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What Latest COVID Level Changes Mean to the Arts

The Big Idea has reached out to artists and organisers across Aotearoa to find out what impact this lockdown is set to have - and how prepared we are.


Sure, we all knew that it could happen again.

But just because you’re braced for a kick in the guts, it doesn’t remove all the pain when it happens.

The announcement of the rise in COVID-19 alert levels has once again barrelled headlong into the creative community, with events and performances around Auckland in particular coming to a grinding halt in the form of a Level 3 roadblock, shutting down all non-essential social gatherings from Monday 15 February until (at this stage) midnight Wednesday 17 February..

Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho, Director of the Auckland Fringe Festival that just opened yesterday (Sunday 14 February), has been like many arts and culture organisers this morning, busy implementing their back up plans. 

That’s the main difference between this Level 3 lockdown in Tāmaki Makaurau and the 2020 incarnations - no one will be blindsided this time.

“Because we were lucky enough to deliver last year, we had a whole year to make resources and plans so it’s been at the front of our brain all the time, thinking about what we’d need to,” explains Tukiwaho.

“It’s more devastating for all of the people who have put their heart and soul - and probably money - into their work. From that perspective, it’s heartbreaking for them.”

Auckland Fringe Festival show Nuestro Mundo.

Auckland Live have confirmed the cancellation of Fringe shows Sorry For Your Loss, Barrier Ninja, SUSO Alumni and Ceilidh at Auckland Town Hall between now and Wednesday.

Fringe is due to run until 6 March, so Tukiwaho has to urgently cast his attention forward. “Even though we’ve only been put in lockdown for 72 hours, history tells us that normally means we need to add two or three days on top of that. So my plan is focused on seeing what it (the festival) looks like past this Sunday.”

It’s just one of many events and performances that have had the wind taken out of their sails (and sales), such as Auckland Pride, which is the middle of a huge month of celebration (including the Big Gay Out that thankfully snuck inside the Level 1 window in the weekend).

Organisers have commented that “we have planned for this eventuality, and are keeping the health, safety, and wellbeing of our community as our number one priority.” While their website is updating up to 26 affected events at the time of writing, events scheduled for Thursday and beyond are yet to be determined “until Alert Level settings are finalised beyond these initial three days.”

Two Ladies performance. Photo; Michael Smith.

Auckland Theatre Company have had to put their production of Two Ladies on hold - cancelling Tuesday and Wednesday’s performances so far (the show runs until 27 February). ATC Chief Executive Jonathan Bielski has told TBI “We are preparing to operate at Alert Level 2, where we have to limit audiences to 100 people per separated zone.  This allows us to seat just under 300 socially distanced people per performance.”  

Bielski adds “Our people are now used to operating the company from home and rescheduling performances and ticket holders.  We had hoped we would not be back here again, but we understand the need to be super cautious in managing the pandemic and we are happy to play our part.”

Galleries grind to a halt

Artwork by Tui Emma Gillies.

The timing is certainly not great - and definitely a little ironic - for Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust’s next exhibition, Voyagers: The Niu World by New Zealand-based, Tongan mother-daughter combo Tui Emma Gillies and Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows. 

It’s a collection of tapa created to reflect on navigating a changed world in the midst of a pandemic, depicting faces wearing tapa-patterned masks, families together in lockdown and  images of navigation where the waves have never been more threatening. The exhibition was set to open on Friday 19 March (including a performance by Gillies’ talented pianist son Pele) but has been postponed until a new date can be confirmed.

All of Tāmaki Makaurau’s other galleries’ doors are also closed at Level 3, with Auckland Art Gallery also cancelling or postponing their public programmes planned for the start of this week.

Creative NZ response

As with previous lockdowns, Creative New Zealand’s at the forefront of leadership for the sector. Asked about this current level rise, Creative NZ CEO Stephen Wainwright has told TBI “we feel for those in the arts community whose events and mahi have been impacted by the Alert Level change.

“While it’s too soon to make any calls in regard to our programmes and offerings, we're keeping a watching brief on the situation in Auckland over the next few days. We’ll adjust our approach as/if needed.”

Outside of Auckland

While the rest of the nation sends its aroha to Auckland’s arts community, hardest hit once again, the regions have their own creative offerings to monitor and adapt under Level 2 - where gatherings are limited to 100 people at a time through clear social distancing rules.

Like the other major centres, Wellington’s BATS theatre is moving with the times - and levels. The two shows set to open this week are going ahead at reduced capacity under Level 2.

The Secret Lives of Sixteen-Year-Old Girls is sold-out, with moves being created to put on extra shows - for no extra remuneration - to accommodate all of those who have booked tickets already.  The other show, Standard Acts, has already been cancelled twice due to COVID, and faces an unconventional season.

Standard Acts.

"The bottom line is that it does impact on our business sustainability. But we have prepared as best we can and continue to champion safe ways to connect audiences and artists to exciting work," says Jonty Hendry, Chief Executive of BATS Theatre.

The regions response

Speaking to TBI, Creative Waikato’s Jeremy Mayall says “this is a busy time for creatives in our region, and this news is sure to have some flow-on implications for people, organisations and events. There are a number of festivals, events and shows in the Waikato region that start in the next week or two, so there will be a lot of wait and see with the regular updates. 

“At present, from what we understand, events for the coming weeks are proceeding as planned, but of course will shift as needed. We want to support our artists, and enable our communities to have positive arts experiences, but this all needs to follow the recommended advice. 

“This may mean smaller audiences or other ways of working, but we have done this before and know that we can do this again together.”

Further south, Creative Bay of Plenty General Manager Eric Holowacz points out to us that in 2021, “Our festivals, producers, performers, and venues have to base events on the public health framework that rules our world. For 2021, almost every event or creative gathering is not just business as usual, but scoped for Level 2 and Level 3 conditions.

“With the news today, our organisation has started discussing impact with our region’s arts and culture leaders. If Level 2 is lifted in a few days, there is likely to be little effect on upcoming events, festivals, and activities—as things would continue as planned from later this week.

“If we stay at Level 2 or higher, many summer activities in the Bay of Plenty will be curtailed or cancelled,” he continues. “Controlling the virus is now a fact of life, and it’s changed a lot of habits in the arts world. That's a small price to pay in exchange for health and public good.”

Where to find support

Handling short-notice cancellations isn't the only skill the creative sector picked up in the last 12 months. Knowing how to look after each other - and ourselves - became vital.

Tukiwaho was at the frontline when it came to wellbeing for many in the arts world last year, and it’s imperative to him again right now, working to support the artists and event venues impacted by these latest circumstances.

Tukiwaho is pointing people towards the online Hauora resource that is - which includes free sessions for anyone in the sector (click here to see the schedule for the next two weeks) and recommends a useful list of resources from Changing Minds. 

“We want to help them navigate with some autonomy. Part of the problem is people need to know to help themselves settle - because you can’t really do much when the pandemic hits you.”

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

15 Feb 2021

The Big Idea Editor