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Will BC’s Culture Sector Survive the Pandemic?

‘It’s not over yet.’ Artists and organizations say they’re floundering, but vow to keep fighting.

Paloma Pacheco 12 Jun

Paloma Pacheco is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and a graduate student at UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media. She is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

Selina Crammond, programming director for Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival, remembers the day the pandemic hit vividly.

“It all happened so suddenly. One minute we were having our all-staff meeting in the boardroom and had just brought on a handful of contractors,” she recalls. “The whole team was on board and we were moving into heavy-duty production mode and getting guests booked. And then the next day it was like: Maybe we should all go work from home now.”

That’s what the organization did, like so many others across the province.

Then came a much more difficult decision.

After months of preparing for its annual spring festival, DOXA realized it would not be able to move forward as planned.

“Shortly after [starting to work from home] it was like: OK, I don’t think we can do this,” said Crammond. “It was tough, because we had to make those decisions remotely.”

The most difficult part for Crammond was having to lay off the seasonal staff they’d recently hired.

“It was brutal,” she said. “Instantly, almost overnight, we lost a quarter of our revenue by postponing the festival. It just came down to having to lay off all the contractors because there was no festival taking place in the immediate future.”

DOXA decided to postpone its May event in the first week of the shutdown. It joined the rest of the arts and culture sector in following new physical-distancing guidelines that meant all large-scale events and in-person gatherings were cancelled for the foreseeable future.

In the days and weeks that followed the mid-March province-wide lockdown, email inboxes were flooded with notices of cancellations or postponements of major arts events across B.C.

Like many other organizations, DOXA has had to adapt to the new normal in innovative ways. It will be moving ahead with a smaller online film festival starting June 18.

Going virtual has been one way for the culture sector to manage physical distancing. From music to theatre, galleries to literary events, arts organizations and workers have done what artists do and rallied their creative energy in a moment of crisis. Musicians are performing live-streamed concerts from their bedrooms; galleries have opened up their exhibits to virtual tours; book festivals have moved online to increased audiences.

But is it enough to sustain an industry that’s been devastated by the financial impacts of COVID-19?

Survey reveals deep fears

In B.C., arts and culture make up roughly three per cent of the provincial economy, the third largest GDP contribution in Canada after Ontario and Quebec. The province also boasts the most artists per capita.

While the realities of COVID-19 have hit the arts particularly hard, it’s always been a tough game for the culture sector. Funding issues, low wages, job insecurity and increasingly high operating costs are only a few of the struggles the industry has faced.

“One of the things that hasn’t really been valued in our society is art and artists,” said Brenda Leadlay, executive director of the BC Alliance for Arts and Culture. “It’s always been a fragile existence.”

“The whole non-profit sector in B.C. and Canada serves so many people and is such an important part of the fabric of communities, and it is so poor and underfunded.”

Leadlay has been working alongside other arts services organizations across B.C. to advocate on behalf of the industry since the coronavirus hit. She’s allied with the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance, which focuses on the performing arts, a subset of the industry that has been particularly affected.

In early June, the alliance released the results of a province-wide arts survey it began conducting in early March, even before the country had shut down.

“We knew that something was coming that was going to have a longer-lasting impact, so we acted pretty quickly,” said Kenji Maeda, the alliance’s executive director.

The organization first sent the survey exclusively to theatre organizations but expanded it to more artists and organizations once the scope of the pandemic became clear.

From mid-March to mid-May, three surveys went out to all 28 regional districts across the province, asking how the sector was coping with the impact of COVID-19.

Theatre, music and festival-based organizations emerged as the hardest hit sectors. For theatre in particular, nearly half of the overall revenue drop was attributed to a loss of ticket sales. Organizations that operate facilities saw deep cuts as well, with more than twice the average financial impact as non-facility-based organizations.

Of the 866 respondents, nearly two-thirds were individual artists and arts workers. Of this group, almost half said they were concerned about losing more than 75 per cent of their income for 2020.

“Honestly, it was one of the hardest things to read through the comments from those first 100 surveys,” Maeda says. “It was when nobody really knew what was happening and there was just a lot of emotion inside the responses.”

Organizations were worried about the financial impact of having to close their doors for several weeks, and artists were concerned about when they would be able to start working again. But there was also worry about the well-being of the arts overall.

“One of the key themes was around the preservation of our practice,” says Maeda. “‘How can we ensure that we can continue to make art and give that to the community?’”

Supports available, but many remain on the brink

Like other countries, Canada has stepped in to lend its culture industry a hand as it deals with the ramifications of the novel coronavirus.

In mid-April the federal government announced $500 million in emergency funding for arts and heritage. Nearly $200 million of that money has been allotted as a top-up for arts and culture funds such as the Canada Music Fund. Just over $100 million went to the film and television industry and just over $50 million to the heritage sector.

The Canada Council for the Arts — Canada’s primary arts funding body — has received $55 million that it will distribute to grantees.

The B.C. government has also announced supports.

In late March, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture partnered with the BC Arts Council to develop the Arts and Culture Resilience Supplement, a $3-million fund that allows any organization the council has funded in the last three years to receive a one-time grant of $5,000. The council has also offered advanced core funding to help with organizations’ temporary cash flow problems.

Arts organizations across the country have also relied on the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, a federal initiative that subsidizes 75 per cent of employee wages for eligible businesses for up to six months.

For individual artists and arts workers laid off from their jobs, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit has also been a welcome support.

But Brenda Leadlay worries these emergency measures will not be enough to sustain the industry.

“I think the big question, still, is going to be this whole issue of sustainability, which has really become so apparent for our sector because of COVID,” she said. “I mean, we always knew we were hanging on a thread but it’s going to be even worse now and I think there is concern that some organizations simply will not make it.”

