‘Face Plant Mask’ by Kerry Spokes, 2020.

By Kirra Grimes

WITH exhibitions cancelled for most of the year, times are tough for our local arts community, but with support from each other, they’re finding ways to push through and keep their industry alive.

South Gippsland visual artist and gallery co-owner Kerry Spokes was thrilled to receive a $5000 Regional Arts Victoria ‘Relief and Recovery’ grant recently, after six months with scant opportunities to show her work, due to the closure of galleries across Victoria during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without monthly exhibition openings to look forward to, Kerry’s been selling artworks from her Fish Creek gallery, Gecko, by appointment only.

She plans to use her grant to explore photopolymer photogravure etching, which requires the purchase of specialist printing and other processing equipment.

‘Saving Face Mask’ by Kerry Spokes, 2020.

But financial support for such endeavours hasn’t come easy during COVID-19, Kerry said, with many artists excluded from the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes, and struggling to navigate emergency grants packages some commentators have labelled “too little, too late, and too confusing”.

To even find out about the grants available, and then craft a compelling application amidst the stresses of the pandemic has been a challenge, said Kerry, who also runs a café in the gallery space, which she’s been trying since last year to sell, alongside grieving the recent loss of her mother.

“It’s been a really difficult time, mentally,” she said.

“Making the decision to sell and leave and then COVID hit and we had to shut down and lose our staff without knowing how long that would be for.

“Our plans were completely put on hold, and I actually didn’t have it in me to apply for the [grant in the] first round, but thankfully there was a second round.

“You have to be well enough to be able to write grant, and have some sort of a buffer in place to start with.”

Having South Gippsland Shire Council arts officer Mary Sullivan on her side, as well as social media communities such as ‘Australian Arts amidst COVID-19’ where “lots of advice and opportunities get posted”, has been the saving grace, Kerry said.

But with a disappointing federal budget allocation for the arts as compared to other sectors such as sports, and “incredibly devastating” hikes to arts and humanities university course fees, the outlook for the industry as a whole is troubling, the Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education school of visual arts graduate said, unless decision-makers reconsider its worth.

“The arts have been so defunded by the federal government, especially a lot of smaller things.

“It needs to be given funding that reflects that it’s a valued skill that’s integral to life and learning – everything around you has some element of the arts within it, but unless something changes, our cultural heritage – aside from our amazing Indigenous culture – is going to become very lacking and very poor and just very… grey.”

Inspired to create her own COVID-themed series shortly before facemasks became mandatory in Victoria in July, Kerry expected to see a lot of great art coming out of the pandemic, despite – or perhaps even as a consequence of – the challenges facing the creative industries.

“Artists are well known for creating in dire situations and times of crisis,” she said.

“Often that’s when they’ll use their art for more political or social comment. It can be a really powerful tool to get a message out.”