Leaders from the hard-hit arts sector spoke with Communications Minister Paul Fletcher on Tuesday, warning that the decision to shut down events of more than 500 people had left thousands of industry professionals out of work and without income. In Sydney, representatives from peak industry bodies took part in a roundtable with the NSW government to also share their concerns. An emergency meeting of culture ministers is now quickly being organised to address the crisis.
In 2018, SSO sustained an operating loss of $2.2 million, 75 percent of which was attributed by the SSO’s board chairman Terrey Arcus to one-off expenses around investigating alternative venues, including Sydney Town Hall and the International Convention Centre in Darling Harbour.
The SSO’s 2019 annual report is due to be made public by the end of this month.
The renewal of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall was “an exciting event in Sydney’s cultural history”, a spokesperson for the orchestra said, giving the SSO a home with world-class acoustics and a space appropriate for 21st-century audiences.
The spokesperson said the SSO had incurred “significant” costs associated with the closure of its Concert Hall home, without clarifying the size of the operational deficit.
To tide over the disruption, the SSO has sought to broaden its network of philanthropic supporters and requested donations to specifically subsidise discounted tickets to reach new audiences of families and students.
The performance shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic are expected to make the orchestra’s financial position more precarious and will apply pressure on governments to help arts organisations large and small.
“While the Sydney Town Hall is a wonderful place to hear the orchestra, it is not able to accommodate the total demand for performances and there will be a financial impact on the orchestra over the next two years,” the orchestra spokesperson said.
The SSO confirmed the NSW government and the Australia Council had commissioned a review to examine “what is required to maintain the orchestra in these years away from the Sydney Opera House and when we return”.
“We welcome the commissioning of the report and its stated purpose of maintaining the Sydney Symphony as one of the top-ranked orchestras of the world.”
During this year and next, the SSO will be without a chief conductor and artistic director. Celebrated international conductor Simone Young will take up the prestigious role in 2022 when SSO returns to the Concert Hall.
In January the SSO was also forced to find a replacement for conductor laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy, who announced his retirement from public performances. He was scheduled to conduct Northern Lights Festival Program 1 and 2.
A spokesperson for Create NSW said an independent two-stage review had been commissioned in partnership with the Australia Council, and a draft of the first report delivered.
“The NSW Government is undertaking a significant renewal program of the Sydney Opera House, which is having an impact on the Sydney Symphony Orchestra given its scale and specific venue requirements,” the spokesperson said.
“The Sydney Opera House is working with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on arrangements for ongoing support and access to the Concert Hall once the works are completed.”
The Australia Council said it had not been approached by the SSO in the past six months for additional financial support. “The Australia Council will continue to work with the SSO and Create NSW regarding the impacts of the closure on the SSO,” a spokesperson said.
Don Harwin, the NSW Minister for Arts, declined to comment.
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald