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Fiddler Ashley MacIsaac says the past year has been difficult as the gigs that make up most of his income vanished. 'I am going bankrupt,' he says.

Rob Gurdebeke/The Globe and Mail

Ashley MacIsaac and his fiddle were already two hours east of Windsor, Ont., in the early morning of March 12, 2020, when the phone rang. The night before, Mr. MacIsaac had warned the organizers of an upcoming Ottawa gig that the show would not go on, but it was only now they were facing up to a new reality. And so began a year of cancellations.

In a normal year, the Cape Breton fiddling phenomenon books at least 30 big gigs, grosses about $300,000 and, after paying his agent, side musicians, travel costs and personal expenses, takes home a net income between $70,000 and $90,000. Not a fortune, but a living.

Next in our series, Marsha Lederman talks to cultural leaders about how to rebuild the sector

These arts leaders took over their organizations just as the pandemic hit. Here are their lessons in navigating through crisis

Except that last year, struggling to pay off a troublesome tax bill, he had planned to add another 30 smaller shows to his 2020 calendar. He was budgeting for 60 shows, as many as 180 days on the road. None of it happened: The musician has played one single live gig since the pandemic began.

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“I am going bankrupt,” Mr. MacIsaac said. “I have made millions over the years playing the fiddle. I don’t expect people to feel sorry for me, but it’s impossible when 95 per cent of your gross income disappears.” The federal COVID-19 benefit is paying the rent on his Windsor apartment and putting food on the table, but he can’t make ends meet. He has sold the rights to his catalogue of recordings and two of his three best violins.

And he wonders: If a headliner can’t make it, what’s happening to the backup bands and warm-up acts?

For 12 months, the COVID-19 lockdowns have hammered the arts – closing music venues, cinemas and theatres; cancelling concerts, plays and literary festivals; shuttering galleries, heritage sites and museums – all while putting musicians, actors and ticket-takers out of work.

After the airline industry, the arts, entertainment and recreation sector represents the hardest-hit area of the economy, losing more than half its value in GDP and accounting for more than a tenth of all job losses. Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey also shows that arts workers who held on to their jobs are painfully underemployed, working 36 per cent fewer hours in 2020. Worse, the numbers keep dropping, with more job losses in January as the second lockdown took hold.

A wave of closings may be still be at hand, although federal intervention is showing some signs of stabilizing the arts and recreation sector: Last August, a Statscan survey on business conditions found that almost a third of organizations said they could only hold on for another six months, whereas that number dropped just below a quarter in a survey released last week. Still, artists are pessimistic about their future: A national survey conducted last November found that a third doubted they could remain in their profession.

Jobs in the arts are notoriously low-paid and the cruel economics of COVID-19 have laid that bare: Behind every online concert or virtual dance class, there are artists without benefits or savings desperately trying to stay in their field.

“I’m not a teenager starting out on TikTok,” Mr. MacIsaac said. “I am a professional who has been touring for 29 years.”

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The pandemic has been catastrophic for two of Ottawa's cultural mainstays: The ByTowne Cinema, which closed for good in early March, and Barrymore's Music Hall, whose owner has been in an eviction battle with the property landlord since January.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail


The sector may be sinking, but in Toronto, the band plays on: The musicians and administrative staff of the Toronto Symphony have taken undisclosed pay cuts but remain on salary while the organization uses the federal wage subsidy, grants and donations (including the subscriptions of patrons who declined refunds) to stay afloat. With online concerts priced at $20 a ticket and virtual field trips for schools, there’s a cheerful buzz of activity on the TSO website.

That situation, where individuals are making sacrifices so that institutions survive, is typical. It’s why, from 1,000 metres up, things don’t look too dire. Like the TSO, bigger arts institutions – including museums and theatre companies – have relied on their existing grants and the new wage subsidies, as well as their ability to fundraise and borrow, to keep layoffs at a minimum or cut back hours without losing jobs entirely.

Meanwhile, the closings of more precarious operations are only trickling in. In Montreal, the McCord Museum has permanently closed its sister institution, the Stewart Museum, a local history collection on Île Sainte-Hélène that had struggled financially before the pandemic. In Ottawa, the owner of the ByTowne Cinema, a much-loved repertory movie house, has decided to close a business that has lost money every day since last March.

In Toronto, a new board of directors at contemporary dance company Dancemakers is trying to find a location where it can revive the incubator organization. Dancemakers had previously announced it was winding down after losing the rents it charged artists for studio space as its own overhead costs in the Distillery District kept rising. Over in the music business, Ashen White, a 33-year-old company that rented out lighting rigs and audio-visual systems, has auctioned off the equipment and closed its doors.

