Saskatchewan’s arts sector needs help for its cruel case of long Covid

Arts | Gregory Beatty

As rising case counts from a fall surge remind us, COVID is still very much with us. We’re closing in on four years now. It’s been a gruelling experience for everyone.

When we look at the overall arts landscape in Saskatchewan, says Em Ironstar, it’s clear the pain is still being felt.

“I think definitely for the performing arts, which were particularly hard hit by the pandemic, it is a struggle for many organizations,” says Ironstar, the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance’s executive director.

“The Arts Alliance has conversations with different arts leaders all the time, and as we were chatting this summer it became evident that they were not seeing ticket sales rebound like they projected. Audience behaviours seem to have changed, and performing arts groups are definitely feeling the impact,” says Ironstar.

In Regina, both Regina Symphony Orchestra and Regina Folk Festival have gone public with their struggles — in fact, the RFF was forced to lay off most of its staff in September. And they’re far from alone, in Saskatchewan and beyond. In mid-September, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations mere days before the start of its 2023–2024 season. The symphony had existed for 78 years.

The pandemic isn’t the only complication. There’s also the rocky economic waters Canada (and the world) are in right now, which is forcing people to make some tough spending decisions.

Arts groups are swimming in the same waters, and that’s putting additional stress on them, says Ironstar.

“You talk to people who are involved in bringing in touring musicians, or doing staging and lighting, some of those costs have doubled and even tripled,” says Ironstar. “Then there’s the inflation people are facing, where they have less disposable income to spend. To me, it’s a perfect storm of factors that have come together to make it hard for the performing arts now.”

Not that the arts were in particularly great shape pre-COVID. That’s a point that needs emphasizing, says Ironstar.

“One thing we can’t neglect is that funding levels to arts organizations, mainly those funded through SK Arts, have been flatlined for many years,” she says.

“Ten years ago, in 2013–2014, the general revenue fund allocation to SK Arts was $6.95 million. Since 2017, it’s been flatlined at $6.61 million, until last year, when there was a $175,000 increase (which amounts to 2.6 per cent over six years). If the allocation would’ve kept pace with inflation, we project there would be $1.18 million more in the pool. It’s significant,” says Ironstar.

Years of threadbare budgets have left Saskatchewan arts organizations in a weakened state, and that’s not the end of the storm they’re facing, says Ironstar.

“Sponsorships have also been impacted. There’s less dollars to go around. Also, funding priorities for some donors have shifted. If an arts organization had to pause their season, or their programming, sponsors sometimes shifted to something else. It’s another huge challenge,” she says.

Cathedral Gamble

Don Young can confirm the sponsorship challenge. He’s director of Regina’s popular Cathedral Village Arts Festival.

Young says after two years off, and a scaled back festival in 2022, this year was considered a success.

The festival was able to offer a full slate of concerts, plays and performances, venues were all busy, and the Saturday Street Fair was packed. Volunteer support was strong too.

“Where we did not bounce back was in corporate support, both with larger-scale donors and the Cathedral business community which traditionally supports the festival,” says Young.

“We don’t know if that is a continuing change in emphasis from our traditional supporters, or if they are dealing with financial issues themselves. But our corporate support was down substantially,” he says.

On the public side, the City of Regina, recognizing the tough spot the festival was in, provided a bump in funding. Provincially, Young echoes Ironstar’s concern about SK Arts funding being frozen for so long.

A top priority for him heading into 2024 is to strengthen fundraising.

“That’s why they created my job,” says Young. “I’m the first professional director the festival has had. They created it not just to deal with the red tape of getting permits and licenses, but to develop a vision for the future.

“This was our 33rd festival, and over the years it has grown. But my job is a bit of a gamble by the board to see if we can build something for the future. And that obviously begins with fundraising,” says Young.

Fringe Scene

The Saskatoon Fringe Festival gave it the old college try when COVID torpedoed their 2020 plans, but they still took a financial hit, says executive director Anita Smith.

“In 2020, we lost 95 per cent of our revenue. Instead of a festival, we did smaller, physically distanced shows on people’s lawns, plus a lot of digital content. It was great. I think we had almost 100 artists earning money, which really counted for something at that time,” she says.

“In 2021, we went back to a fringe — but again, it was physically distanced, with reduced houses, and a good amount of digital content,” says Smith. “We did adjust. But all those COVID supports that were in place to limp us along, the wage subsidies and everything else — they just went Boom, gone. Your audiences aren’t back, but it doesn’t matter. 2022 was a tough year,” she says.

Audience numbers in 2023 were still down from pre-COVID levels. But they were up about a thousand from 2022, which Smith sees as a positive sign.

