Shepparton arts moving out of Covid

By John Lewis

Community arts have been hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions, with performance spaces and galleries left silent and empty for months.

For the past seven weeks, a series of Zoom discussion forums has been co-ordinated by Shepparton Festival creative director Jamie Lea to keep artists and arts workers engaged and connected.

Twelve people from across the Goulburn Valley attended the most recent session. They shared their personal and working experiences of COVID, and looked to the future of arts and culture in the district.

Shepparton Art Museum director Rebecca Coates said it had been a time of nurturing the wellbeing of staff and the wider arts community.

“Being in the arts we're pretty good at talking about our feelings, but it's been a daily roller coaster, so my job has been to support staff and those with families — we're blessed to have jobs,” she said.

“The biggest thing we're missing is the joy — the cup of coffee, bumping into people down the street, seeing something that gets you sparkling.”

Dr Coates said online SAM programs such as comic-book making had been successful, with bookings from overseas, and children's workshops had been a drawcard for families.

“We've had grandparents booking in with their grandchildren, and kids that do it as a group in their late teens; what we need to do is grab this and take the things of value into what is going to be our COVID world,” she said.

Nathalia's G.R.A.I.N. Store manager and artist Kristen Retallick said the digital experience had provided limited value.

“I've missed that creative and intellectual exchange that happens when you have an audience and a performer, or a person walks into the gallery and having a chat, or a coffee after a workshop. That stuff can't be replaced digitally. So we desperately need to keep that conversation about mental health alive,” she said.

“A lot of our audience and artists are people who don't use any technology at all, so I've been doing a lot more phone calls and dropping things in people's letterboxes, and trying to time walks with people — we're lucky in this community we're small enough to able to do that.”

Tatura-based artist Rachel Doller said COVID had allowed time to create more connections between fellow artists.

“At the moment I'm working on a collaboration with an artist in WA. We send each other work online. They might not be the connections we want, but they're what we can do at the moment,” she said.

Shepparton Library's Human Book Club co-ordinator Arti Shah said COVID had brought the tyranny of distance to the fore.

“For me COVID has been quite difficult in terms of access to my family in Kenya — and I don't know when I'm going to see them next,” she said.

“But technology and projects have been my saving grace.”

Choreographer and dance teacher Robert Baxter said the future looked uncertain.

“At the moment I'm teaching dancing on Zoom, which can be really different and confusing. Kids say, ‘I'll come back next year when it's all normal'. But what if there's no normal next year? What if we can't afford to pay the rent on the building anymore?" he said.

Kaiela Arts director Angie Russi said the Shepparton indigenous art gallery staff had organised a successful online exhibition for the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.

“It's been a lifesaver to be able to sell work online,” she said.

However, Ms Russi said the digital experience had proved a barrier to many local indigenous artists.

“We support a lot of artists who come into the studio for social interaction because they don't have the digital equipment or the knowledge to use it at home. Most of our artists have basic prepaid mobile phones and they struggle to connect with anybody. So, many of our artists have felt very isolated and disconnected from the arts community,” she said.

Riverlinks manager Ken Cameron said although the past six months had been a time of great uncertainty, there were positives to be gained through the digital experience, such as live-streaming concerts.

“I've found it's about 30 per cent new audiences coming to these digital spaces,” he said.

“But how loyal is that audience? Are they deeply engaged or is it just transitive like a lot of social media stuff?”

Mr Cameron said staging smaller, outdoor performances was something to consider.

“Having smaller performances that can be flexible might be a solution, so if it doesn't work you can stop and start something else,” he said.

Mr Cameron said national touring shows would be problematic over the next 18 months if border closures remained.

“We've already found one major touring company that's pulled out of 2021 completely — it's just too big a risk,” he said.

Indigenous musician Neil Morris said while the magic of social interaction had been lost, the digital realm had expanded and brought communities together.

“So yes, my world's been turned on its head — I'm back living at home, which I didn't anticipate, but I'm very grateful for the passionate people thinking about the next steps which can be taken in the community,” he said.

Artist and arts advocator Marion Langford said the new SAM building was a beacon of hope.

“I see it as something very special that we will have going forward. And people are going to be pouring out of Melbourne — land has been sold. You virtually can't buy land in Shepparton anymore — people are coming here,” she said.