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Canadian culture crisis: Time for a revamp of cultural support

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Photo: flickr/ Caleb Roenigk

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A clear picture of the economic reality experienced by Canadian artists is taking shape: times are tough. The Writers' Union of Canada (TWUC) report 'Devaluing Creators, Endangering Creativity' tells us just how tough: Canadian writers earn about $12,000 a year, with 81 per cent of them living below the poverty line, and women writers earning on average 45 per cent less than their male counterparts.

Though revenues in the industry are declining, Canadian book publishing still pulled in $1.9 billion in 2012. But the Writers' Union report highlights that writers are now working more to earn less than they did when surveyed in 1998, creating a "cultural emergency." Authors now find themselves having to take on some of the traditional work of publishers, including editing and promotion, but also are seeing a decline in their contacts, advances, and royalty rates.

TWUC chairperson Harry Thurston declares that "this is not a sustainable situation." If writers continue to not be able to support themselves from their creative work, they will eventually seek employment elsewhere, to the detriment of the diversity of creative expression that we all experience.

And it's not just writers who are struggling to earn a living. National Household Survey data reveals that many types of Canadian artists, from musicians to dancers and artisans, pull in incomes around or below the poverty line. This data on how Canadian artists are faring economically suggests a Canadian cultural sector in crisis.

If we want Canadian artists to keep creating, something's got to give.

The Canada Council's new plan for arts funding in Canada reorganizes 147 programs down to just six, grouped under themes like "explore and create" and "engage and sustain." Some established artists have voiced their frustration and confusion about just what these program headings mean and how they will work.

The Canada Council says that some of the impulse for this overhaul came from a growing awareness that younger artists are creating and distributing their work in new and multidisciplinary ways that straddle or are neglected by traditional discipline-specific funding categories.

If established artists are being squeezed, are emerging and young artists even getting out of the gate?

More than 60 years ago, the Massey Commission set out to take stock of Canadian culture and its needs. The report, released in 1951, spoke to the growing threat of the Americanization of culture, and catalyzed the creation of the Canada Council in 1957 in order to nurture and protect Canadian identity through homegrown Canadian art.

The Canada Council's new funding model acknowledges major changes in the way that Canadian artists are working today, but we need more than just a new funding model to meet the challenges that artists experience. The problems facing the cultural sector lie deeper than how artists access funding.

Perhaps it's time to undertake another large-scale inventory of the Canadian culture scene in order to more fully assess the value of culture in Canada and the needs of creators and audiences. National Household Survey data shows that there are more Canadians employed as artists and cultural workers than there are in automotive manufacturing. Recent economic crises have seen discussions of bailouts to banking and automotive sectors, but the notion of acute intervention in the cultural sector doesn't have the same traction.

We need to gather more knowledge about what's going on in the cultural sector in order to create more public awareness about why it's important for the cultural sector to exist in Canada at all, about why it's important to hear from diverse stories from diverse creators across artistic mediums.

We also need to gather more knowledge about the activities of young people who are entering the cultural sector and who may be working in ways that differ from established ones. Recognizing the differing needs and trajectories of youth who are entering this field could allow for policies to better match unfolding economic and creative directions.

Support for culture is not only important for creators. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing tracks the role of access to culture as a key indicator of quality of life, and notes that "losses in our capacity to develop and provide meaningful venues and opportunities for leisure and culture threatens the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and society at large."

In its 'Devaluing Creativity' report, the Writers' Union of Canada suggests the need for continued work to ensure that writers are compensated fairly, that they sign fair contracts, and that programs offering support to writers are protected.

It's necessary to push to maintain this infrastructure around creative work, but for opportunities to make a living from creative work to be equitably spread, we also need to develop broader public support for culture in Canada. Developing more awareness about the struggles of artists is one place to start.

Miranda Campbell is an assistant professor in the School of Creative Industries at Ryerson University and the author of Out of the Basement: Youth Cultural Production in Practice and in Policy, which was shortlisted for the 2013/2014 Donner Prize for the best public policy book by a Canadian.

Photo: flickr/ Caleb Roenigk

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