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A lone person walks the empty streets in Kensington Market in Toronto on April 15, 2020.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Daniel Silver is a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. Gail Lord is president of Lord Cultural Resources. Mark S. Fox is associate director for research at U of T’s School of Cities.

With unemployment approaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, it is time for bold initiatives. The federal government is wisely considering a major stimulus package geared toward improving the country’s infrastructure. Yet to have maximum impact, it is necessary to expand the notion of infrastructure beyond the physical. Our society is built not only on roads, bridges and cables, but also on music, stories and images. We need a 21st-century Canadian version of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.

The original WPA pushed the boundaries of what counts as infrastructure. It employed workers to build hospitals, post offices, parks, auditoriums, government buildings and much more – many of which became iconic and are still in use today, such as Los Angeles’s Griffith Observatory. But the WPA also sparked one of the most dramatic expansions and diversifications of culture the world has ever seen, through subsidizing the production of visual art, music, theatre, literature, film, crafts, folklore documentation and arts education programs.

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The results were astonishing, resulting in some 2,500 murals, more than 100,000 paintings, millions of posters, over 17,000 sculptures, 6,000 music teachers and 225,000 concerts. Much of this flowering took root in underserved marginalized communities and rural areas.

The devastating effects of COVID-19 on our society and economy demand nothing short of a similar investment today. The arts and culture sector has been hit particularly hard. This sector accounts for nearly 3 per cent of the Canadian GDP, greater than agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting; accommodation and food services; and utilities. As of April, it had already shed some 85,000 jobs.

Governments around the world have responded with various interventions. Canada has performed admirably, most notably with the announcement of a $500-million fund for cultural, heritage and sport organizations; the Canada Council’s Digital Originals program to support artists and arts organizations pivoting to digital during the pandemic; additional advanced funding from the Canada Council; $1,000 to each act that performs in the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms series; as well as numerous provincial and municipal initiatives, among others.

These programs offer helpful short-term relief for arts communities and audiences, but they do not go far enough in looking to the future. We need to envision the role of culture in the “post lockdown” world with large-scale unemployment, seating limitations and safety precautions, as well as more activity occurring outdoors, digitally and in the public realm. In this world, the cultural sphere can reduce social distance while maintaining physical distance.

A 21st century WPA would require co-ordination across all levels of government, though federal leadership and dollars would be crucial sparks. The devil would be in the details of governance, technology and implementation. But angels fly from a vision of a better world, and this is what we need to allow ourselves to imagine.

Picture it:

  • 10,000 artists employed to reimagine our public spaces and buildings in every city, town and neighbourhood. Thousands of modern murals drawn in paint, pixels and interactive technology. A walk down the street becomes a multi-dimensional experience artfully intertwining heightened perception and historical depth. Imagine Service Canada centres designed to delight rather than dull the senses.
  • A government and philanthropic fund to “purchase” or “rent” 100,000 performances and exhibitions from all manner of theatre companies and musical groups to present in schools, care homes, malls, parks and online.
  • Robust arts education in all 15,000 schools in the country. We can redeploy and train unemployed artists to teach music, dance, creative writing, animation, digital arts, painting, sculpture and drama. There could be virtual in-home personal instruction for any Canadian family who wants it.
  • Direct support to racialized, immigrant and indigenous artists, as well as subsidies to encourage the profusion of cultural activity outside of major urban centres, where it is disproportionately concentrated. Canada today is overflowing with stories from its immigrant communities that must be documented for generations to come. Let us ask our artists to find new ways to preserve and celebrate them.
  • A Canadian international digital platform to make our talent discoverable worldwide. We don’t have a Hollywood or a British Council or a TV5 – but our actors, dancers, musicians and artists need that powerful window to the world to reach future markets and sustainability.

With Canadian federal, provincial and city leaders enjoying some of their highest approval levels, the time is right for transformative action. The point is not to give handouts to artists but to employ the creative energies of our society toward cultural renewal, expansion and diversification. The effects will reverberate for generations.

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