In Hill Strategies Blog

On precarity in the arts

October 13, 202113 October 2021


Kelly Hill

The Canadian arts sector has been one of the hardest hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the accommodation and food services industry as well as the travel industry. This is particularly troubling in a sector in which precarity was already widespread. The health and well-being of artists (financial, physical, mental) and the viability of many arts organizations are at risk.

This challenging situation should be of concern to everyone, not just people directly involved in the arts. The arts are a source of enjoyment, meaning, belonging, well-being, and understanding of the possibilities of being. On well-being, for example, music can be thought of as medicine, from many perspectives. The arts also contribute significantly to the economy.

It’s tough to measure the levels of precarity with precision, because recent economic data are usually not fine-grained enough to allow for a detailed analysis of the arts sector. Related to this, existing measurement systems lump the arts and heritage together with recreation and sports, and the cultural industries with telecommunications and data processing. On the other side of the coin, travel industries are typically grouped with the transportation of goods (e.g., trucking and pipelines) as well as delivery services and warehousing.

That being said, there are some datasets that are quite detailed, and we do have some evidence of my initial statement: that the arts sector has suffered more than almost any other industry during the pandemic.

The precarious state of artists and arts workers is shown both by decreased employment levels and high stress levels. As noted in an analysis by CAPACOA, “one in four arts, entertainment and recreation workers lost their job in 2020, compared to 2019. That’s 114,400 artists, technicians, marketing staff, arts administrators and other cultural workers who could no longer earn a living out of their profession.” The 25% decrease in employment levels (including self-employment) was higher than any other industry in 2020. In comparison, the decrease was 23% in accommodation and food services.

The National Arts and Culture Impact Survey, conducted in November of 2020, surveyed 1,273 artists and arts workers about a range of issueStress or burnout among artists and arts workers, fall 2020. All respondents: 62%. People who are D/deaf or have a disability (65%), BIPOC (68%), primary caregiver (69%), LGBTQ+ (78%).s, including their perceptions of recent stress or burnout. Most respondents (62%) indicated that stress or burnout was an obstacle that they faced over the previous three months. Stress or burnout was even higher among artists and arts workers who are hard of hearing, D/deaf, and/or have a disability (65%), BIPOC artists and arts workers (68%), artists and arts workers who are primary caregivers of a child, a senior, or someone at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 (69%), and LGBTQ+ artists and arts workers (78%). Because the survey was open to all respondents, no margin of error can be calculated for the results. The above breakdowns are based on my re-analysis of detailed survey data, and my thanks go out to Orchestras Canada and the other arts service organizations that commissioned the survey for sharing the data with me.

Arts work, while professional, is often poorly compensated. Our own pre-pandemic research showed that the median income of artists was 44% lower than all Canadian workers in 2016. Cultural workers have median incomes that are closer to the Canadian norm (6% less than all workers). During the pandemic, artists and arts workers lost many opportunities — a per-person average of 36 opportunities and $25,000, according to a survey of about 1,000 arts workers by I Lost My Gig Canada.

During the pandemic, many arts and culture workers have relied on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). An analysis by Statistics Canada estimates that 63% of eligible workers in the arts, entertainment, and recreation sector received at least one CERB payment in 2020. This is surpassed only by accommodation and food services, where 67% of workers received a CERB payment. In both sectors, these percentages are close to double the rate for all Canadian workers (35%). Note that these statistics only examine those workers who earned more than $5,000 in 2019, which was an eligibility requirement for the CERB.

Many arts organizations are also in a precarious state due to the pandemic — especially those that depend on bringing people together. An analysis of Statistics Canada data by CAPACOA shows that, as of March 2021, economic activity in live performance was 63% lower than pre-pandemic levels.

More broadly, the severity of the situation of organizations is shown by my analysis of Statistics Canada’s Experimental estimates for business openings and closures. In the arts, entertainment, and recreation sector, the number of organizations and businesses with at least one employee decreased by 8% between January 2020 and May 2021, the same decrease as the accommodation and food sector. Both of these decreases are much larger than the average decline in all sectors of the economy (-1%). Also of note, Statistics Canada has provided an analysis of some financial impacts of the pandemic in the arts, entertainment, and recreation industries.

About the Arts Insights Canada initiative

This blog is part of Arts Insights Canada, a new initiative that also encompasses the Arts Research Monitor and Statistical Insights on the Arts reports. Arts Insights Canada is a partnership between Hill Strategies and three leading foundations engaged in the Canadian arts sector: the Azrieli Foundation, the Rozsa Foundation, and the Metcalf Foundation.

We are honoured to be working with an Advisory Panel composed of leaders within the Canadian arts community. Over the past few months, the Advisory Panel has identified key themes where research could be particularly useful for Canada’s arts sector:

  • Reconciliation
  • Precarity
  • Benefits, impacts, and outcomes of the arts
  • Equity, diversity, and inclusion
  • Climate change / sustainability
  • COVID-19 and post-pandemic transformations
  • Impacts of digital technologies
  • Public engagement in the arts

These themes may be refined as this new initiative progresses.

Recent Resources
All archives by date