The Effects of Covid-19 on the Cultural Sector in Canada

Door Frances Dorenbaum , op Fri Aug 14 2020 07:00:00 GMT+0000

When Canada entered a state of emergency in March 2020 due to Covid-19, the cultural sector experienced a slew of lost opportunities across the country. As arts organizations paused their programs and institutions shut down for the foreseeable future, governmental aid became crucial in keeping the sector on its feet. However, this support alone was insufficient to help self-employed artists and cultural workers survive. As a result, the crisis necessitated them to join forces and find new ways of sharing art and creating communities.

The nationwide shutdown in Canada during the corona-pandemic caused huge financial losses for many individuals, organizations and industries. In order to curb these losses, the government offered three emergency funding packages from March 15th onwards. One of them, the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit, pays $500 CDN per week to individuals who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and is suited for self-employed artists and cultural workers. Today, these short-term financial benefits are still available for workers in all fields.

However, the eligibility of many artists and cultural workers to the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit is being challenged by the rules that applicants ‘cannot have earned more than $1,000 in employment and/or self-employment income for the entire four-week benefit period of [their] new claim.’ This limit on additional income leaves recipients with a meager amount of money to survive on, particularly in cities with high rent prices. Above all, applicants must have ‘had [an] income of at least $5,000 in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to the date of their application.’ Paradoxically, the relief fund seems to exclude the individuals who need it the most.

Public funding: a game of give and take

In Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts supports all forms of arts and culture. This organization provides grants, paid awards and strategic funds to artists and cultural organizations. During the pandemic, the Canada Council started a survey to explore if and how the governmental aid packages were useful for different actors in the arts sector. 8842 respondents completed the survey. The majority of participants identified as individual artists, cultural workers, or both, and about a quarter of them had a self-employed status. Less than half of the respondents indicated an interest in applying to the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit. The main reasons not to apply were either a lack of financial need (44%), or a case of ineligibility because the individuals didn’t earn enough money or had been working under regular contracts before the pandemic (43%). In other words, this survey signaled that the most vulnerable portion of the arts sector was struggling in spite of the governmental funding system.

The flexibility of local government bodies in their financial support comes against a backdrop of ongoing cuts in funding for the arts.

As a result, the Canada Council took flexible actions. They encouraged postponing or reimagining projects that required travel and/or a large public, so the artists could still receive the funding they were promised before the crisis. Some applicants will be allowed retroactive spending of future grants - a useful exception for artists continuing to work on projects while sheltering-in-place. With the prohibition of public gatherings, a transition to a more digitally focused arts community was necessary. To encourage this, the Canada Council and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio Canada created the Digital Originals Initiative. Artists wanting to rework an existing project or make a new online project could apply for micro-innovation grants of $5000 CDN.

Additionally, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault announced that a relief fund of $500 million CDN would be poured into arts, culture and sports. An amount of $55 million CDN of this budget went to the Canada Council. Arts councils at the provincial and territorial level, such as those of the Yukon Territory, Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario also adapted their grant procedures to better serve artists attempting to work under the current safety limitations. Not only governments, but also private donors recognized the challenges artists were facing. The Sobey Art Award for Canadian visual artists under the age of forty, for instance, was divided evenly between the 25 shortlisted artists for the first time. Luther Konadu, one of the $25 000 CDN prize winners, said to me in surprise: ‘I feel like a lot of people who won in the past are fairly accomplished, so I didn’t think I had a chance, at least not right now.’ The prize will help him keep his practice moving. Yet, the Sobey Art Award is an anomaly in Canada - many do not benefit from this sort of income.

The most vulnerable portion of the arts sector was struggling in spite of the governmental funding system.

The flexibility of government and private financial sources had a bittersweet taste. The wave of emergency support came against a backdrop of ongoing cuts in funding for the arts, which started long before the shelter-in-place. Writer and broadcaster Amanda Parris highlighted in her April 3 entry of her CBC Arts column Black Light a list of impactful cultural budget cuts in recent years. Yet again, vulnerable communities and individuals had been affected the most by these cutbacks. For instance, the year-old Indigenous Arts Fund in Ontario was lost to budget cuts by the local government in 2019.

