When COVID-19 altered the known landscape, regional artists found themselves in uncharted territory that required some seriously creative navigating.
Suddenly, every gallery, music venue and dance studio was closed, and every writers’ festival was cancelled or postponed.
Artists of all ilks were unable to collaborate with their peers, network professionally, and — worst of all — reach their audiences.
Like many authors and book illustrators, Victoria-based Shelley Knoll-Miller did most of her professional networking at writers’ festivals and literary conferences.
“When the first lockdown occurred, I had several conferences lined up and book visits lined up as well, and then suddenly, that was just kiboshed,” Ms Knoll-Miller said.
Over the past five months, artists around Australia have partially solved these problems by harnessing the connective powers of the internet, and developing creative ways of making and sharing art.
But many of Victoria’s regional artists — including Ms Knoll-Miller who lives in the state’s south west — have found it difficult to participate in this flurry of innovation due to poor-quality internet.
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Rush to develop an online presence
Joe Toohey, the chief executive of Regional Arts Victoria (RAV), says regional artists immediately identified the need to move into the online world when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“We, on behalf of the State Government, ran a program [for artists],” Mr Toohey said.
“Overwhelmingly, the biggest requests that came to that grant program was support and funding support to help them adapt to working online.
“So that was everything from being able to deliver their workshops online, to updating the function of their websites to allow for purchases.
“Some of them were looking at how can they actually make work and meet with their peers remotely.”
Arts festivals became Zoom meetings, gigs became streamed performances, but the ability to interact with these new modes of art-making and presentation depended entirely on having a strong internet connection.
Mr Toohey said regional artists were being hamstrung by poor internet access.
“That connection is both whether you’re connected in regional areas, and … the quality of the connection,” Mr Toohey said.
“It’s also the ability of those artists working there to upload things, to participate in that [collaboration], not just be recipients.
“That opportunity is not even across different black spots that we have in terms of internet access.”
‘Great, this is my chance’
When the first lockdown began in Victoria and conferences were moving online, Ms Knoll-Miller, who lives in the small town of Cudgee where internet coverage is patchy at best, was forced to secure a $1200 RAV grant to improve her connection.
“We’re in a little geographical dip … so really, it’s satellite internet, and satellite internet is expensive, and quite limited,” she said.
“When Regional Arts Victoria opened up some funding to help navigate this unique challenge, I thought, great, this is my chance.”
Ms Knoll-Miller can see the potential the online world holds, but an insufficient internet connection prevents her from realising it.
“There’s also little opportunities that do present themselves and I could see those whizzing past me,” she said.
“For artists working in little [regional] areas, having access to digital ways of communicating can just be a game-changer.”
‘A unique opportunity’
Teresa Corbin, chief executive officer of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, says regional internet still lags behind service in the cities.
“RMIT has been collating data for the Digital Inclusion Index, and that clearly shows that regional areas are more likely to be behind their city counterparts when it comes to access, affordability and digital ability,” Ms Corbin said.
In a statement, NBN Co told the ABC it was continuing “to work closely with [regional and rural] community, local governments and user groups to understand their needs”.
NBN Co has also offered a 40 per cent increase in capacity during the pandemic, including for its satellite internet service — an offer that will continue until the end of November.
Ms Corbin said that satellite service meant there were technically no black spots in Victoria, but it was not an ideal solution.
“The satellite connection is not as fast, and indeed doesn’t provide as much data, as a fixed service,” she said.
“Regional consumers should be able to do video conferencing, just like metropolitan consumers. The benefits to our economy … in being able to do that mean that they can participate in health advances, education, and also in work.
“We have a unique opportunity to act and make decisions that actually make sure that every Australian is connected and that no Australian is left behind.”