Pandemic prompts call for guaranteed income for artists

By Fawnda Mithrush

The pandemic has made it clear that artists need a guaranteed basic income, and so do many other Canadians, the head of the Edmonton Arts Council says.

EAC executive director Sanjay Shahani was one of five signatories to an open letter published in the Globe and Mail last weekend making the case for a Basic Income Guarantee for artists following COVID-19's financial gutting of the arts sector.

"The whole nature of the financial situation for artists is not a new thing, we've had that for decades," Shahani told Taproot. "But during the pandemic, the precarious nature of work for artists and gig workers has been highlighted." He added that many artists are educators, and though they may have decades of experience and credentials behind them, their employment circumstances often don't reflect that.

"It's a highly specialized profession. They are artists, they are creative people, but they're also knowledge workers. They're often holding up fine arts and performing arts programs in post-secondary institutions, but the employment situation remains precarious."

In addition to Shahani, leaders of the Toronto Arts Council, Conseil des Arts de Montréal, Winnipeg Arts Council, and Calgary Arts Development signed the letter.

Artists performing in Catalyst Theatre's The Invisible

Leaders of arts councils across the country say that the livelihoods of Canada's creative workers shouldn't be so precarious. (Performers in Catalyst Theatre's The Invisible, set and costumes by Bretta Gerecke, Citrus Photo)

"Passing by any of our country’s theatres or concert halls makes it evident that Canada’s arts sector has been devastated by the pandemic," they wrote, citing that the GDP of the performing arts sector has fallen by 62% since 2019. "It is the individual creative artist who has paid the greatest price for this loss."

Indeed, they have: Hours worked in the arts, entertainment, and recreation sector declined 36.6% overall in 2020, and more than 60% in the performing arts.

While the plea from the arts councils is intended to be more of a long-game strategy to include policy in future political platforms, Shahani noted that building fiscal stability for artists is already hardwired into the EAC's own 10-year Connections and Exchanges plan for arts and heritage in Edmonton.

"Connections and Exchanges is not only a great plan, but it anticipates," he said. "You know, we never anticipated a pandemic, but because the plan is iterative and open, it allows us to pivot the way we want. It's a much more flexible, adaptive strategy, and it has these very strong principles that underpin it. Economic security is one of them."

Artists aren't the only Canadians who need to be pulled back from precarity, he added.

"Whatever the solution is, what I hope that this highlights is that there are millions of people who don't have proper income security. The arts community is just a microcosm of the inequities that exist across the board, so something like this begins to address that inequity everywhere."