Art Versus The Plague

Saskatchewan’s cultural sector has been pummelled by the pandemic. What’s next?

Feature by Gregory Beatty

The lifeblood of arts and culture is public engagement, so when the pandemic first struck last March, says Marnie Gladwell, the effect was immediate.

“We did two surveys — one of artists and cultural workers, the other of arts organizations — and found that they’d been hit hard and were reeling,” says Gladwell, who is the executive director of Saskatchewan Arts Alliance (SAA). “And I’m not sure it’s improved a whole bunch since then in what they’ve been able to do.”

Not surprisingly, artists and arts organizations rallied, shifting programming online and staging innovative outdoor performances that complied with physical distancing guidelines. Improvisation and adapting under difficult circumstances are, after all, arts sector trademarks.

“I think they filled a gap for a lot of people to help deal with the isolation they may have been experiencing,” Gladwell says. “But often the programming was free, so it wasn’t necessarily a revenue generator. And if it did involve a ticket, it wouldn’t replace the revenue they would’ve normally received.”

Federal Covid-relief programs such as CERB/CRB and rent and wage subsidies have helped many artists and arts organizations stay afloat. Still, the stats are grim. Recent numbers from Statistics Canada show that one in four arts, entertainment and recreation workers lost their job in 2020. Nationwide, that amounts to 114,400 people working in a broad spectrum of occupations from administrative and technical to creative and marketing.

For comparison, the entire oil and gas industry employs 160 –170 thousand people, in total.

Job losses were high in the Accommodation and Food Services sector too. But in the remaining 16 sectors measured by Stats Can job losses were more in the one in 10 to one in 20 range. And two sectors even added jobs [see sidebar].

Cruel Irony

When the pandemic hit last March, says SaskMusic executive director Michael Dawson, musicians and others in the industry such as stage techs and venue operators faced immediate layoffs.

The irony was especially cruel for musicians, as with album sales in the tank thanks to streaming services, touring, playing festivals and selling merchandise has become a vital source of income. Suddenly, that was gone.

To compensate, some musicians did livestream shows to earn money and stay connected to fans, and a promotion called Bandcamp Fridays sprang up to help musicians earn a bit more from streaming.

SaskMusic also organized a t-shirt promotion to help struggling venues.

“If there is an upside to all this, it’s helped reaffirm the value music brings to folks’ lives with how quickly people pivoted to other things,” says Dawson. “Financially, it’s still a far cry from where it was, with the capacity to be on the road and touring. But we are seeing a lot of ingenuity, with artists developing temporary band-aid solutions to continue their careers.”

The operative words there are “temporary” and “band-aid”. Musicians are doing what they can to keep working, but until live shows and festivals are back they’ll be in survival mode.

“With the tools artists have now, they can distribute their music around the world,” says Dawson. “But people don’t buy as much music as they used to, so artists are on the road more, and a lot of the work we do at SaskMusic is to help them open those doors and tour the world.

“I think we’ve had great success,” Dawson adds. “There are a number of Saskatchewan artists who were touring internationally, so the challenge becomes how do you keep a foothold in those markets and sustain your career when you can’t be present in them.”

The Road Ahead

In SAA’s follow-up consultations with members, says Gladwell, several concerns have emerged. One is deficits that may have accrued during the year. Even at the best of times, arts organizations operate on razor thin budgets — so few have the type of cushion needed to weather a global pandemic.

Another concern: many administrators, backstage technicians and other support staff may have left the arts to earn a living elsewhere.

“If they don’t come back, who’s going to replace them?” says Gladwell. “If that happens, we’ll be losing a lot of knowledge, skill and expertise, so if we’re going to replace those people, there’s going to have to be some kind of training program so the sector can be rejuvenated.”

Sponsorships are a third concern, says Gladwell.

“A lot of organizations rely on sponsorship for a portion of their revenue,” she says. “We don’t know for sure, but we’re suspecting that businesses and corporations that have been hit hard by the pandemic will not be in a position to provide that support now.”

Then there’s the matter of festivals. “The ones that are coming up this summer, if they aren’t allowed to reopen that will be two years where they haven’t existed,” says Gladwell. “So there are a lot of unknowns.”

Since the pandemic’s start, the federal Liberals have extended the Covid relief programs several times.

At the provincial level, the Saskatchewan Party government will deliver the 2021–2022 budget on April 6.

“We met with the minister of Parks, Culture and Sport not long ago,” says Gladwell. “Other organizations are also meeting with the minister. I think they are very aware of the situation. Some kind of recovery plan would be really important. Right now, many in the sector are in a really precarious situation.”

As vaccines roll out, governments are beginning to talk about reopening. That’s possibly good news, but as the worst-hit sector during the pandemic, arts and culture will need time to recover, says Gladwell.

“It all depends on when audiences feel safe to go back,” she says. “Some people are suggesting it might be 18 months, others think it might be more than that for their organizations to recover. Artists are saying the same thing — that in order to get out of the debt they’re in and recover in their professional life it’s going to take quite a bit of time.”