In that hard-hit industry, the bars and clubs that are the backbone of the music scene are going under in much larger numbers: the Canadian Live Music Association (CLMA) is compiling a crowdsourced list of closings that currently numbers more than 80, including such favourite spots as Barrymore’s in Ottawa, Call the Office in London, Ont., and Ranchman’s in Calgary.

Unlike non-profit orchestras and the civic venues where they play, these places are small businesses with no links to government funding. The CLMA is advocating for a bailout, while in many individual cases there’s talk of new owners or online fundraising campaigns. Still, the association assumes that many clubs will never reopen.


Before the pandemic, Dana Osborne did set and costume design work with the Stratford Festival. Now she says there's too little work to make it worthwhile to leave her full-time job at an optometrist's office.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail


The musicians who played these venues, the actors who can’t go on stage, the visual artists whose exhibitions were cancelled, are self-employed freelancers and independent contractors. Some jobs in their fields offer secure, steady incomes – the administrators, curators and even some technicians are staffers with large and small organizations – but being an actual creator often represents a Darwinian gamble. A tiny number will become stars; the rest will struggle to get by. That economic gap between the institutions and the actual artists, often a source of tension in the cultural community, is now widening. There’s an iceberg effect: The tip features brave arts groups offering online concerts, virtual gallery tours or remote learning. It’s individuals who are under water.

“Some of my best friends are theatre administrators,” said Dana Osborne, a set and costume designer who lives in Stratford, Ont., where she used to get steady work from the Stratford Festival. “They have worked hard to get where they are, but sometimes they are fixated on saving the theatre, so the artists have something to come back to. The problem is, there won’t be any artists to come back.”

The federal government has now recognized that problem and last week unveiled the details of a $181.5-million infusion specifically targeted at individuals. The Canada Council will be awarding $66-million to artists to develop new work and $50.5-million for digital initiatives, while the Department of Canadian Heritage’s $40-million fund for COVID-19-safe events stipulates that at least half of any funded project’s budget must go to paying artists, arts workers and support staff.

These grants and contracts may be too late for some: Ms. Osborne, who now holds a full-time job in an optometrist’s office fitting glasses, says she can’t leave that salaried work to take on small projects in her field.

Meanwhile, many artists are trying to move their work online, but say digital income is no replacement for the real thing – agreeing with veteran musicians who laugh when asked how much streaming royalties might contribute to their incomes. “It’s just a placeholder: ‘We are still here,’” said comic Mike Delamont of the $20 HD video version of his hit show God is a Scottish Drag Queen. “The money in digital content is next to nothing.”

Mr. Delamont, who lives in Victoria, lost 163 nights of work in past 12 months and his income, “in the low six figures,” all but disappeared. He has mainly relied on the federal relief benefit, but also got a few physically distanced gigs last summer. He’s not bitter – his wife is a nurse in a COVID-19 ward, so he knows firsthand why the shows can’t go on.

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Victoria comic Mike Delamont, creator of the hit show God is a Scottish Drag Queen, says his income all but disappeared in the pandemic, and streaming royalties are 'next to nothing' by comparison.

Derek Ford Photography

The money generated by Mr. Delamont’s jokes and Ms. Osborne’s designs are snowflakes in a great statistical ocean where billions in GDP and thousands of jobs are melting away.

Before the pandemic, Statscan’s largest measures of the cultural sector could be used to describe an important part of the economy, employing more than 700,000 people and accounting for 4 per cent of the GDP. (Using those measures, the sector’s job numbers are down 9 per cent and its GDP is down about 10 per cent.) But that broad measure includes two expansive sectors. One features all the cultural industries – including the largest, the telecommunications business, which is not suffering pandemic job losses. The second, and smaller, sector is arts, entertainment and recreation – where half the GDP value has been wiped out, but which includes areas as tangentially related to the arts as amusement parks, golf courses and casinos. If you zero in on much smaller sectors, you see more pain. The performing arts, heritage sector and spectator sports – areas of the economy that depend on ticket sales – have lost more than 60 per cent of their GDP value. The only subsector to suffer more is air transportation, down 87 per cent on its GDP.

“We represent a large chunk of the economic loss,” said Frédéric Julien, director of research and development at the Canadian Association for the Performing Arts. “The sector has been disproportionately impacted because the entire production chain depends on ticket sales, and those revenues are gone.”


