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Vancouver's Eastside Atelier has mostly empty studios during the first night of the Eastside Culture Crawl on Nov. 12.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

It’s like a pub crawl for art lovers. Over one long weekend every November, thousands of fans of visual art, from collectors to the merely curious, descend upon East Vancouver for a spirited four-day festival of studio visits, workshops, discussions and demonstrations that make up the annual Eastside Culture Crawl.

“It really is quite an amazing energy-sharing of humans,” says Morley Faber, owner of the Mergatroid, a low-slung building in Strathcona that houses dozens of studios. “The hallways are packed, the studios are packed. It’s just good energy. People love it.”

In a tweet promoting last year’s edition, the official Tourism Vancouver account teased: “It’s the event where you never know what you’ll stumble upon!” But in 2020, with people fearing they might stumble upon a respiratory pathogen, that sounds more like a warning than a promise.

Last spring, as the first wave of COVID-19 washed across the country, Crawl organizers considered cancelling. But a survey they conducted in early April indicated that many artists who normally participate in the Crawl had already “lost all of their future exhibit possibilities that they were counting on for the year,” says Esther Rausenberg, the Crawl’s artistic and executive director. “They had lost workshops and presentations, and a lot of their teaching opportunities. It was looking pretty bleak.”

And so Rausenberg and her board resolved to mount a slimmed-down, hybrid version of their festival that includes both virtual studio tours and in-person visits, booked in advance and conducted under strict protocols laid out in an 11-page health and safety guide. Kicking off last Thursday night and running through this weekend and next – twice as long as normal, to accommodate physical distancing – the 2020 edition won’t have the Crawl’s usual freeform vibe of carefree serendipity. Nor will it – or most of the other events or live performances staged as stopgaps until things get back to normal – drive significant revenue for the companies or the cities where they’re taking place.

But “we wanted to provide some hope for the artists, that the work they do is valued,” Rausenberg says. “And I think also some hope for the public that there might be something they could still continue to connect with.”

Hope has been hard to find in this country’s arts and culture sectors over the past eight months. The creative industries are key economic drivers of many Canadian cities, especially those with mammoth TV and film factories that keep Netflix audiences addicted to their screens. That includes Toronto, where the sector contributes an estimated $11.3-billion annually to the city’s GDP. In British Columbia, creative industries contribute an estimated $6.6-billion – the bulk of it in Greater Vancouver.

But the sector also provides the social glue that binds communities, from summertime music festivals to blockbuster gallery exhibitions and hit musicals. An Environics Research report cited in the Canada Council’s 2019-20 Annual Report noted that 94 per cent of Canadians believe the arts make their community a better place to live, and 87 per cent report attending a performance or a live event during the previous year.

More broadly, Canada’s culture industries contributed $56-billion to the country’s gross domestic product in 2018, representing roughly 655,000 jobs. Of those jobs, 42 per cent were in Ontario, 24 per cent in Quebec, 16 per cent in British Columbia and eight per cent in Alberta.

Many of those jobs are acutely vulnerable to disruption by such factors as the pandemic. “That whole industry [of live performance] is predicated on bringing people together to have shared experiences. And at this time, we know it’s not safe to do that,” says Dayna Spiring, the president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg.

The Conference Board of Canada forecasts the economic output of the arts and entertainment sector (which includes sport) to drop by more than 20 per cent across most major cities this year due to COVID, including 21.7 per cent in Montreal, 23.3 per cent in Toronto, and 26.2 per cent in Calgary. While all are expected to begin bouncing back next year – predicated on the approval of an effective vaccine (fingers crossed) – none is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2022.

In a survey conducted during the first COVID wave by the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance, 43 per cent of artists or arts workers projected they would lose more than 75 per cent of the income they had anticipated for 2020. (Even before the pandemic, their expectations were modest: 63 per cent of those surveyed had projected their income in 2020 would not exceed $40,000.)

Last month, the AFC, a charity that provides emergency financial aid to entertainment professionals, unveiled what it calls a Career Resilience Resource Hub, an online portal to help arts workers figure out what marketable skills they might have that they could apply in other fields. The site doesn’t mince words: “The reality is that not everyone in the industry will be able to return to their pre-pandemic work, at least for the foreseeable future, and must seek alternative temporary sources of income.” It’s assumed that many will simply leave and not return.

