The real story of the impact of COVID on regional QLD galleries

One thing we have learned about this pandemic is that its impact is uneven.

A clear illustration of this is the Queensland museum and gallery sector. While this state hasn’t faced blockages like Victoria and NSW, its tourism experiences have presented their own challenges.

ArtsHub met Rebekah Butler, Executive Director of Museums & Galleries Queensland (M&G QLD), who said “times have not been easy for our industry”.

VISITOR HESITANCE

While Butler remained supported by the ability of Queensland museums and galleries to adapt to new working practices and develop new initiatives to support their communities, she said that “visitor confidence has been affected in many communities “.

“A lot of visitors don’t feel comfortable going back to the premises,” she explained. And while “some museums and galleries have anecdotally reported increases in retail sales…

Butler continued that one of the biggest concerns is “pivot fatigue” across the industry, as well as pressures for increased delivery to resource-constrained sites as domestic tourism has increased, in some. triple case.

She warned that “staff workloads have increased exponentially due to the need to respond to instant locks, changing health guidelines and occupant density rules.”

THE REAL COSTS OF INCREASING LOCAL TOURISM

Domestic tourism across the country has skyrocketed over the past year and some arts organizations, particularly QLD inland, have seen record numbers of tourists.

But with this apparent success comes apprehension, as the record number of visitors has not been matched by the record workers to serve them. Daily visits in some cases have tripled, but these small galleries and museums are still run by the same number of volunteers.

The Mount Isa Underground Hospital and Museum are feeling the impact of increased tourism on volunteers. Image provided.

The volunteer-run Mount Isa underground hospital and museum, which saw a record number of visits in 2021, is a case in point.

Erica Shaw, Mt Isa Volunteer Coordinator, said: “The museum has grown from two volunteers present to four at all times, as the museum visit is a guided experience. Many older volunteers have chosen not to return after COVID, which puts additional pressure on current volunteers.

“The Museum cannot keep up with recruiting and training volunteers quickly enough to meet the volume of visitors,” Shaw continued.

“Visitors appear to be tourists making ‘long trips’ and staying in regional and remote areas of Australia in order to avoid COVID hot spots,” she said.

Read: Regional artistic audiences evolve with the pandemic

Butler added that “funding to help develop audio-visual accompaniments, which could relieve current volunteers,” was one way to make these fluctuations and pressures more manageable, but that depends on government investment.

Unlike Mount Isa, Cairns – which before COVID attracted more than 2.7 million tourists a year – is struggling, not only because of the halt in international travel, but also the impact of the border closures by the states.

Dr Jonathan McBurnie, Creative Director, Townsville City Galleries, reported that “Since the pandemic, the overall numbers have been dropping. On average, current visits are about 1/3 of what they were before COVID (a 66% decrease).

But in a glimmer of good news, the Cairns Museum reports that school visits to their space have increased significantly.

“It was an unexpected result, but a positive one. Schools from places like South East QLD that traditionally traveled between states on school trips went to Cairns instead, ”the museum said.

VISITORS VERSUS DETAIL NUMBERS

But it’s not just about the number of people, the dollar numbers are the key to this story as well.

Butler explained, “Some museums and galleries have anecdotally reported increases in retail sales. Although people may not be able to travel, they still want to spend money and do so locally – they are looking for tailor-made gifts that are not commercially available.

“In contrast, others in our industry are reporting significant revenue losses due to the decline in retail and trade activities,” she continued.

The Abbey Museum of Art and Archeology, located in Caboolture, is a unique collection comprising the most important collection of stained glass and painted in Australia, as well as prehistoric objects, ceramics, ironwork, woodwork, sculptures, rare books, paintings and frescoes from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

To support its operations, it presents the Abbey Medieval Festival each winter – Australia’s largest celebration of medieval arts and culture attracting more than 800 medieval reenactors, jousters, musicians, actors and street performers.

Medieval Abbey Festival, 2019. hoto Brett Croese.

Around 30,000 visitors from across Australia typically attend, contributing more than $ 2 million to the economy of the Moreton Bay area. But the festival had to be canceled for a second consecutive year in 2021, one week before delivery.

“The organization’s staffing levels have been affected. In particular, their paid manager is now working on a voluntary basis, which is not sustainable, ”said Butler.

“To its credit, the abbey has implemented many innovative fundraising initiatives in an attempt to recoup their lost income, but additional support is urgently needed.”

MORE SUPPORT NEEDED FOR LONG-TERM GALLERY SURVIVAL

Butler warned that overall, support is desperately needed, especially for the volunteers in this space. “Many volunteers have not returned to their volunteer roles after last year’s major lockdown or, when volunteers have returned to the workplace, they feel more comfortable doing return duties. the House.”

“The sector depends on volunteers, but many don’t feel comfortable returning to places where people come and go frequently.”

Rebecca Butler.

She also notes that “programs need to be redesigned; visitor expectations must be managed; communications and messages need to be continuously updated – this takes a lot of resources and keeping pace with these pressures has negative consequences for people’s mental health and well-being.

“The government has focused on jobs,” she continued. “Which is important, but so are volunteers in the area and creating safe environments for them to return to work.”

“The small to medium-sized public museums and galleries sector is in urgent need of operational support for expenses such as staff, overhead and programming,” she continued. “Expenses that pre-COVID would be covered by an organization’s income-generating activities.”

Butler therefore argues that “the local government [who often manage these small-to-medium galleries] should be included in all funding programs. ‘

She observed that “there is greater financial support for the performing arts and music industries, and while there is no doubt that this support is essential to sustaining the performing arts sector, there is an imbalance ”.

Data from Museums & Galleries QLD’s 2019 Annual Statistical Survey shows that overall, Queensland’s public galleries supported around 8,000 living artists that year.

“So supporting our industry, supporting our artists,” said Butler.

In Queensland, there are around 300 collections run by organizations run by volunteers. Many of these collections contain elements of national, national and, in some cases, international importance.

Read: Frontline pressure points are different for the regional arts sector

But one organization that has already closed is the volunteer-run association Adderton: House and Heart of Mercy, closed to the public on Sunday September 5, 2021.

Museums & Galleries Queensland is doing what it can to help the sector in need, partnering with the Australian Museums and Galleries Association to deliver the $ 3 million grants program for culture, heritage and the arts regional tourism (CHART). But in the end, Rebekah Butler believes that additional government funding is needed to help the sustainability of the sector to emerge from the pandemic.

In the meantime, the CHART grant program will allow organizations to apply for up to $ 3,000 in 2021-2022 to support community arts organizations such as local museums and galleries as well as historical societies.

“We hope there will be a strong scope of applications from Queensland,” she said.

Gina Fairley is the National Visual Arts Editor for ArtsHub. For a decade, she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the regional editor for the Hong Kong-based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing, she worked as an artistic director in America and Australia for 14 years, including in regional galleries, biennials and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina

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