Canada’s four subsectors hardest hit by the pandemic

Change in GDP, from Feb. 2020 to Dec. 2020

Feb. 2020

Dec. 2020

GDP in billions:

30.4

$30

20

13.5

19.2

$9.5 billion

7.6

10

7.4

2.9

1.2

0

Air

transporta-

tion

Performing

arts, heritage sector and spectator sports

Accommoda-

tion services

Food and drink services

Canada’s four subsectors hardest hit by the pandemic

Change in GDP, from Feb. 2020 to Dec. 2020

Feb. 2020

Dec. 2020

GDP in billions:

30.4

$30

20

13.5

19.2

$9.5 billion

10

7.6

7.4

2.9

1.2

0

Air

transporta-

tion

Performing

arts, heritage sector and spectator sports

Accommoda-

tion services

Food and drink services

Canada’s four subsectors hardest hit by the pandemic

Change in GDP, from Feb. 2020 to Dec. 2020

Feb. 2020

Dec. 2020

GDP in billions:

30.4

$30

20

13.5

19.2

$9.5 billion

7.6

10

7.4

2.9

1.2

0

Air

transportation

Performing

arts, heritage sector and spectator sports

Accommodation services

Food and drink services

GDP change in four subsectors hardest hit by the pandemic

Percentage change, from Feb. 2020 to Dec. 2020

Food and drink services

Air

transporta-

tion

Performing

arts, heritage sector and spectator sports

Accommo-

dation services

0%

-25

-37

-50

-45

-62

-75

-87%

-100

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA

GDP change in four subsectors hardest hit by the pandemic

Percentage change, from Feb. 2020 to Dec. 2020

Air

transporta-

tion

Performing

arts, heritage sector and spectator sports

Accommo-

dation services

Food and drink services

0%

-25

-37

-50

-45

-62

-75

-87%

-100

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA

GDP change in four subsectors hardest hit by the pandemic

Percentage change, from Feb. 2020 to Dec. 2020

Air

transportation

Performing

arts, heritage sector and

spectator sports

Accommodation services

Food and drink services

0%

-25

-37

-50

-45

-62

-75

-87%

-100

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA


Meanwhile the cultural industries – broadcasting and the movie business in particular – are also suffering bad losses, but have managed to navigate the second lockdown much more successfully. This is another class divide in the arts, where there is resentment at the way film and television production have resumed (partly by paying privately for COVID-19 tests) while many live performers have been unable to even rehearse. Still, the screen industries, along with the federal benefits, have provided a lifeline for many an artist during this time.

“It has a lot do with the [film industry] lobbyists and the amount of power they have,” said Carmen Alatorre, a Vancouver costume designer who stopped taking CERB after she got work building costume accessories on a movie set. “And they are testing people all the time.”

She’s too far along in her career to consider taking the underpaid gigs that might establish her as an actual designer in the film industry, and wonders if she will ever return to her original profession with theatres and opera companies.

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“There is a fear that theatre as we know it is not going to come back again,” she said, echoing many in the field who predict looming deficits and tightened budgets at the organizations that do survive.


Canucks fans line up outside Vancouver's Rio Theatre on Jan. 23 after it closed due to B.C.'s COVID-19 restrictions, then reopened as a sports bar.

Marissa Tiel/The Canadian Press


Whether professionals such as Ms. Alatorre or Ms. Osborne are gone from the sector for good will be the big question postpandemic.

“I’m hoping that as people start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they will come back,” Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault said in an interview with The Globe and Mail last week as he announced the targeted funding.

In Nova Scotia, singer-songwriter Chris Luedecke is searching for that light. When his gigs disappeared, he turned to aquaculture, getting work with a neighbour harvesting scallops in Chester Bay. Working hard and getting grimy on the water he associates with pleasant summer sailing was invigorating, he said, but only psychologically possible because he viewed it as temporary – and good fodder for future songs.

“I had an amazing experience – it was a vibrant distraction from the misery of not being able to do my thing. … But going to a second year pushes the limits of my tolerance. The desire to play again is huge,” said Mr. Luedecke, who would normally earn the equivalent of a school teacher’s income from his professional life performing as Old Man Luedecke.

“I need to sort out how I am going to make a comeback,” he said.

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Alongside him, a whole population of dancers, designers and fiddle-players is also puzzling out its future.


This past summer, as Canadians were stuck at home due to the pandemic, seven dance groups from across the country got together with The Globe and Mail for a physically distanced performance of Leonard Cohen's Anthem, with music by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and vocals by the Canadian Opera Company. To see each group's performance, go to tgam.ca/anthem. The Globe and Mail

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