By Jill Andrew
As a child, piano, drama, local singing competitions and dance literally helped save my spirit. Many children experience bullying at school and sadly I was no exception. However, the arts provided me with not only a safer space to negotiate healthier friendships but with a different mindset – one that afforded me the opportunity to think creatively, hone problem solving skills and to learn how to embrace the benefit of constructive criticism. It reinforced the power of play, my voice, my respect for the hard work and commitment required to take risks in art-making, and it taught me how to work through diverse group dynamics. Reflecting on my active days as both an artist and as a student of the arts, I also gained a deeper appreciation for self-reflection, for audience participation, and I learned to embrace emotions, mine and my peers, and to document my growth along the way.
Our arts and culture sector is critical to the social, cultural, economic and mental health of our communities. According to Ontario Arts Council (2020), arts and culture in Ontario directly contributed $26.8 billion annually to the provincial economy, representing 3.4 per cent of Ontario’s GDP. There were more than 277,430 culture jobs in Ontario or 3.7 per cent of total Ontario employment. I am eager to know what the stats will look like next year or the year after since leaders in the arts have told me the industry could take upwards of three to four years to recover from the pandemic impact.
The arts must be considered an integral part of public health and during this pandemic, like never before, artists and cultural workers especially community-based spaces and creatives representing equity-seeking groups have struggled to survive. It is time for Doug Ford’s government and particularly the Ontario Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, Lisa MacLeod, to show up for them in substantive ways especially, the small and medium arts organizations, cultural institutions and individual artists many of who have lived with precarious employment, grossly underpaid and under-resourced well before the pandemic.
During COVID-19 although the arts has been one of the hardest hit sectors and remains the sector that will be last to return to ‘normal’, it has remained the social medicine keeping us and particularly our mental health nourished during these challenging times with artists and cultural workers virtually sharing their craft with society often at no cost. Before COVID-19 the median income of Ontario artists was $23,500, which is below the median income for Canadian artists ($24,600), and far below the median income of all Ontario workers ($43, 600).
According to statistics received from CARFAC Ontario, 50 per cent of Ontario artists are self-employed, which is significantly higher than the self-employment proportion of all Ontario workers (12 per cent). Black, Indigenous, racialized and women artists have lower median incomes than their non-racialized, non-Indigenous and male counterparts. Too many of our community artists end up having to leave their craft due to systemic disparities or are disproportionately represented in the gig-economy where misclassification of workers among other discriminatory acts often results in employees being yet again underpaid, under-protected in terms of workplace safety and left without benefits or any sense of security.
These conditions must change. Ontario needs a Provincial Arts Strategy and it must be a central feature of the province’s COVID-19 response and recovery. The arts have propelled vital conversations on community safety, anti-Black racism, women’s rights, youth engagement, housing inequities, the environment, 2SLGBTQIA+ lives, and on mental health, to name a few. These conversations are public health conversations. They foster deeper community awareness of our diverse neighbourhoods which in terms builds stronger relationships among us. That is how we cultivate a sense of belonging in our communities. This is how we continue to learn to build trust in one another and to problem solve as a collective. It is through the arts that our histories, our narratives have carried forward through generations. It is how we can be sustainable and built a critical mass of leaders and community supports. It is how generations to come learn who they are, where they come from and where they still need to go. That is public health.
From the mouths of artists and community-based organizations it is clear that more designated funding for individual artists from government and granting institutions is crucial and the culture sector must include fashion and comedy – two central art forms currently ignored (which means no access to governmental funding) by the provincial and federal governments. Culture must be integrated into government policy as every ministry and community benefits from the jobs, revenue, tourism and heritage the arts brings to the table. Artists must be able to make a living wage and during the pandemic, we have heard calls for an artist basic income guarantee. Many of the larger cultural institutions use equity and diversity in their funding applications to secure dollars but their programming does not reflect their promises.
Our representation isn’t a funding prop. Race-based data on representation within senior leadership in arts and culture institutions and in grant recipients is needed. Artists require accessible spaces and greater access to ASL interpretation and we cannot ignore the opportunity to expand public art across the province and the benefits this can bring to further engage our children, youth and our elders. No more provincial cuts to arts and arts education. It has been proven time and time again that arts save lives, it builds community and it is by far one of the most accessible tools community can tap into to demand social justice while creating the sustainable futures we deserve to see. This list is not exhaustive by any means but in my opinion all of the above are doable and the time is now.
There is a strong demand for more intentional opportunities for networking, professional development and mentorship within the arts and especially for Black, Indigenous, racialized and artists with disabilities who are routinely underrepresented in so-called ‘mainstream’ arts spaces and this should not come at the expense of artists already economically disadvantaged. And for those who doubt this, just ask NIA Centre for the Arts, filmmakers Sharine Taylor, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, writer Zalika Reid- Benta, multi-disciplinary artists and muralist Curtia Wright, Deaf actor Natasha C. Bacchus or Legislative Assembly of Ontario’s inaugural Poet Laureate Randell Adjei among countless others. just how important the arts are. Trust me, they will tell you.
Dr. Jill Andrew is the Ontario NDP MPP for Toronto-St.Paul’s. She is also the Official Opposition’s Women’s Issues, Heritage and Culture critic and is also a founding member of the Ontario NDP Black Caucus.