Parris also pointed out the inequality within artist’s earnings by quoting statistical research published in 2016. The numbers shed an important light as to who composes the most vulnerable portion of the arts sector mentioned earlier. Hill Strategies Research Inc. with Statistics Canada revealed that the average income of Canadian artists was about half the income of workers in other industries, and that artists of colour, particularly Indigenous artists, earned even less than this precarious average. Many artists, thus already faced major financial challenges before the pandemic.

A changing cultural sector: for better or for worse?

Even if the immediate reaction to the pandemic’s effects from governmental funding bodies has been supportive, it is unclear how the combined results of the recent budget cuts and the current use of relief funds will affect the cultural sector in the future. On I Lost My Gig, a website where artists can report opportunities lost to the pandemic, many artists and cultural workers have noted the loss or possible loss of an average of thirty-six gigs in March through May. The number-crunching of this survey reveals a potential casualty of around $25,000 CDN income per person. This is roughly an artist’s full annual income, leaving many in the lurch.

However, the postponement or cancellation of certain projects provided an important opportunity to consider how art and culture is appreciated or understood in the context of Covid-19. The annual CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, for instance, was postponed together with its public art program. Artistic project coordinator for the festival, Benjamin Freedman, explained how they ‘could have gone ahead and done a project in the subway, but [they didn’t] want to encourage people to go into these spaces. [A]t the end of the day, the artists’ work [would] suffer.’ In the meantime, extra content is released online to tide audiences over until the artworks can be installed around the city. The participants of the CONTACT Festival were paid before the virus outbreak and the team will continue the programming at a later date. ‘Some artists want to use this opportunity to reimagine their projects. It buys them time to reimagine what their project means in this new world,’ Freedman remarked.

It buys them time to reimagine what their project means in this new world.

Reimagining the meaning of art and culture for society also creates the need for open conversation. Many organizations have hosted online conversations between professionals, artists and the public in different formats. A successful example is the online panel series of the non-profit organization Myseum of Toronto. Myseum hosted online talks with artists and art professionals in and around Toronto to map how the cultural sector is coping with the current crisis, and to learn from each other by presenting and discussing new ways of making and presenting culture.

During one of the panels, ‘Art in the time of COVID-19,’ musician Mark Marczyk presented the project he co-organized with other musicians, called URGNT LIVE. This live stream broadcasted concerts performed in empty concert venues throughout Toronto. They worked with donated equipment and a budget collected from a GoFundMe campaign. The dedicated team hoped to keep artists connected to audiences and aimed to pay everyone involved in the performances, which ran from late March through early May.

The daily lives and work methods of artists and cultural workers are shifting too; often even moving at a slower pace. D’Arcy Wilson, artist and professor in Visual Arts at Memorial University in Newfoundland, told me that her work time has been cut in half without childcare, while ‘teaching has taken so much more time and energy, at a time that would be ramping down into studio time.’ She and her students rely on the campus studios, but like many others they are transitioning to online studio classes and making art at home.

D'Arcy Wilson, '#1 Fan (Long Run)', video still, 2019. Image provided by the artist.

Wilson, who is also a longlisted artist for the 2020 Sobey Art Award, considers herself fortunate for her health, family, job, and the unexpected and generous financial support of the award. She is heartened by the resiliency of the sector: ‘Obviously there is a lot of struggle, but I can’t believe how fast the community jumped on board to alternative ways of sharing art.’ She praised the art community’s ‘creative problem solving, knowledge mobilization, recording and sharing the things that happen through poetic ways that connect with people.’ Indeed, as the weeks go on, many artists and cultural workers are generously and tirelessly creating opportunities to activate their communities and share in creativity.

