As soon as I read the email on Friday the 13th, I realised it signalled the end of the eighth Newcastle Writers Festival before it had begun. A publisher was withdrawing four of its writers from the three-day event in early April as part of its response to the rapidly changing impact of COVID-19. I knew there would be more and I wept at my desk. A year of work, which included countless hours - many unpaid - spent on successful and failed grant applications, meetings, sponsorship negotiations, run-sheets, reading, speeches, hundreds of emails and phone calls, was going to come to nothing.
But it was the loss of the program that broke my heart. It included 160 writers, from established award-winners such as Helen Garner and Tim Flannery, to emerging local writers launching their first books. I had successfully applied for funding from Creative New Zealand so that we could bring across five writers, four of whom are poets. (Don't let the 'Steel City' cliché fool you, Newcastle is a city of poets.) I had collaborated with the Festival of Dangerous Ideas for the first time and we were 'sharing' Harvard-based Australian geneticist David Sinclair. Session host Richard Fidler was keen to record the event in Newcastle for his popular ABC program Conversations. I was thrilled.
An artistic program is more than a schedule of events; it represents an intricate intellectual, creative and logistical balancing act. A writers' festival program is inspired by books and the ideas they generate, as well as what is happening socially. The impact of the catastrophic bushfire season influenced some of the sessions I created. And now, we find ourselves in the midst of another rapidly changing crisis.
The festival provides me with income and it also pays three other essential contractors who help organise the event, as well as others that come on board later in the schedule - all local - who include Scion Audio, a local sound and staging business, graphic designers, printers, caterers, social media manager, and, significantly, one of the city's remaining independent book stores. When I spoke to the co-owner of MacLean's Booksellers that dreadful Friday she was sitting in their rented warehouse surrounded by stock ordered for the festival. She cried, too.
Not having the festival has wiped out ticket sales and our main source of income. They were on track to be 10 per cent higher than 2019 and I was anticipating a record number. We will likely survive, but we will have to make some tough decisions, fundraise and call on the support of sponsors, many of whom have already bent over backwards to assist. Rydges Newcastle has refunded the significant payment we'd already made for accommodation. I'm hopeful everyone will be as understanding.
The support from our audience and guest writers has been overwhelming. Messages have flooded our Facebook page and I know we made the right decision to cancel the festival - within days many others also cancelled. The health of all involved has been our priority, but the far-reaching impact is sinking in and we won't be alone. A significant number of small to medium arts organisations will be pushed to the brink in coming months. Artists are losing essential channels to share and sell their work as the cascade of cancelled festivals and events continues. Please be aware that in no way am I diminishing the impact on families, businesses, and our community's health.
The three levels of government need to move quickly to address the far-reaching and catastrophic impact COVID-19 is having on the arts. Grants provided for events or programs that have since been cancelled in response to the pandemic need to be written off to enable organisations to survive and plan for 2021. No move should be made to recoup unspent grant money.
I have already heard from Create NSW, City of Newcastle and the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund and they do not expect us to pay back their grants. The quick response and support they have shown has provided immense relief at such a stressful time. Emergency funds for arts organisations and artists should also be made available and the application process needs to be straightforward. The majority of arts organisations run with a skeleton staff at the best of times. Unnecessary bureaucracy will grind them down. Entities such as Create NSW, the government's arts body, should allocate staff and resources to assist distressed organisations in managing the coming months.
There is no precedent for this. Making information readily available needs to be a priority. I have offered my assistance to other festivals who are facing the same decision. I don't wish it on anyone. I feel utterly wrecked. My advice is to act sooner rather than later. It is economically - and emotionally - prudent. Be prepared to terminate contracts earlier than planned. Refund tickets as quickly as possible. Communicate clearly with all stakeholders. Be transparent and authentic. Don't lose sight of your core values. Seek support.
What next? Amid the turmoil, I have finished reading an uncorrected proof of Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott's second novel The Rain Heron, which is due out in June. It is a stunning, timely story set in Tasmania against the backdrop of an environmental crisis. I intend to send his publisher an invitation for 2021.
I am nothing if not an optimist.