By Stephanie Eslake, 19 February 2021
To Zoe Knighton, a donation to the arts is “a measure of the necessity of music”.
The cellist performed on 11 February at the 2021 Local Artist Appeal Launch – a concert through which the Melbourne Recital Centre strengthened its goal to raise $1 million for musicians during COVID-19.
Zoe is one of thousands of music workers in Australia who have been impacted by the pandemic. The performing arts industry has taken a massive hit through concert cancellations, lockdowns, and social distancing restrictions. Australian crisis charity Support Act estimates losses to the sector of more than $350 million.
The Melbourne Recital Centre was not exempt, and as a crisis response, its philanthropic program was pivoted into an emergency Performer Support Fund. It continued to supply payments to artists – safeguarding income otherwise lost through cancelled performances.
The centre has also built a framework for a COVID-safe performance environment, contributing to a broader sense of security Zoe feels musicians cannot achieve on their own.
“It’s completely overwhelming for an artist to deal with those issues, and would detract from what it is we do best, which is making music,” Zoe says.
“That’s the magic of the Melbourne Recital Centre. It’s not just looking after the music – it’s making sure the musicians can really focus on creating the art.”
The 2021 Local Artist Appeal launch took place on the Centre's 12th Birthday Celebration concert, just two days before Victoria entered another five-day lockdown. It featured more than 15 local musicians – among them pianist Andrea Keller, oboist Ben Opie, and Ensemble 642 – all of whom receive guaranteed performance income.
The event wasn’t without its own limitations: Zoe observed audience members wearing masks, and she followed strict social distancing policies. But these measures also allow her to engage with her community during COVID-19.
“The sense of community comes from that bond when you see somebody backstage as you’re very carefully keeping your distance from them. You don’t hug and embrace, but there is that unspoken electricity in the air.”
The opportunity to be part of this community attracts donations from people like Joy Selby Smith. Joy helped launch the 2021 Local Artist Appeal with a major gift, contributing to the $250,000 it raised by the launch performance.
Joy understands musicians are often self-employed, balancing a broad portfolio of activities from teaching to performing. Income insecurity, she feels, “undermines their ability to perform together”.
“That takes a lot of emotional energy out of a person, which I hope would better be put into their core skills,” Joy says.
Joy, a loyal concertgoer and regular donor, says her generosity has been fuelled by the centre’s positive response to the crisis. Its 2020 Performer Support Fund was established on the back of its Local Heroes series, and helped pay every artist who was booked to play – even in cancelled events.
“I’m very attracted to the 2021 Local Artist Appeal for building on that situation it developed last year – recognising we haven’t really come out of it, and building on it to give confidence to players [so they know] people are supporting them.”
Joy’s trust in these programs is a key factor in her decision to give financial support. As a donor, she values her relationship with the philanthropic team, and participates in discussions to learn how the programs are evolving.
“I have confidence in them, that’s the bottom line,” Joy says.
“They’re the professionals, they’re the experts, and it’s for me to support them.”
Her generosity enables the centre’s income guarantees as well as other initiatives, such as commissioning fees, engagement in Learning and Access programs, and recording and broadcast opportunities.
“I’m just wanting to see outcomes and to hear that this program is going well; to know this gave great support to people, psychologically as much as anything. It’s an important element to know people care about what you’re doing.”
This bottom line is shared by Zoe, who has experienced the impact of COVID-19 on the morale of music workers.
“We can’t pretend we don’t need money to survive – to eat and pay the rent. The money is necessary, but it’s not the reason for giving,” Zoe says.
“It’s that simple act of knowing we’re noticed and appreciated – and when we can’t perform, we’re being missed – that’s going to get us through.”