In times of crisis, cracks in the system come to light. So far, COVID-19 seems to have exposed cracks in Canada with regards to the way homelessness, healthcare preparation and social assistance is flawed or flailing. This is true for the artistic community as well, as the unequal conditions of labour and employment that exist in the arts has been exposed- and in many cases, made worse- through the current pandemic.
And yet, the arts are what are offering many comfort during this time. Despite the physical distancing that has been mandated, the arts are being utilized to create solidarity. Numerous articles are being written on the importance of art in the current moment; however, simultaneously, artists are expressing the disastrous effect of the pandemic on their careers and livelihood.
Throughout our day to day existence, we are continually consuming art. We scroll through poems, photographs, writings and drawings as we skip through our playlists. We look for beauty in our daily walks and seek out large murals or past community art projects. We switch on the television to distract us from what is happening in the world outside. We are constantly encountering, and willingly receiving art. But artists are continuing to struggle.
The creation process- be it in a studio or a rehearsal hall- is a physical process undertaken by human beings. It is also generally invisible to a public who typically only sees a finished product. To many, it is assumed that art just appears and that when paying a ticket price, you are paying for the finished product- not all of the rehearsal time and effort that went into the overall process. This on its own creates a devaluation of art and contributes to the precarious labour conditions of artists. It is the responsibility of artists, administrators and organizations to continually remind the public of the entire process and acknowledge what might be otherwise considered an invisible process.
As a result, those working in the broader artistic community often live a financially precarious existence. Many navigate a no-work, no-pay environment with few or no benefits and erratic payment schedules. While unions do exist and can act on some artists behalf, the unions don’t provide protection to artists under all work circumstances- one performance may qualify while another may not. Due to the precarious nature of their work, lines of credit and mortgages can be difficult to obtain- even if there are sufficient funds to secure them. However, the same banks are typically more than happy to purchase art from the same emerging artist- rather than provide them with long-term stability.
In the past two weeks, both the Canada Council for the Arts and Ontario Arts Council have announced that they are processing payments to operating fund recipients. Presumably, this will involve the early release of funds for the next fiscal year. However, doing so is simply a band-aid. The funds being released now have likely been allocated for an organization’s next fiscal year. Utilizing these funds now simply postpones a precarious financial position, unless the organization can find a way to cover this gap within the next fiscal year; something that may be unlikely as the future continues to look uncertain.
However, even this solution is only being offered to those receiving a certain type of funding- and many, many arts organizations do not. For those who receive project funding, or for individual artists, they continue to be left in a precarious situation and reliant on other government supports during this time- such as the recently announced CERB (which opens for intake today). An additional complication in this is that the majority of charitable arts organizations in Canada have a budget under $100,000, making many of the options available from the government to be inappropriate options. As many of these organizations are already precarious and they continue to fall through the cracks, it is questionable as to whether many will survive the pandemic.
The impact of the pandemic- both now and in the future- has resulted in anxiety, concern and caution. There is no sense of when things will change and normal working conditions will return- and if things will return to how they once were, or if a new sense of normal will emerge. As if that sense of insecurity and its impact was not enough, artists such as Lynn Nottage (whose Pulitzer-winning play, Sweat, was recently performed at Theatre Aquarius) was asked to reimburse funds paid to her for upcoming work. The ripple effect of uncertainty at organizations, and its trickle-down effect to artists is extreme.
While COVID-19 has exposed many of the conditions of labour for the artistic community, it has only brought to light issues which already existed. The evolution of music listening, and the income musicians receive, for example, has changed dramatically as listeners find increasingly cheaper ways to stream music, leaving live events providing the most lucrative income for musicians. As simple listening no longer provides stable income, tours and festivals increase in scale and size. Musicians develop brand partnerships and merchandise in addition to performing and recording to try to make ends meet, despite having access to social media (and direct access to consumers).
Technology is also playing a profound role in how work is being consumed. In this time of physical distancing, artists and arts organizations are turning to technology to redefine how their work is consumed. Shared hashtags for performances or collections of work have assisted artists on social media in distributing their work and redefining who is able to consume their art, but is also redefining their working conditions.
From the Metropolitan Opera, to Hamilton Shows Up, live streaming is increasing in popularity to reach audiences. However, in addition to providing artists with a platform to perform, there is also the possibility that live streaming could provide artists with greater control over their income. And while the idea of individual artists holding concerts online may sound promising, it raises other questions of access.
While many mobile and internet providers have lifted data restrictions temporarily, access to data is a real and present issue in the day-to-day lives of Canadians. It has been widely reported that while the majority of Canadians own a smartphone, plan costs are amongst the highest in the world. Even with the government-mandate to lower costs, prices continue to decline in other countries; so even as our prices drop, they will still remain amongst the world’s highest. Additionally, as wifi access has increased in public areas (which are now closed) many individuals have opted to drop the data-part of their plan in an effort to save costs. Streaming video content is a data-intensive activity, so although streaming may provide artists with a wider population to watch their work, it may not give them access to the local audience that they desire. As such, alternatives for performances and income-generation continue to be limited.
Now, more than ever, Canadians are benefitting from the consumption of art, yet artists aren’t receiving an equal amount of benefits. As the public utilizes art to connect and regroup, and artists continually think of new ways to work within the current limitations, it is necessary for the public and government to rethink the ways in which we are supporting those who are making our time in physical isolation bearable. As a society, we have much work to do to ensure that the refuge and solace that artists are providing to us right now is reciprocated to them in practical and real ways- both now and in the future.