In early March, Ontario’s Conservative government announced a one-time $25 million investment to help arts organizations and artists rebound from the pandemic. The former skewed to heavy hitters such as the Stratford Festival, National Ballet of Canada and Canadian Opera Company, so that drew some criticism, but overall the support was undoubtedly welcome.

Looking ahead to budget day, Dawson is hopeful the province will step up.

“Saskatchewan has a very vibrant arts and culture sector with amazing artists,” he says. “We have the Saskatchewan Arts Board and Creative Saskatchewan as funding bodies, and through that support we’ve shown the value of those investments and the capacity they give us to launch artists.”

The value of arts and culture extends beyond the economy, of course. As a province, we’ve just gone through this weird year-long experiment in physical isolation.

As we venture out and start to reconnect post-pandemic, arts and culture — as they’ve always been — will be a key meeting ground.

“It’s what they do, is bring people together,” says Dawson. “They’re also a significant tourism driver, where people come from all over the province and well beyond to go to festivals and be part of that greater community. Then there’s all the vendors and food trucks, there’s just so many pieces that come together around arts and culture.”


SIDEBAR

The Arts Adapt

To find out how arts organizations are coping with pandemic times we reached out to six groups in Regina and Saskatoon. Here’s what they had to say. /Greg Beatty

Remai Modern

The pandemic has certainly presented new challenges for Remai Modern, as it has for our peers in the arts and everyone in our communities. The museum closed to the public in mid-March and worked hard to establish processes that would make it safe when visitors returned in August. We are very fortunate to be open and to be able to continue to be a place for shared expression and cultural experiences at a time when activities outside of peoples’ homes are so limited. Knowing that not everyone is able visit the museum in person, we’ve accelerated our efforts to share online content, from artist’s talks to our book club Artful Readings, digital projects with artists, and Fireside Chats foregrounding Indigenous voices. It’s a priority for Remai Modern to support artists through this uncertain time and provide opportunities for them to produce work and connect with audiences on site and online. remaimodern.org

Regina Symphony Orchestra

The RSO has managed its way through the pandemic so far, performing live at Holy Rosary Cathedral in the fall, and recently creating an education video that will reach almost 50,000 students in south Saskatchewan. The RSO also released a video recording of the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony in February and is planning to stream free concerts starting in March. If all goes well, the RSO hopes to resume live performances at the cathedral later this spring, and has an exciting new season planned for fall 2021. There will be concerts at Conexus Arts Centre, Government House and the cathedral, along with more videos and live performances for students and general audiences out in the community. reginasymphony.com

Live Five Theatre

We were forced to cancel our two remaining productions last spring, and we decided to postpone our 2020–2021 season as we did not expect to be in the clear by then. Unfortunately, most of our revenue is tied to a small percentage of ticket revenue, corporate sponsorship through ad sales and fundraisers — all of which hinge on us actively producing shows. Our board has taken the last year to rework our overall vision, mission, mandate and policies to ensure that members of traditionally marginalized communities are able to connect with the arts in a more meaningful way. We look forward to producing live theatre again in the near future with a more community-minded focus. livefive.ca

Cathedral Village Arts Festival

Last year as we assembled our festival crew, we were faced with an enormous decision. Do we pull the plug or try to pull off a digital festival? We chose the latter and ended up having a wildly successful festival. Every genre of our physical festival was represented online. While innovation isn’t always improvement, we did end up with some benefits like analytics to show how engaged our fans were with the events. Some of the changes will continue, like the online street fair and the new, improved website. We had to adapt and respond to typical technology issues like the website crashing, but we were still able to fulfill our mandate, provide free entertainment and a venue for emerging and established artists. cvaf.ca

Broadway Theatre

Broadway Theatre has felt the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic in every facet of what we do. Our business is bringing people together, which becomes very challenging when your audience is pulled away. We were fortunate to have our management team create and launch an incredibly successful fundraising campaign last fall (“Broadway: Here to Stay”). These funds will help ensure we do not simply survive until reopening at full capacity is possible, but that we will return as strong as ever. An example of a small but impactful gesture made to engage with our community is our inspirational marquee messaging: our posts have made hundreds of thousands of impressions nationwide since we closed.  broadwaytheatre.ca

New Dance Horizons

Coming out of winter last year and into spring was not only a new season but a new reality. Like other cultural organizations, we have grappled with how to best continue and to look at what is most essential in our work and lives. With critical concerns of health and safety at the forefront, we have reconsidered and explored ways of creating, learning, teaching and presenting programming. The role of movement, creativity and imagination in art has been amplified as we all seek new ways of being with ourselves and others in presence and absence. NDH’s moving adventure of recent and ongoing classes, dialogues, virtual events and performances are available through newdancehorizons.ca; streamofdance.ca; and our upcoming thepelicanproject.ca. newdancehorizons.ca