Written by Laurence D. Dubuc, PhD Candidate, University of Montreal
Who has not come across a social media post stating something similar to the following at least once in the last weeks? “If you think art and artists are useless, try spending your lockdown without movies, books, poems and paintings.”
The Great Lockdown has brought the most privileged of us to increase our cultural consumption levels in a significant way. At the same time, the arts and culture sector is amongst the hardest hit by Covid-19. Artists and cultural organizations have witnessed the gradual closing of music venues and art institutions, the cancellation of openings, events, festivals, concerts, filmings. The government’s attempts to restrain the virus and keep the population safe has led to their contracts and opportunities disappearing one after the other.
Obviously artists do not have a monopoly of Covid-19-induced precarity in terms of work and employment. Everyone, every type of company and every sector, is affected in some ways. Salaried and hourly workers have experienced lay offs or reductions of their work load and income across the country. However independent contractors—or the self-employed—occupy a particularly precarious position. In its current state, Canadian labour policies fail to protect workers working engaged under “atypical” arrangements, a term that has long been losing its relevance in the course of capitalism’s evolution. The social and economic crisis provoked by Covid-19 has proven that our national social protection system is unsuitable for a lot of workers, especially self-employed ones. It has also disclosed major deficiencies affecting artists specifically because of the sector’s dependency on public support.
According to a recent Hill Strategies report, 52% of Canadian artists were self-employed in 2016 compared to only 12% of the general population. As independent contractors, artists are excluded from most of the legal protections available to employees, which were initially designed to redress concerns with the standard employment model. Because artists are known to be multiple-job holders, many studies across industrialized countries have investigated their income distribution between arts and non-arts activities. In Quebec, we know for example that the arts-derived income of professional visual artists and dancers is so low that holding multiple jobs appears to be for most artists a necessity in order to survive. Even when they cumulate their independent contractor status with a salaried status in another job, a lot of artists do not meet the requirements to benefit from the protection of the Employment Insurance Act.
When Covid-19 reached Canada and Quebec, it became clear that temporary social protection programs would be needed to ensure all workers could have their most basic needs met. In Quebec, the Temporary Aid for Workers Program (PATT) was put in place to temporarily support workers ineligible for EI while they waited for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to open on April the 6th. A preliminary report published on April 13th by the Canadian Arts Council showed that 43% of the 7 500 participating artists and cultural organizations had applied to the CERB. Of the remaining 57%, 35% said they did not need it, while 36% said they did not think they were eligible, 21% gave other reasons, and 7% said they were lacking information. As with many other self-employed workers, artists can be unfamiliar or intimidated by the technicalities of policies from which they are usually excluded. For instance, they need to know that that the CERB is a taxable benefit and that they should set aside some money – now or later – for next year’s income tax season. Also, since CERB, just like EI, is a temporary income replacement program, artists who benefit from it already need to think about securing contracts and other opportunities for the fall right now.
The Covid-19 crisis is also exacerbated in the arts and culture sector because of the fact that apart from the rare larger profitable cultural organizations, the smaller not-for-profits (NFPs) are dependent upon the state for their survival. These latter organizations play a vital role in the federal, provincial, regional and local cultural ecosystems. They not only provide work opportunities to an important number of artists across Canada but they also work to shield artists and cultural workers from some market pressures. As the Canadian Arts Council report showed, 41% of participating cultural organizations had applied to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) which provides a wage subsidy of up to 75% to eligible employers for a period of up to 12 weeks. The same report showed that 7% of them had not applied because they had to cease all activities due to Covid-19.
Finally, only 16% of organizations said they would apply to the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), most of them not holding the minimum assets to obtain a loan through the program. The dependency of the Canadian arts and culture sector upon the state is contributing in a very important way to its own precarity because it leaves it particularly vulnerable to any social, economc and/or political crisis.
The IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath predicted that following Covid-19 we will experiment the worst recession since the Great Depression. What will then happen to the Canadian public funding model for the arts and culture and to artists? Will we go back to our old policies providing them with basically no safety net? As the Canadian government is spending massively in order to protect workers and the economy, what awaits the arts and culture sector is preoccupying precisely because it does not generate as much profits as other sectors. When the government’s pockets will be empty, who will it sacrifice first? This question calls for a deeper reflexion on what we value as a society. Let’s hope that the Great Lockdown will have shown to the people who were not already aware of it that the arts and culture are essential to our society.
In its current state, both our national social protection system and the arts and culture sector’s dependency on the state are not sustainable. It is time to start a conversation about how we can imagine new models that would provide all workers – as citizens– with a set of social and political rights that are disconnected from their contribution to the economy in general and as “standard employees” in particular. We also need to think about ways to shield the arts and culture sector from both market and institutional pressures. Freeing artists and cultural organizations from their dependency on a state that does not efficiently protect them would empower them.
From a legal standpoint, I doubt that the improvement of the artist’s socioeconomic condition will solely come from the current ongoing revision of the Canadian Copyright Act and both Status of the Artist Acts in Quebec. A different way to empower artists could be through interprofessional unionization based on the employment status, as suggested by French author Aurélien Catin. This is an interesting idea in the context where sectoral collective bargaining such as in Quebec’s performing arts has not proven capable of providing better work for artists since it was put in place in 1987. The union S’ATTAQ, affiliated to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), is currently organizing self-employed workers including artists in Quebec.
Laurence Dubuc, “Artists are Screwed in the COVID-19 Era: What Implications for Labour Policies” Canadian Law of Work Forum (April 27 2020): https://lawofwork.ca/?p=12398
Hill Strategies Research Inc. (November 17th, 2019). “A Statistical Profile of Artists in Canada in 2016”. Online, https://hillstrategies.com/resource/statistical-profile-of-artists-in-canada-in-2016/
Observatoire de la culture et des communications du Québec. (2013). “Les artistes en arts visuels: Portrait statistique des conditions de pratique au Québec”. Online, https://www.stat.gouv.qc.ca/statistiques/culture/arts-visuels/mono-arts-visuels.pdf
Observatoire de la culture et des communications du Québec. (2011). “Les danseurs et les chorégraphes québécois. Portrait des conditions de pratique de la profession de la danse au Québec”. Online, https://www.stat.gouv.qc.ca/statistiques/culture/arts-scene/danseurs-choregraphes/danseurs-choregraphes.pdf
Caillou, A. (April 14th, 2020). “Des artistes se disent confiants de s’en sortir”. Online, https://www.ledevoir.com/culture/576940/coronavirus-les-artistes-se-disent-satisfaits-des-mesures-d-aide-du-federal
Act respecting the professional status and conditions of engagement of performing, recording and film artists, CQLR c S-32.1;Act respecting the professional status of artists in the visual arts, arts and crafts and literature, and their contracts with promoters,CQLR c S-32.01
Catin, A. (2020). “Notre Condition: Essai sur le salaire au travail artistique“. Riot.
Choko, M. (2014). “L’autonomie collective au service de la protection des travailleurs autonomes: comment favoriser leur accès à un travail décent à la lumière du cas des artistes au Québec”, Doctoral dissertation, McGill Faculty of Law.