(Re)Sources of solidarity in the cultural sector

In light of the limited or inaccessible government support for small organizations or self-employed individuals in the gig economy, many artists swiftly mobilized supplemental resources from within the cultural sector. Emergency crowd funds were formed for marginalized communities in the arts. For instance, Toronto bookstore Glad Day set up a donation fund for LGBTQI artists, performers and workers in the hospitality industry who receive income from tips. Similarly, Black Lives Matter Toronto started the GoFundMe campaign Covid-19 Black Emergency Support and raised almost $137,000 CDN to support individuals in the Black community.

In some cases, the social effects of cancelling cultural events override monetary loss when projects were meant to bring different communities together.

Even though financing the cultural sector has been a focus within the community, it is not the only issue at stake. In some cases, the social effects of cancelling cultural events override monetary losses when projects were meant to bring different communities together. Visual artist Karen Tam’s exhibition at the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto, curated by director Mona Filip, had to close early when the virus hit Toronto. This closure thwarted a program Tam had planned to engage the city’s Chinese-Canadian community in creating a photographic archive of their lives. Today, many Asian Canadian communities are facing pointed xenophobic and racist treatment stemming from prejudiced opinions on the origins of the Covid-19 virus. The cancellation of Tam’s program further delays an already lagging appreciation for and understanding of an important group of Toronto’s citizens.

Other organizations, such as the non-profit Aboriginal Curatorial Collective/Collectif des commissaires autochtones, used what was left of their annual funds to create initiatives to present Indigenous art and cultural work to a broader public. With Curating Care, Aboriginal Curatorial Collective supported Indigenous curators by inviting them to submit two-minute videos explaining the concept of care in their practice. In return, the curators received a small payment. These videos have received a lot of positive attention by the Canadian media. Many other projects generated a new public for artists too. In the country’s capital city Ottawa, for instance, the National Arts Centre collaborated with Facebook Canada on a live stream broadcast called #CanadaPerforms. Performing artists and authors presented a set or a reading and received $1000 CDN from a donated relief fund. Some of the performances have had thousands of viewers. As video journalist Nic Meloney wrote on April 25 in CBC’s Indigenous news section, the #Canadaperforms platform managed to connect lesser-known artists to some of the largest audiences they have entertained. Indigenous artists in particular reached an important public.

Many projects seem to have, in a way, moved artistic power away from the institution towards an individual and a community level.

Sometimes finding inclusivity and solidarity in cultural responses to the Covid-19 crisis can lead to fun. Four friends in Toronto started a virtual queer dance party on Instagram, but the parties quickly shifted over to Zoom to up the club’s capacity. Club Quarantine a.k.a. Club Q hosts DJs and performers, and shares invitations to events on its Instagram account, which now has almost seventy thousand followers. In order to financially sustain the project, virtual club-goers are invited to donate money. With these fluctuating donations, Club Q pays performers a small stipend.

Screenshot of Rebecca Black performing 'Friday' from a Paper Magazine and Club Q event on April 15, 2020. Image provided by Club Q.

In a free panel hosted by Myseum Toronto on new initiatives sparking from the shutdown of the city, Andrés Sierra, one of the founders of Club Q, pointed to the unique benefits of the club being in one’s home. Sierra highlighted that participation is accessible: it is free, all bodies can remain comfortable in their spaces, and everyone essentially has the same visibility on the app, which creates an inclusive environment. The parties were so well received that they regularly reach their ‘room’ capacity and have had celebrity guests including Charli XCX and Lady Gaga.

Hope gives life

This isolating period gave people the opportunity to reimagine how communities could reallocate resources and reconsider inequalities in their systems.

Even though the pandemic has been financially stressful for the cultural sector in Canada, it has given rise to accessible and approachable ways of sharing art and creating community. Many projects seem to have, in a way, moved artistic power away from the institution towards an individual and a community level. Though many of the digital alternatives rely on major online platforms, they nevertheless manage to bring more expansive and diverse groups together through the arts than might have been possible in person. This isolating period gave people the opportunity to reimagine how communities could reallocate resources and reconsider inequalities in their systems—not only in the arts, but for other communities too. The mentioned examples and many more can act as precedents for collective empowerment through creativity.