Arts·Black Light

Artists are getting us through COVID-19. Never question their value again

If this crisis is an opportunity for change, let's start paying artists their dues.

If this crisis is an opportunity for change, let's start paying artists their dues

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Toronto musician Tika launched a concert series on Instagram Live. (Alex Chan)

Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

Most of the country is in lockdown, attempting to slow the spread of COVID-19. And it's led many of us to reflect not only on the current moment but also on what comes next. If there will be an "after" COVID-19, the world will be fundamentally changed. (Yes, I said "if.") 

There's a question that I've noticed coming up a lot lately: what kind of new world do we want to build? Part of the answer lies in reflecting on what we don't want to continue. I suggest that in this new iteration, we stop devaluing artists' worth.

If you told me a month ago that I would be spending my evenings re-watching the pilot episode of The Walking Dead, jotting down tips for non-violent survival tools (transistor radio, walkie talkies, bolt cutters?), I would have laughed — a lot. But the world looks different today than it did just a few weeks earlier. 

The things we once took for granted seem more fragile and fleeting than ever before. I've only been able to stop myself from descending into a rabbit hole of existential despair and irrational paranoia by basking in live duets between Deborah Cox and Tamia, or watching Christopher Paunil create ridiculously stylish COVID-19 masks. I've spent mornings reading the words of M. NourbeSe Philip, evenings struggling to keep up with Esie Mensah's dance moves and nights jamming down to sets by some of Toronto's finest DJs

And I'm not the only one. Everyone I talk to seems to be coping with social isolation through engagement with art and culture. Our calendars are now populated by appointments for virtual theatre readings, Instagram Live paint-alongs and Stay-at-Home Cinema nights. At a time when social distancing has become a matter of life and death, it is the creatives who have largely made it possible to endure this new way of life.

Let's not forget that this isn't an easy time for anyone in the creative industries. Lockdowns around the world have forced tours, performances, book launches, festivals and film productions to cancel. Entire creative industries that are already highly vulnerable have been put on pause. It is too early to say how much this virus has economically affected Canada's cultural industries, but artists felt the hit almost immediately.

The thing is, before this lockdown even began, artists in Canada were already facing a multitude of challenges. Last year in Ontario, funding to the Ontario Arts Council was cut by $10 million, a $5 million Indigenous Culture Fund was cancelled and the Ontario Music Fund was cut by $8 million. Similar decisions were made in Alberta in 2019, with cuts to video game industries, the Alberta Foundation of the Arts and The Banff Centre.

In Winnipeg, proposed cuts to the arts made headlines earlier this month. In February, Nova Scotia arts groups challenged the province's decade-long funding freeze. These recent cuts follow a national trend where support for the arts is largely deemed elective. It is often one of the first areas on the chopping block when governments want to balance budgets. Artists are constantly forced to prove their value and worth to governments and voters. This lockdown should be a wake-up call to all of us who are leaning on these creatives now: arts and culture needs to be an unwavering national priority.

Writer Whitney French (right) held a character development workshop online March 30. (Marcus Tan de Bibiana)

But if you're tired of me tugging on your heart strings and need things broken down into dollars and cents, artists are consistently bringing this country cold hard cash.

Numbers released by Statistics Canada last year revealed that the economic impact of culture industries in 2017 was approximately $59 billion. That's eight times more than sports and is larger than the combined value of utilities; agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting; and accommodation and food services.

In 2014, Toronto spent far less per capita on arts, culture and heritage than cities like Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa, but creative industries in Toronto still contributed $11.3 billion to the city's GDP. Artists bring in money, and perhaps more importantly, they also help to build Canadian identity. According to a fact sheet put out by the Toronto Arts Council, 95 per cent of Ontario residents believe that the success of Canadian artists gives people a sense of national pride.

Artists are constantly forced to prove their value and worth to governments and voters. This lockdown should be a wake-up call to all of us who are leaning on these creatives now: arts and culture needs to be an unwavering national priority.- Amanda Parris

Despite all of this, our culture constantly belittles artists' worth, but remains happy to parade their talent for ceremony. Remember when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that "ordinary working people" don't care about the arts — that they don't want to turn on their TVs to see artists whining about funding at "a rich gala"? 

In Harper's estimation, artists aren't working people. (And an important note about those "galas" — they're a rare opportunity for artists to celebrate their work and make important connections. They can also lead to more recognition and resources for their work). Harper's astonishing ignorance about the average life of Canadian artists would have been hilarious if the reality weren't so sad. 

Thursday, April 2, dancer Esie Mensah led an Afrofusion Dance class on Instagram Live. (Courtesy of Esie Mensah)

According to a recent Canada Council study, the median individual income for Canadian artists is $24,300, which is well below the poverty line. The lowest rung is reserved for dancers, who make $15,800 a year, on average. Musicians and singers follow them ($17,900/year) and then actors and comedians ($18,500/year). People in these creative fields have been hit particularly hard by the lockdown. The tours and live shows that make up a substantial part of their income have all been cancelled. And contrary to Harper's assessment of artists, the Toronto Arts Foundation's 2019 Art Stats report revealed that Toronto-based artists work an average 51.4 hours a week, which is more than the average full-time Canadian worker. 

In spite of that hustle and grind, the majority of artists in the city cannot make enough to continue living here. A recent cost of living index estimated that a resident would need to earn $55,500 a year to afford rent and take public transit in Toronto. With so many artists now unable to earn their wages, the future looks bleaker, even with the various avenues of support that have emerged in the midst of COVID-19

Not all artists are in the same boat, however. I would be remiss if I didn't also mention Black artists' difficulties in accessing arts funding. Historically, it has been an upward climb, regardless of government-enforced cuts. Andrea Monike Fatona's critical study on equity at the Canada Council of the Arts illustrates how in the '80s and '90s, Indigenous, POC and Black artists had to work together to lobby various cultural institutions to address the systemic exclusion of their art and the way that work was positioned and categorized. There is a systemic reason why racialized Canadians are underrepresented in the arts community. It is scary to think how much more those numbers will decrease as we feel the after-effects of this moment. 

As we sit at home in isolation bingeing movies created by artists, watching Instagram Lives hosted by artists and singing along to music created by artists, I hope an awakening happens. What kind of world do we want to build? I hope it's one where the same creatives who have kept us entertained and sane during this time are no longer taken for granted. I want a world where artists are respected and valued for their work and their worth.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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