Mia Edbrooke, board chair for the Vancouver Folk Festival, has similar concerns. “We’re currently looking at our finances to see how long we can continue operating,” said Edbrooke over the phone from her East Vancouver apartment.

582px version of 10-FolkFest-Crowd-Stop.jpg
The Vancouver Folk Festival in earlier times. The festival is cancelled this year, and the organization has lost over 80 per cent of its revenue. Photo by David Ball.

On April 20, the Folk Fest announced that it would be cancelling its annual festival, which takes place every July at Vancouver’s Jericho Beach. As a result, she says, the organization — which relies primarily on revenue from ticket sales — lost over 80 per cent of its annual revenue.

“For us, that is untenable,” she says.

“We’re getting a lot of government support right now and we’ve tapped into the wage subsidy program... but we pay the average Vancouver rent and then we also have storage that we share with other arts organizations, so that’s another cost.”

“Our question is: Without a festival this year, can we afford to keep those things?”

In addition to losing all the money from ticket sales, the organization also lost all its sponsorship revenue — and there’s concern if sponsors will return as businesses try to recover from the pandemic.

Edbrooke says the organization is waiting and watching to see what happens.*

“A lot of festivals in Canada start programming at the end of the year, and I foresee that as being a challenge for anyone doing live events that have more than 50 people where physical distancing is impossible,” she said.

Preparing to adapt

Currently, the province is in stage two of its reopening plan, following guidelines from B.C.’s health authorities. Gatherings of over 50 people will not be allowed until the fourth phase, and there’s no indication when that might come.

While museums and art galleries were permitted to reopen in mid-May as part of phase two, many arts organizations, especially in the performing arts, are still struggling with how to move forward.

Edbrooke sees a list of challenges ahead for the folk festival even when gatherings are allowed.

“How often are we going to have to clean bathrooms, who’s going to do that? How are we going to monitor that people have their blankets six feet apart? How do we let people in? What measures are we going to have to take and how expensive are those going to be?”

Last week, the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance hosted an online town hall where B.C.’s performing arts organizations could have their questions about reopening answered by Vancouver Coastal Health and WorkSafeBC.

Maeda said that over 300 people attended, and the overall feedback was positive. Many felt more optimistic after better understanding what officials are looking for.

“It’s clear that the health agencies recognize that we might try one thing and then realize it didn’t work as well as we thought and that it’s an iterative process that doesn’t have to be 100-per-cent perfect the first time,” he said. “We recognize that things will continue to adapt moving forward, so that really eased people’s concerns.”

Still, he says financial realities are the most pressing issue.

“You know, a 300-seat venue may only be able to seat 75 people even if it’s above and beyond the 50, if physical distancing is in place. Is it financially feasible to produce a show for 75 people in such a large venue when the operating costs, utilities, everything else, needs to be considered?

“If we can’t produce shows in [larger spaces] enough to at least break even, then we can’t really bring the arts workers and the artists into those spaces and that means that those artists will be out of work for even longer.”

Maeda feels optimistic that the provincial government will release more funds to support arts and culture. But the real action, especially for individual artists and smaller organizations, may need to come at the federal level.

“Federally, I think the push right now is around the wage subsidy program and the CERB program being extended or to have some version of it moving forward,” he said.

“Historically, government funders and most funders, even foundations, have very little mechanism to give to individuals — it’s usually project-based and you need to be a non-profit or charity. There’s a lot of restrictions around how funds are distributed.”

Crammond of DOXA agrees that a focus on individual artists would be helpful in the long run. “I think there is more room for the government to step in with funding.”

“I think the number one thing that would help everybody is the basic income idea — ‘CERB forever’ kind of thing — because we’re working with artists and precarious contractors, and those are the people that are the most vulnerable, economically,” she said.

“I think if we can set up systems of support for artists that are more sustainable that would definitely help us as an arts organization. It would trickle into how we work.”

For now, Crammond is curious to see how DOXA will fare with its move online. Tickets to view each film cost half the amount DOXA would usually charge to see a film in theatre and the organization has seen a surge of early sales.

“Pretty much the first day we launched it was almost matched to what we made on the first day last year, in ticket sales. Which is really great considering the price difference.”

“I feel like some of that is just for the support... but I’m really curious to see how it goes.”

Instead of being limited to a Vancouver audience, DOXA 2.0 films will be available to view across the entire province.

“We can reach all of British Columbia now — island folks, suburban folks. I think there is maybe the potential to reach more people, but it just depends on the marketing, and unfortunately because our budget got so slashed, we don’t have the same media partnerships as before,” said Crammond. “It’ll be interesting, because our press and our physical presence out in the world will be smaller.”

‘It’s not over yet’

While the future of the arts remains overwhelmingly uncertain, its fiercest advocates are still hopeful.

“It’s not over yet,” says Brenda Leadlay. “I’m a total optimist, so we’re definitely going to fight.”

The Alliance for Arts and Culture has been lobbying the provincial government for further support, and Leadlay believes they will eventually be successful.

“I don’t have a magic ball. I can only tell you what I hope, and that I do have confidence in both the federal and provincial government. I hope I’m not off the mark, but I think there will be a shift in the way we start thinking about taking care of people,” she said.

Leadlay believes the arts are essential to mental health and well-being, something that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief as people turn to creative outlets to cope.

“It’s very hard to measure the social impact of the arts, which is probably its greatest treasure,” she says.

“Our colonial governments have tended to think that data and numbers are the only way to measure worth and value, in the same way that our economy has always been the focus instead of people.”

“I think the arts really have an opportunity to step up now and show their relevance to community in the fact that they are the connectors — they are helping people feel sane and connected.”

*Quote clarified June 12 at 4:30 p.m.  [Tyee]

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