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Pre-COVID, one of the primary joys of living in downtown Toronto was ready access to the city’s rich, diverse arts scene – any night of the week, you could catch a rising local singer in an intimate bar, see a Broadway-bound musical at a soft-seater theatre or watch a world-renowned dance troupe perform.
As an editor at The Globe, I get the chance each day to edit a wide range of stories that run the entire gamut of subjects. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about my job – and also what draws me to the arts. The way performers and other creatives manage to capture the full spectrum of human emotion and experience through their work is endlessly fascinating.
That’s why I’ve also covered the local arts community as a writer – particularly Toronto’s music scene – over the course of my career for the past two decades now and why so many of us are aching for a return, in particular, to the irreplaceable electric energy of live shows after a year of dark stages and closed concert halls.
The performing-arts sector has been hit hard by the pandemic – public-health measures requiring people not to gather in crowds and other distancing measures have seen the closure of live venues across the country for many months, leaving musicians, actors, stagehands and many more who work in the industry out of a job.
With no firm plan for when concerts, stage plays and festivals might return, many arts workers are faced with an uncertain future – only adding precarity to a career already steeped in it.
And a career it is – a cursory look at any comments section of an article about artists’ income reveals scathing “get a job” dismissals. Guess what? While passion may well drive many who work in creative fields, the arts are still an industry like anything else. According to Statistics Canada, the direct economic impact of cultural products is more than $50-billion annually.
While artists give back to the economy, however, many often still struggle financially – and 2016 Canadian census data showed that artists who are women (as well as those from Indigenous and racialized communities) report even lower median incomes than their male peers.
In interviewing some of Canada’s top musicians recently for an upcoming Globe story looking at how artists are promoting their music without the key tool of touring, I expected to hear a lot of pent-up frustration and anxiety. But while they all agreed that the pandemic has brought its challenges, they also noted it could be an opportunity for evolution.
“We’re just putting one foot in front of the other, trying to stay inspired and grounded as we continue to navigate this situation,” Sarah Neufeld, violinist with Montreal/New York instrumental sextet Bell Orchestre (and member of a little band called Arcade Fire) told me. “Perhaps this will generate more change out of necessity. I don’t think the world wants to live without music.”
Think about what’s been getting you through the pandemic – binge-watching TV shows, reading great new books or old classics or maybe listening to a Spotify playlist. In short, life in quarantine would’ve been pretty darn dull without, well, art.
“For many people I know … side musicians, or stage technicians, or actors – their jobs just disappeared, and there’s no way to know when, or if, they will come back,” Toronto singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman, who records as The Weather Station, said during our thoughtful conversation. “There’s this feeling of uncertainty that hangs over everyone. Are shows going to come back in the same way? Are people going want to go back to the theatre? There are not many sectors of society that have been this affected; I think it’s really hard to deal with that.”
Lindeman, who was an actor for many years before turning to music, points out how digital disruption to much of the arts sector – particularly music – had eroded artists’ ability to earn a living well before the pandemic.
“It’s been that way for many years, and the pandemic has exposed that, along with so many other things.”
What else we’re thinking about:
I know, we’re all tired of hearing about the COVID-keeners doing DIY home renos, writing that long-ignored novel, even learning a new language. While I’m not about to pick up a new dialect any time soon, it’s still been inspiring to hear about people – especially younger generations – taking this time to learn more about their family’s mother tongue. So I was intrigued by this longread from Rest of World, a non-profit online global tech magazine, about efforts to digitally preserve script in Urdu – the beautifully poetic language my parents and older relatives grew up speaking.
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