Columnists

June Chua
A new deal for artists

| February 18, 2009
It seemed like a typical report at the time -- a survey on artists' earnings in Canada was released in early February. But when examining the details, the facts becomes more alarming with each sentence -- earnings by the likes of actors, writers, painters and directors have been in a freefall since 1990.

The study by Hill Strategies Research (prepared for Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council) revealed that Canada's 140,000 artists had annual incomes that were 37 per cent lower than the average Canadian worker.

Based on the 2006 census, average wages amounted to just $22,731 per year. That of course, does not count the part-time jobs artists do to sustain a living.

Examine the data and the figures are maddening.

More women and visible minorities have entered the field of arts. In fact, women account for 53 per cent of arts workers now compared to 40 per cent back in 1971. As well, the number of people employed in the arts has tripled since and outpaces that of autoworkers.

So, as more women and people of colour enter the field, earnings drop. What does this say about our values as a country?

Female visual artists are the least-paid

Kelly Hill, whose company compiled the report, attributes female participation to the flexibility of self-employment, appealing to anyone who might have children.

Consider the data:

- The poorest paid artist is that of a female visual artist;
- That's followed by female artisans;
- Then female musicians and singers.

The report said female artists earned 30 per cent less than their male counterparts.

By the way, aboriginal artists garner 30 per cent lower earnings than all other artists at $15,900 annually. The numbers are appalling.

"It is difficult for anybody to make a living in the arts," Hill told CBC News. "If you're a woman or if you're aboriginal or if you're a visible minority, it's doubly hard."

The report comes a week after the federal budget was presented and there was little to celebrate in Canada's arts community.

Underpinning all this bad news is a prevailing sentiment that money for artists is a frivolity, something the government has to condescend to. Yet, federal bailouts or tax breaks are always thought of as a necessity to keep certain industries afloat.

In recessionary times, artists' earnings are expected to drop and subsequently, fewer people will be attracted to the arts, especially those of different backgrounds.

It's at times like these that we need them even more. A massive shift in attitude would be nice.

To imagine Harper's administration doing something as bold as what U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted during the Great Depression would be a flight of fancy.

Roosevelt's government created several programs to get artists working. The first being the Public Works of Art Project, which then spawned the Federal Art Project (FAP).

The FAP -- which ran from 1935 to 1943 -- resulted in 5,000 jobs for artists and produced more than 225,000 works.

Public art workshops created during New Deal

The program gave freedom for artists to explore any style, subject or technique. The works went to institutions such as museums, post offices, libraries, schools and municipal governments.

Great artists -- including Diego Rivera, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner -- were supported with a monthly salary.

What's amazing and far-reaching about the FAP was that its purpose was also to educate the public about art, paying art teachers to hold workshops and classes in art centres for anyone to participate.

In fact, the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago is the last surviving FAP-created centre of its kind and continues to serve that city's African American community.

Under the FAP, musicians were hired to perform with orchestras and at community concerts. Touring theatre companies were given the opportunity to travel into the American countryside to present their plays and the Federal Writers Project published state and local guidebooks and collected folklore and oral history interviews.

The greatest legacy of the FAP may be the oral history project. The life histories of 10,000-plus men and women of varying backgrounds and ethnic groups were collected. All those interviews are now available online from the Library of Congress's American Memory Collection.

The result of that bold program was a massive cultural repository about the U.S. as a country and its people.

Conventional arts funding unveiled

The opportunities are endless. If only some visionary within the Canadian government would realize that.

The federal Tory approach towards the arts now is one of a benevolent uncle, dishing out hundreds of millions to the art sector. The majority of those monies seem to support a predictable, if not downright conventional, level of art -- giving out a new prize to internationally-recognized artists and supporting festivals to the tune of $100 million, which some critics have pointed out, are perfect photo-ops for Conservative MPs and their ridings.

What about supporting the actual making of art?

Amazing to consider our Prime Minister made that remark last summer decrying artists as a bunch of whiners and elitists after he slashed several arts programs.

"I think when ordinary, working people come home, turn on the TV and see ... a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren't high enough when they know the subsidies have actually gone up, I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people," said Harper.

He dismissed the arts as a "niche" issue for the elite. Yet, with the announcement of arts funding in January's budget, he's supporting exactly what he once disparaged.

A New Deal for artists is a necessity these days. Something like the Roosevelt's FAP actually speaks to the person on the street.

A nation's family album doesn't consist of widgets and numbers -- it is composed of human beings and their experiences.

A richer experience awaits us.