hard for anyone who remembers those years to hear the song without strong emotion.
Yet her passing also carries a message for the current crisis – the arts and creative industries in Australia are under dire threat from COVID-19. As Good Weekend’s special arts issue this weekend highlights, the pandemic could destroy the careers of tens of thousands who, like Ms Reddy, help define our country and its place in the world.
The lockdowns have halted or severely limited audiences at concerts, theatres, live music venues, film shoots and art galleries. According to official statistics, employment in the arts and recreation services, which includes most creative workers, fell by 89,000 from February to May, and was still down 36,000 people in August even though states other than Victoria had partially reopened. A 2016 Australia Council study estimates that about 76 per cent of Australia’s artists work on a freelance or casual basis, which means many don’t qualify for the JobKeeper wage subsidy.
Some in the arts community complain that their contribution is generally undervalued by Australian politicians. Even if they are arts lovers, politicians are under pressure to turn up at the footy and cricket to show they are normal people rather than concerts or art happenings. When politicians talk about saving jobs they usually put on high-vis vests and go to factories rather than stand next to rock bands at live music gigs.
Yet Australians love music and theatre and the arts as much as any country in the world. Live Performance Australia says 26 million people attend live performances each year, more than the major sporting codes combined.