But what doesn’t kill them may make them stronger. Spurred in some cases by forward-thinking municipal funding bodies, arts organizations that have the wherewithal to survive the current crises are using the interregnum to innovate and experiment, to find new audiences and ways of delivering their work.

They are also looking inward. “Obviously, live performance and those kinds of things, we want to see come back full force,” says Briony Carros, director of Arts Nova Scotia, the provincial arts funding body based in Halifax. But she notes the social tumult over the summer, and the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, have added fuel to the desire within broad swaths of the Canadian arts community to ensure diversity and inclusion is a core tenet, and to elevate marginalized voices.

“We can’t forget that as we move forward,” Carros says.

Falun Gong practitioners sit on the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza as protesters opposed to COVID-19 regulations attend a rally on Oct. 18.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

First, of course, organizations must survive. And though many thought they were through the worst of it, this month has brought more challenges, with new government-imposed restrictions in response to the second COVID wave.

When British Columbia banned social gatherings last weekend, Rausenberg wondered what the new rules might mean for the Crawl. She had already had extensive consultations since early September with the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. On Monday, they assured her that artists' studios were considered “business spaces, rather than social spaces.” The Crawl was still on.

In Winnipeg, the same fear of new limits flared this week after the Manitoba government rolled out severe new restrictions that included a ban on all film production. But right after the province announced its plans on Tuesday – which were to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday – advocates for the film and TV industry, including Economic Development Winnipeg, pleaded the production community’s case. Less than 24 hours later, the province backtracked, permitting productions that had already started shooting to proceed until they were finished, including a number of films, as well as the CBC drama Burden of Proof.

“We do a lot of work on promoting our city and [helping producers] understand the tax credit, understanding all the industry has to offer,” Dayna Spiring says. Halting a production is “not the same as closing a gym. You can’t just shut down a film production and [assume] people are going to come back.”

Nicole Matiation, the executive director of On Screen Manitoba, says the productions permitted to continue “likely represent tens of millions of dollars, and early estimates suggest some 500 jobs would have been affected during the stoppage period.” She adds that rigorous COVID protocols were already in place across the industry.

A provincial grandfathering order has allowed production of shows like Burden of Proof, a CBC drama starring Kristin Kreuk, to continue despite COVID-19 restrictions.Handout

In Calgary, the city’s primary government-backed arts funding agency is helping artists and companies prepare for the future, whenever it arrives and in whatever form it takes. In May, Calgary Arts Development commissioned an 18-month longitudinal study from the market research company Stone Olafson to understand how its audiences' attitudes evolve over the course of the pandemic. That data is made available, for free, to dozens of arts companies in the city.

“We thought, What could we do to provide them with meaningful information, that might give them something more to base their [programming and marketing] decisions on?” says Patti Pon, the president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development.

To ensure Calgarians didn’t lose their taste for live performances, Pon’s organization also partnered with a number of local civic organizations to stage a series of physically distanced outdoor music shows.

And Calgary Arts Development also committed to ensuring the money it had allocated, pre-pandemic, to companies for projects in the current budget year would still flow, even though those companies wouldn’t necessarily be presenting anything to the public. “Now is when they need the resources, to be trying things, to be innovating, to have the flexibility to fail and try again. To learn," Pon says.

As an example, she mentions Vertigo Theatre Co., which spent some time in the spring developing an online streaming adaptation of a radio play they had previously staged for live audiences with Ghost River Theatre. Vertigo took some of the lessons they learned from that experience to make a series of what it calls Vertigo Mystery Radio plays, which can each be purchased for $10 from their website. (The second one will be released Nov. 17.)

“It was something we had in the works before COVID, but we were so beholden to our mainstage programming – that’s our bread and butter – we hadn’t gotten to launch quite yet,” Craig Hall, Vertigo’s artistic director, says. “We were already looking at a way to reach beyond the walls of our theatre, to engage with our audience in nice little bite-sized chunks, to try out new artists in a low-risk format and to expand our collaborative circles into the commercial world.

“This allowed us to fast-track it.”

Hall reflects on the ways the current crisis has pushed the company beyond its comfort zone. “That could be the biggest thing that comes out of this pandemic,” he says. “If we start embracing that entrepreneurial spirit out of necessity, perhaps it becomes part of our culture in a way that it hasn’t been.”

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