The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out the summer season for festivals and arts events in Western Canada, leaving the non-profit groups that organize them worried about the long-term financial impact of lost revenues and continued physical-distancing measures.
Organizers began announcing cancellations in recent weeks as it became clear that bans on mass gatherings would continue for months. Medical health officers in Alberta and British Columbia recently said that those prohibitions would last at least until the end of the summer, even as provinces announce plans to reopen sectors of their economies.
That has left arts organizations without their major sources of revenue. In Alberta, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, Edmonton Folk Music Festival, Canmore Folk Music Festival, Calgary Fringe Festival, Medicine Hat JazzFest and various theatre events have all been cancelled. B.C. has seen the cancellation of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival and many others.
“It is very precarious for the arts sector in general because we are in the business of mass gathering,” said Adam Mitchell, executive director of Edmonton Fringe.
Arts groups say they’re also worried about the security of grants, which frequently make up a large proportion of their budgets.
“We just don’t know what provincial funding resources will be available for the arts in the near future,” said Michele Gallant, director and producer of the Calgary Fringe Festival.
“In Alberta, not only has COVID-19 had an impact on our economy, but the hit to the oil and gas sector is also having a huge impact.”
Government wage subsidies have helped organizations cope with massive revenue losses, while out-of-work artists have been able to access the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Both are designed to provide short-term relief.
The subsidy program covers 75 per cent of employee wages for businesses affected by COVID-19 that keep staff on the payroll. The program is currently only able to provide subsidies for a 12-week period, which ends June 6. The CERB provides eligible workers support payments for up to four months. It ends Oct. 3.
Emma Lancaster, managing director of marketing and development for the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, said the wage subsidies allowed her organization to keep people employed after experiencing a 94-per-cent drop in revenues in March.
“We weren’t selling any tickets,” she said, adding that the festival is now directing efforts toward preparing for other events throughout the year.
Even if prohibitions on public gatherings are lifted, the survival of the arts depends on people’s willingness to gather. Michelle Demers Shaevitz, director of the Mission Folk Music Festival in B.C., said a “lot of our arts infrastructure would be decimated” if the public harboured a fear of large groups.
Many artists make the vast majority of their income in the summer season, said Christine Lesiak, who typically performs at several Fringe events each year.
She called the CERB “a lifeline,” after losing what she estimated would be more than $20,000 in income from three festivals that were cancelled.
But she remains concerned about how she and other artists will support themselves over the long term.
“It’s not reasonable to expect [the CERB] to go on for a year,” she said. “We don’t know what there is for live performance, for any of us, to stay afloat.”
While some independent artists have adapted their work for online audiences, this isn’t an option for everyone, Ms. Lesiak said. Online profit margins are often razor-thin, she explained, as so much free content is available. “I can’t afford to give away my art for free. It cost me thousands and thousands of dollars to develop it.”
Patricia Huntsman, interim managing director of Arts BC, said the pandemic has created a “growing awareness that these arts non-profits are really serving as a pillar of community vitality.”
The arts and culture industry is also important to the economy, she added, attracting tourists and estimated to be worth about $54-billion across Canada.
“That outperforms forestry, agriculture and fisheries combined,” she said.
The Vancouver International Jazz Festival estimates it contributes about $42-million to the local economy, while events in smaller communities are equally important. The Kaslo Jazz Etc Summer Music Festival, for example, brings more than 5,000 people to the village of Kaslo, B.C., which has approximately 900 residents, said Paul Hinrichs, the executive and artistic director.
“Music can do that to a small village, and a lot of local businesses depend on it,” he said.
Despite all the uncertainties, those behind Western Canada’s arts non-profits are confident in their ability to adapt and survive. Two Calgary arts collectives have already managed to find success taking shows online.
The Calgary Queer Arts Society has adapted its annual Fairy Tales Queer Film Festival to the internet, allowing it to reach more people than ever before. James Demers, the society’s executive director, said being forced to cancel in-person gatherings “provides us a wonderful opportunity to pilot what accessibility could mean fundamentally when it comes to the integration of online events.” The films will be streamed in May according to schedule, so festival-goers can tune in to watch them collectively.
Cabaret Calgary, a company producing curated theatrical experiences, has also adapted a traditionally in-person art form. By releasing weekly shows online, along with subscriber-only content through Patreon, the performers have been able to continue entertaining people from the safety of their own homes while developing new methods of generating income, executive producer Kayla Bigras said.
“We will find a way to exist because [the arts] bring so much joy,” she said. “And people really need it right now.”
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