Groundwork: How at risk is Edmonton's celebrated arts and culture economy?

And it’s not just the street performers, painters and improv comedians who are at risk, but the also the food vendors, hotels and other amenities that benefit from a thriving arts scene

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For Edmontonians involved in the arts and culture economy, performing may feed the soul, but it doesn’t always fill the stomach.

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Take Elena Porter, who is an actor, receptionist in a chiropractic clinic and co-owner of a window-washing company — though not necessarily in that order.

The priority list seems to change on a month-to-month basis, depending on when plays, commercials and other acting work comes Porter’s way.

For her and many others in cultural industries, paid artistic opportunities are intermittent at the best of times, and nearly non-existent at the worst of times.

On that front, the past 16 months have been about as tough as it gets, and the next 16 offer no guarantee of being much better. The pandemic has crippled artistic budgets, shut down most live performances and pushed local audiences to Netflix.

Now, facing a recovery that is slower than other industries, many are wondering how much adversity the city’s beloved cultural scene can take.

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“My last show I produced, I paid for it all myself. Or at least my Visa did. But that’s how stupidly and desperately I love to do what I do,” Porter said.

“Looking ahead … I guess it will be a mix of what companies can handle versus answering the calls of what the audience wants.”

That question of risk aversion is hard to understate, and it’s been a major theme of our Groundwork research.

When the pandemic came to Alberta last year, many artistic companies were deep into their seasons and faced a “disastrous” situation of having to honour contracts, said Sanjay Shahani, executive director of the Edmonton Arts Council (EAC).

Fortunately, a combination of factors kept the damage moderate. Shutting venues helped cut costs, community and corporate donors maintained much of their funding, EAC grants continued, and companies took advantage of federal wage subsidies to keep as many staff as possible.

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Still, Shahani estimates artistic organizations have seen an average 40 to 50 per cent drop in revenue during the pandemic. There isn’t a similar figure available for artists, but evidence indicates they saw a significant hit in earnings, with many taking on other jobs or relying on the federal CERB program.

Musician Josh Sahunta in his basement recording studio at his home in Edmonton on July 30, 2021.
Musician Josh Sahunta in his basement recording studio at his home in Edmonton on July 30, 2021. Photo by Larry Wong /POSTMEDIA NETWORK

In Josh Sahunta’s case, his pandemic experience also started miserably. The local R&B musician was ready for a second tour of England that would have represented a major step in his career. He was on the schedule for summer festivals and had booked seven weddings, which provide some of his best paycheques.

All of it got cancelled.

Thankfully, Sahunta had some experience in music production. Word of mouth advertising, an in-home studio and the use of Zoom allowed him to produce music for different artists around the world.

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“It’s the busiest I’ve ever been. It’s ironic it happened during a pandemic,” he said. “But a lot of people I know, live performance was their only source of income, so when that stopped, their entire career fell off.”

Still, though producing is paying the bills, Sahunta is eager to get back playing his own music. He’s already booked a few outdoor gigs, but it’s unclear what opportunities will exist when cold weather returns.

Tracking audience attitudes

As to that future, the EAC has been part of a research project with Stone-Olafson to track audience attitudes in Alberta over the past year. The most recent survey results from June show Edmontonians feeling increasingly confident about risk as vaccinations rise, but still more hesitant than other Albertans.

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In fact, two-thirds of respondents said they remain in a “wait and see” mode.

Asked what would increase their consideration of attending an event, strong safety measures, knowing others at the event were vaccinated and an easy cancellation policy were all ranked as important by more than half of respondents.

Such results should be of major interest to a provincial government that recently announced the end of most testing, tracing and public health restrictions.

Theatres, galleries, festivals, music venues and local sports teams should also be paying attention. Hard choices may be inevitable.

Can theatre companies take a risk on large productions with multiple actors, dancers and an orchestra? Will audiences pay similar prices? Can music venues survive by demanding audiences wear masks and allowing no more than 50 per cent capacity?

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And if fewer paid opportunities exist for artists, what will happen to artists from marginalized communities?

‘One of the last sectors to recover’

So far, despite increasing optimism, arts organizations don’t expect a significant financial return for at least another 12-18 months, and are planning with consequent restraint, Shahani said.

“We’re going to be one of the last sectors to recover.”

Then, even once the pandemic is no longer in the spotlight, additional economic pressures loom just off stage in the form of a suffering oil industry, public sector job losses and reduced government spending.

All told, there are lots of factors threatening to make mediocre what has been a celebrated mainstay of the city’s identity. And it’s not just the street performers, painters and improv comedians who are at risk, but the also the food vendors, hotels and other amenities that benefit from a thriving arts scene.

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Artists are known for their ability to adapt and speak truth in a variety of ways, and this gives them the power to help a city heal emotionally from a pandemic or economic downturn. But they also are likely to need more financial help to get through this period of uncertainty, Shahani said.

At the municipal level this means at least maintaining EAC grants and ensuring the continuation of funding for public art as part of municipal projects. More creative measures may also be needed. Simply leaving the industry to the mercy of market forces may have painful consequences for the economy as a whole, including hopes to attract more entrepreneurs and tech innovators.

“It will require future city councils to think of arts as more than a nice-to-have,” said Shahani. “We provide the kind of raison d’etre to exist as a community. That’s what makes a city what a city is.”

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein

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