But she says the pandemic is still a concern.

“We love to pretend, I think, that COVID has gone away. But it hasn’t. It’s still having an impact on art forms that require groups of people to come together in a room,” says Smith.

Smith shares Ironstar and Young’s concern about flatlined provincial arts funding, and has a particular bone to pick with the government.

“I would be remiss if I did not mention that they decided to charge PST on tickets this year. We did increase our prices, but we didn’t see any financial benefit. Our patrons are going, ‘Oh, the price has increased.’ Yes, it has. Because you now have to pay PST. But we’re not getting that money,” says Smith.

At the same time the government is nickel-and-diming local arts organizations, it’s been reinvesting in the Film/TV industry that it abandoned in 2012. Smith applauds the move (which is being done through Creative Saskatchewan) but says the government shouldn’t neglect other arts disciplines.

“Artists cross disciplines all the time,” she says.

“Just today, I got a call from a production company that’s looking to cast and asking if I could put them in touch with actors that might be a good fit. We’re constantly collaborating, and yes it’s nice the provincial government has come around and decided to support the film industry again. But we did lose almost our entire industry. It will take time to build back up.”

Report Due

Ironstar says the Arts Alliance will soon submit a report to the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport outlining the dire state of the arts and the benefits of investing in them at this critical time.

“The government is definitely aware of the issue. That’s a key thing we do, act as a collective voice for the arts in the province. We’ve been ringing alarm bells and noting how a lot of organizations are either in crisis or close to it,” she says.

The report, she says, will show how investing in the arts is good policy, not just in Parks, Culture, Sport, but for other ministries such as Tourism, Education and Health.

“We want to be very clear how investing in the arts aligns with positive outcomes for the government of Saskatchewan,” says Ironstar.

“I just think it’s worth trying to protect some of our institutions and organizations and help them through what is really an unprecedented time. [It’s easier] than it will be to start from scratch with nothing. It will take a lot more resources to [start over] than if we support the people and infrastructure we have now,” she says. ■


Finding Funds and Taking Risks

During the seven-plus years arts groups have been “flatlined” by the Sask. Party government they haven’t just been sitting idle. Rather, they’ve been brainstorming different strategies to expand support in the community.

Over that time, Saskatchewan has seen a lot of demographic changes. That’s one area of potential growth, says Em Ironstar of Saskatchewan Arts Alliance.

“A group of performing arts organizations met in early September, and the focus of the conversation was audience development,” she says.

“The challenge is twofold,” says Ironstar. “A lot of groups still have their ‘old school’ audience who have been long-time supporters. They are programming to them, but also trying to do things that are new and innovative that might bring in a different audience, whether that’s a younger crowd, or people from different backgrounds.”

Building an audience doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, people and resources. All of which, in today’s arts environment, are in short supply.

“Baseline in Saskatchewan, arts organizations need more operational funding to be able to invest in audience development, and also to be able to take the risk. Programming something new and innovative that isn’t a guaranteed sellout, or where you don’t know if you’ll sell a lot of tickets, that’s a huge risk,” says Ironstar.

The Saskatoon Fringe Festival is committed to audience development, says Anita Smith.

“The demographics of Saskatchewan are changing, and we want to see more IPOC performers on our stages,” says Smith. “We want to see more of those stories told.”

In the COVID era, the festival has benefited from two major bequests that helped it first survive the pandemic, and now expand a bit, through some fall and winter programming it has planned.

Bequests are another area of potential growth, Smith thinks.

“It took me awhile to come around to that, but it is true we are all going to meet our end at some time. It’s a conversation I initially felt uncomfortable having with people, but I’m getting more comfortable with now because it’s about leaving a legacy and making sure that something goes on beyond you,” she says.

For Don Young at Cathedral Village Arts Festival, one goal he has is to expand awareness of the festival beyond the Saturday street fair.

“We have a lot of people tell us ‘We love coming to the street fair, and — oh, by the way, we didn’t know you have five other days of programming at different venues.’ That seems to be true with the broader community, and that’s why we have the 30,000 to 40,000 people who come out on Saturday,” says Young.

One idea that’s been proposed is to change the name from Cathedral Village Arts Festival to Cathedral Arts Festival Week to remind people about the full Monday-to-Saturday scope of the festival.

“We also want to run a ‘Friends of the Festival’ campaign, where we get people in Cathedral to put a sticker in their window or a lawn sign that says they support the festival,” says Young. “I think we need to be really proactive at the grassroots level to get that local support, and then I’m talking to the board soon about what we do with the bigger corporate sponsors.”.