Local Government Cultural Sector Responses to COVID-19

A group of 25 Australian councils met over two weeks on 16 April and 29 April to share and discuss the different responses made by councils to the covid-19 pandemic.

This is only a sample of councils that have engaged with CDN over many years and the summary below aims to capture the key points without nominating specific actions to councils. CDN will run further online meetings of councils that will develop a more detailed response by the additional contributions. The summary of those discussions will be published on this site for other councils or governments to get a sense of the range of actions and ideas that local government cultural sector is taking.

No two councils are alike, although all are likely to have an internal group of management coordinating responses specific to their local government area. With the diverse regions of Australia, the impact of covid-19 is not uniform, and it is difficult to plan when not knowing the duration of the shut-down. Some areas have not reported any cases of the virus and others have returned to partial normal operation following to the advice of their health authorities.

What is the state of closures and revised programs?

In all cases some or all venues are closed with programs being cancelled, rescheduled, or moving to online platforms with Facebook, zoom and council websites, where they can transform for that format. In the capital cities and regional centres, the state-owned institutions are also closed or restricted and these also impact on local amenity.

By the time the second meeting was held on the 29 April much of the conversation had moved to planning for the wind back of restrictions.  It was evident that within the two weeks between the meetings, Australia’s response to covid-19 had brought a pause and decline in the spread of the virus, and this impacted on how councils were now thinking about the future.

Some positive signs have come from the arts community and its ability to work together, recognising the shared plight for the sector. It is early days in a post-pandemic environment but some councils could see how their arts communities had rallied as a change that could bring the sector together.

As this positive position was being discussed, the range of responses continued to evolve.  The most common impact has been the move to screen-based engagement, video streaming and interactive web-based programs. Technologies have included pre-recording some events and using virtual exhibition technology and putting collections online. Existing social media platforms have been used to keep residents up to date or to post information on new online programs. Some new program ideas include a “family film” competition, live bands, and regularly scheduled activities online to address a recognised need to keep up the engagement with residents.

In some council areas there is a partial return to work from the office due to the reduced risk in those areas and still impacted by border closures and social distancing.

Budgets have been impacted in all councils. Some have seen a reduction through pooling of funds for immediate council relief packages and others have repurposed their existing budgets and funds towards programs responding to needs of the creative communities. In some councils, new quick-response grants programs are being introduced while other grant programs that do not compromise the social distancing regulations are continuing, along with programs like artists in residence and public art commissions.

Many councils are still impacted by recent bushfires and those programs further impacted by COVID-19

Live work spaces (studios) are open in many council supported facilities and some private galleries are operating by appointment only.

Some of the larger councils are using the quiet time for maintenance and refurbishment and related planning while construction is continuing. Some councils are working to connect their resident artists into the council economic programs and linking them to the state or Commonwealth support for charity organisations and sole traders. Business support programs are being made available to artists.

There is an ongoing challenge in supporting artists and organisations on JobSeeker and JobKeeper access for the arts sector.

Where artists were contracted before events were postponed, there is an effort to still pay artists and contractors, recognising the local economic impact for those artists. Cases must be made for expenditure on capital works for public art and budgets, in general, have a greater degree of scrutiny as the extent of the economic impact is still unpredictable.

Some councils are looking at ways to invest in employment of artists, including launching live streaming programs.

Some state jurisdictions have initiated programs where councils can access additional funds for programs supporting the cultural economy.

Come councils have to defend keeping their cultural development teams in place and maintaining the importance on the programs

Local government is part of regional governments responsibility and therefore there is a need for the national response to include local government and be noted through the Meeting of Cultural Ministers (MCM) where the impact is being considered on a state and territory basis.


About one third of the attendees acknowledged they or their councils, are reviewing their strategic planning considering the changed situation.

Threshold issues

Ideas discussed included:

  • Working with the existing budget to create useful online content i.e. classes, engaging community.
  • Lobby to maintain cultural spaces as once lost it will be difficult to get back.
  • Need to create quick-response resilience grants to be used in a different way to pay rents and wages.
  • Crucial for the sector to tell all levels of government what is needed
  • Grants to focus ongoing connection and collaboration work with the sector

Ideas known of, wished for, or being implemented

National Recovery Strategy for the sector, integrated between levels of government

More resources through State government to fund employment through an ‘exit’ strategy that includes ‘community healing properties’

Practical measure to get online programs running effectively

How to have older residents feel safe to come back and engage with sector

Getting the idea of the importance of the sector to the government and the public, recognising people are using the arts as their coping mechanism. Elevating the role of arts and creative leaders in survival and recovery, shifting the way we support artists.

New methodology and framework for the sector to work in the new environment.

Seize the opportunity to forge permanent changes in community and council on what the sector does. Working efficiently and smarter to allow artists and the sector to be supported and not siloed

New commissioned research and work with the peak organisations to support discussion with state and local governments.

Planning for this and the emergencies to follow – e.g. climate change. What does the covid-19 response mean for communities without internet access?

Bring Regional Arts Australia into this discussion

Councils and organisations participating in the 16  and 29 April discussion:

Adelaide City Council
artsACT (Canberra and territory)
Banyule City
Bass Coast Shire
Baw Baw Shire
Brimbank City Council
City of Brisbane
City of Darwin
City of Greater Dandenong
City of Greater Geelong
City of Hobart
City of Melbourne
City of Parramatta
City of Perth
City of Sydney
Cultural Development Network
East Gippsland Shire
Manningham Council
Moonee Valley Council
Mornington Peninsula Shire
Nillumbik Shire,
Shire of East Gippsland
South Gippsland Shire
Strathbogie Shire

United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG)

On 23 April 2020, the UCLG Committee on Culture hosted an on-line ‘Live Learning’ session presenting a range of local governments’ responses from around the world. We have included a link to the UCLG Press Release issued following the event and it summarises the diverse perspectives from Mayors and councillors responding to local situations.

The cultural mobilization in the COVID-19 pandemic