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The Cirque du Soleil has laid off almost 5,000 performers, crew and staffers in the Montreal head-office.Markus Moellenberg/Cirque du soleil

This week in Canada the theatres are dark, the concert halls are silent and the art galleries are empty. As all arts and entertainment venues close their doors to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the losses are beginning to mount.

The Cirque du Soleil has laid off almost 5,000 performers and crew, and staffers in the Montreal head office. The Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity has given notice to 400 workers while the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra has sent the band home – all 67 musicians, as well as 30 administrative staffers.

The Junos were cancelled earlier this month; this weekend, there won’t be any Canadian Screen Awards. The Vancouver International Children’s Festival has been cancelled while Bard on the Beach hangs in the balance. In Toronto, Luminato, the June arts festival established to help the city recover from the SARS outbreak of 2003, will not be held in 2020, and there will be no Shakespeare in High Park. The Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts predicts that sector will lose $500-million in ticket revenue in the next three months.

TV and movie sets have been abandoned as activity in Canada’s $9-billion production industry grinds to a halt: The new Canadian medical drama Nurses stopped shooting its second season in Mississauga, Ont., two weeks ago and donated 600 masks, 400 surgical gowns and pairs of gloves to local hospitals.

Meanwhile, at The Rooms in St. John’s, departing staff have been warned to remove any stray sugar packets from their desks. The keepers of Newfoundland’s provincial collections are worried that mice, moths and silverfish will have a field day in the shuttered building.

From the microscopic to the macro-economic, the pandemic is chewing its way through the arts. Yet, trapped inside our houses, it is to the arts that we turn: to novels, to recorded music, to movies and TV shows. It is how we find escape but also how we seek meaning. Contagion, an apocalyptic drama about a global pandemic, was one of the most-watched Netflix movies in Canada this week.

And, while artists are losing gigs, they are hardly inactive. There’s a daily buzz of virtual concerts, classes, conversations and art displays using everything from the good old telephone to sophisticated software that can patch together remote performances by individual voices or instruments. Dancers from the National Ballet of Canada are now live-streaming classes from their living rooms. The Toronto Symphony performed Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring remotely and posted it online last week. The Playwrights Guild of Canada conducted a 28-script, seven-hour play-reading relay Friday.

The large losses and the ironic gains of the pandemic are offering sharp lessons about why we need the arts.

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Miranda Mulholland has cancelled a Toronto album launch, some U.S. radio appearances and a U.K. tour.Handout

In Canada, the arts are both a big business and a precarious living. When Statistics Canada last counted (in 2017), culture accounted for almost 3 per cent of the GDP, generating $100-billion in economic activity every year and directly employing almost 700,000 people in the performing, fine arts and heritage sectors, the publishing, screen and music industries, and the media.

Some of these jobs are salaried positions with well-established institutions; others provide regular work for the many skilled trades employed by the booming film-and-television production industry. But many are low-paid contracts or occasional fees for visual artists, writers, actors, dancers and musicians who cobble together a living working directly and indirectly in the arts.

“We all know the hustle so well, living from month to month, even musicians who you know, who you have heard of,” said singer, fiddler and music activist Miranda Mulholland, who has just cancelled a Toronto album launch, some U.S. radio appearances and a U.K. tour. “Once the digital revolution hit [the sales of recorded music], everybody was told to tour. This has exposed the danger of that.”

In the business that brought you the term “gig,” even highly successful performers are left painfully exposed, working on contracts that include “force majeure” clauses allowing presenters to cancel without penalty in circumstances such as these. Spring and summer are busy seasons in the music and theatre businesses: Many freelance artists are predicting they will lose half their annual income. Meanwhile, layoffs from service jobs at cultural institutions can also hit artists hard: Many of the more than 50 technicians, box-office attendants, bartenders and front-of-house staff who lost their jobs at The Cultch theatre centre in Vancouver last week are also freelance artists who use that work to pay the rent.

“It’s the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” said Cultch executive director Heather Redfern as she laid off the casual workers immediately and gave three weeks’ notice to 21 permanent staffers. Normally, Redfern would be about to announce her 2020-21 season, a busy 300-performance year that would invite 18 different independent theatre companies into the building. “I can’t even imagine how we could not do a season next year because everybody is going to need work. Artists need to work.”

Nowhere is the link between jobs and the arts more apparent than at the Stratford Festival, an institution founded 67 years ago as an economic development plan for the small Southern Ontario city and which, by a 2017 Conference Board of Canada estimate, generates more than $135-million every year in economic activity. The festival, where the season was set to begin preview performances April 11, just laid off almost 500 workers and delayed opening to June.

“Everyone is in the same boat; we are just waiting to see what will happen,” said Elaine Gadbois of the Stratford and Area Bed & Breakfast Association, where the phone has not rung in two weeks.

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Charlie Gallant as William Shakespeare, centre, with the cast of Shakespeare in Love.Tim Matheson/Handout

And yet amid the dollar figures and the layoff counts, it is possible to lose sight of the truth that the arts are not simply a massive job-creation scheme. If you focus too narrowly on the looming economic hardship for artists – as well as for the numerous creative, administrative and technical staff who support their work, not to mention workers in the allied tourism sector – you may forget that Stratford has a larger mission than keeping restaurants and hotels open. Or you may miss the difference between the jobs created by the many U.S. TV shows and films that shoot in Canada and those local productions that, according to the old industry saw, are “telling Canadian stories to Canadians.”

The arts have often used their economic impact to justify their existence – and their widely varying levels of subsidy – to governments, but behind that argument lie real social needs. The arts provide the reassurance of narrative, the peace of contemplation and, most of all, the power of community, experiences that can be hard to define but which the current crisis is laying bare.

“What is fulfilling about the arts is not necessarily the art itself but the way it connects us all,” Vancouver singer/songwriter Dan Mangan said. “Those moments when you feel that connection with thousands of people in a room lift the great weight of existential loneliness.”

That may sound impossibly lofty, but Mangan has fresh evidence. This month he ran an unplanned experiment in the virtual’s ability to replace the actual when he recorded his “show to nobody” at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, where his kit was assembled but his gig was cancelled. The performance in the empty hall felt like a letdown after the triumphant live show of the night before – until he broadcasted it online and 11,000 people tuned in simultaneously .

Whether it’s at the concert hall or the movie theatre, the thing we are missing most of all these days is the crowd. The cinema business, which was already suffering badly in the era of streaming, has been so busy advertising the big screen, the booming sound or the 3-D image, that audiences may have got the impression that watching a movie outside the home is simply a question of superior technology. It is, more importantly, an occasion: an appointment to receive the film as a member of a community.

The Greeks, who invented theatre 2,500 years ago, developed the notion of catharsis, the audience’s purging of sorrows and anxieties through the spectacle of great tragedy. Perhaps the best contemporary parallel would be watching Contagion … at the multiplex. Society needs to be physically present to understand the story and feel the relief.

It also needs to be physically present to appreciate visual art.

“You cannot have sex without the other person; art needs the body,” said Montreal art dealer René Blouin, who closed a sale this week. The buyer purchased a painting by Saskatchewan native Matthew Feyld, an artist now living in Montreal who builds up layer after layer of paint in abstract compositions that, Bloiun explains, simply can’t be understood or appreciated in a reproduction.

Like the scatological comic or the melodramatic actor, the avant-garde artist is probing the limits of what is intellectually possible or socially acceptable. We contract out risk to the arts: They say we watch the tight-rope walker to see if he will fall.

“In the arts we have the freedom to ask complicated questions,” Blouin said “I am sure something exceptional will come out of this: It’s a dramatic moment. … Happily, there is art.”

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