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Situation and Needs of Senior Artists in Canada

December 1, 20101 December 2010

Situation of artists

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In 2006, a group of artists’ associations and individuals came together to attempt to respond to the challenges facing Canada’s professional senior artists. With the intention of developing programs and services to help alleviate these challenges, they launched the Senior Artists Research Project (SARP) in 2009 to investigate the circumstances, situation, needs and interests of elder artists.

There were three components to the research project, including research into relevant international models of support for elder artists, the situation of Canadian elder artists, and services that currently exist for elder artists in Canada.

The international report was based on web-based research and 33 in-person interviews with artist association representatives, artist unions, researchers, program managers and elder artists in eight international locations (New York, Zurich, Bonn, Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin and London). Among the key findings:

  • There are two main types of retirement / pension systems: 1) “very strong government support for relatively few artists, such as lifelong grants in Denmark and Aosdána in Ireland. The Danish program supports 275 artists, a similar number to the 233 artists who are honoured by Aosdána in Ireland.” 2) “Contributions-based retirement savings programs, sometimes ‘topped-up’ by government support. Because artists’ earnings are relatively low almost everywhere, these do not necessarily lead to large retirement funds (for most artists).”
  • Housing for artists was found to be a challenging issue in almost all countries.
  • “Information on the situation of older artists, including earnings, pensions, isolation and health issues is anecdotal in most jurisdictions. Few have conducted extensive studies into these key issues.” A key exception is Germany, where a 1973 report eventually led to the creation of the Kunstlersozialkasse (Artist Social Fund).

Based on a survey and 17 focus group sessions with elder artists, the Canadian report examines the circumstances of professional elder artists in the areas of finances, career, housing, health and isolation. The survey generated an excellent return (1,512 professional artists), representing well the demographic, geographic, language and sectoral breakdown of the country’s professional artists.

The Canadian research report indicates that elder artists earn a median of about $7,000 from their art. When all personal income sources are combined, the report indicates that “over one-third of senior artists (35%, or 14,000 people) have income from all sources that is less than $20,000, including the 16% of senior artists (over 6,000 people) who have income from all sources that is less than $10,000.” Artists’ incomes can fluctuate significantly. As one elder artist noted, “It varies so much! Quite impossible to make plans for the ‘old’ days.”

Nearly one-half of the surveyed artists (47%) have another income earner in their household. Given their low earnings, artists who do not have the support of another income earner face particular difficulties. As one artist indicated, “I am a single woman who will turn 67 this year, and I must keep working on various part time jobs in order to make ends meet. Working to make ends meet keeps me from making art. Also, when not working, the anxiety of not being able to make ends meet takes over as a full time activity. Fairly soon I will not be able to either work or find work that will hire an ‘old woman’. What then? I never had a job with a pension and never had enough money to save up and cannot live on CPP and OAS. What a dilemma!”

The report indicates that there are differences in incomes for different groups of artists:

  • Female senior artists earn less than men by all income indicators.”
  • Artists who are 65 or older earn less than artists between 55 and 64 years of age.
  • Visual and media artists earn less than other elder artists.
  • French-language artists earn less than English-language artists.

There is, however, “very little difference in earnings by region”.

Looking back on the patterns of their success and earnings during their careers, the elder artists indicated that “success and earnings both tend to peak between the ages of 40 and 60”.

In relation to their careers, the report found that:

  • 34% of elder artists feel they have been discriminated against because of their age.
  • 73% of elder artists report having career-related needs, such as professional development, marketing or promotion, computer skills, finding work, legal assistance, etc.

The overwhelming majority of artists do not retire. Only 5% of respondents reported that they are “no longer working on their art”, and 76% expect they will never stop working. Regarding never retiring, artists provided comments such as “art is the only way I can make sense of my life” and “it would silence what you have inside”.

About one in seven elder artists have no retirement savings at all. As the report notes, “this equates to almost 6,000 senior artists who will have to rely on continued work, supportive spouses, government programs or non-profit services.” One artist indicated that they needed to withdraw their retirement savings to cover ongoing expenses. Another artist commented that “I have no pension plan, no RRSP’s, no savings, no equity. If I stop working, I will have nothing.”

For those elder artists who do have retirement savings, the median value of their savings is approximately $120,000. The report indicates that, given the age of the respondents, “this is a very low level of savings: spending $20,000 per year, $120,000 would last only six years”.

Using the survey data, an assessment of risk factors found that:

  • 46% of artists 55 or over (about 18,000 Canadians) are at high risk in at least one of five key areas: finances, health, housing, isolation and/or artistic career or legacy.
  • 15% of artists 55 or over (about 6,000 Canadians) are at high risk in more than one area.

An examination of both high and moderate risk levels in each area found that:

  • 61% of elder artists, or about 24,000 people, are at either moderate or high financial risk.
  • 73% are at moderate or high health risk (29,000 people).
  • 19% are at moderate or high housing risk (8,000 people).
  • 28% are at moderate or high risk of isolation (11,000 people).
  • 42% are at moderate or high risk with regards to their artistic career or legacy (17,000 people).

Despite the challenges and risks of an artistic career, “nearly nine out of ten senior artists (87%) would choose an artistic career again”.

The report indicates that two of the most pressing needs of elder artists are for information and communication. Many elder artists want to know more about services that currently exist, need to find career-related professionals (e.g., legal, tax, financial, etc.), and wish to have more face-to-face discussions in order to “create a greater sense of community”. Many survey and focus group participants suggested that a central source of information would be very welcome. If made available in English and French through a website and telephone helpline, such information would benefit elder artists across the country.

Recognition and respect are other important issues raised in the report. “Many senior artists brought up the need to be recognized for the depth and breadth of their knowledge and experience as well as the valuable contributions they have made and continue to make to the arts in Canada. A number of senior artists indicated that they have reached a level of experience and expertise that enables them to do the best work of their lives as seniors. However, many of them feel that they have less visibility now than ever.”

Based on these findings, the project consortium has decided on the creation of a new organization to address the needs of vulnerable elder artists. As their press release indicates, “the SARP Steering Committee determined that a new organization should be formed to provide needed programs and services, continue to research and disseminate information about existing services and programs that support senior artists, and to work with existing organizations to identify and fill gaps in service.” The goal of the new organization will be “to assist senior artists, whose contribution to the culture and economy of Canada is profound, to live out their senior years in dignity and respect”.

The research reports related to senior artists are available on the Hill Strategies site (, while further information about the organization to assist artists in their senior years is available on the SARP page on the Dancer Transition Resource Centre’s website (

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