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Artists were financially under-supported before COVID-19. Now making ends meet is even harder

"This really is the time to support your artist friends who are struggling"

by Sara Birrell

Photo by George Coltrain
Photo by George Coltrain

As the COVID-19 pandemic grips Canada, new rules that attempt to “flatten the curve” by limiting gatherings, shuttering theatres, clubs, and restaurants, and cancelling festivals have made it hard to make ends meet financially for many artists and others in arts communities. And while some are fortunate enough to be able to pivot online, or fall back on careers outside the art world, for many, especially those whose marginalization has made their lives challenging at the best of times, the effects of the pandemic have the potential to be ruinous. “I’ve lost about $10,000 in income,” says Gwen Benaway, an award-winning trans poet of Anishinaabe and Métis descent who lives in Toronto. “I can pay rent this month, but I can’t next month. So what’s going to happen to me? BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and Person of Colour] transwomen creators, we don’t have any contingency plans.”

For Benaway and many others, being an artist isn’t a side job, or a somewhat lucrative hobby. “I had a career before this happened,” Benaway says of the life she has spent the past ten years building. “I could count on a certain percentage of monthly income coming in, and I could count on a certain number of gigs coming in.” But now that’s gone, and Benaway says things are likely to get worse before they get better. “I assume the cancellations will keep coming.”

Aren Okemaysim, an actor, musician, and technical worker from Saskatchewan, agrees that “it’s pretty bleak for artists who don’t have an income outside of the arts.” Okemaysim, who has taught in the past, says that he’s trying to find ways to diversify his income. “I’m learning a lot more about opportunities within the arts and within my skill set that I can utilize within a virtual setting and within a remote setting,” he says, adding that although he has never taken his teaching skills online, “that’s something I could definitely get behind.”

Julia Dima, a visual artist who works full-time in another industry to support herself, says the art community is good at supporting one another, but when hard times hit the community as a whole, that creates problems. “If you’re an artist and you’re supporting the arts, but you’re not making any money to buy art, it kind of puts a bit of a damper on everything.” Dima says that it’s more important than ever for artists like herself – who have full-time jobs – to support those who are struggling. “Not everybody is laid off, not everybody is losing income. For folks who are not facing economic loss, this really is the time to support your artist friends who are struggling right now.”

Okemaysin says that “people seem to be watching out for each other,” but the reality is that for people whose livelihoods were already precarious – particularly BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ artists – the tangible support that they can provide one another in this kind of crisis is limited.

Benaway says that it’s just not feasible for artists to rely on one another, not when the entire industry has taken such a hit. “There is an informal support network,” she says. “We buy each other’s work, we collaborate, but there really isn’t that kind of care network that you’re probably imagining. Because most folks, especially BIPOC creators, live in poverty.” She adds that for transwomen like herself, the struggle is even greater. “When stuff like this happens, our care networks completely vanish overnight.”

She points out that even in the best of times, creating art in Canada is often reserved for the privileged, requiring time and resources that poor and marginalized people don’t have access to. “A lot of artists [in Canada] are people who have intergenerational wealth, family support, or partner support,” she says. “It’s something people with money and intergenerational wealth do. Or people who’ve managed to get tenure-track [academic] jobs.”

Benaway says that those who are already vulnerable are the ones who will suffer the most. “Artists who don’t come from intergenerational wealth, who are marginalized, not just on the basis of race or sexual orientation or gender, but in terms of class, and disability, those people are the most affected right now, and have absolutely no support.” She’s not optimistic about the federal government’s emergency funding for those whose employment has been affected by the pandemic. “It’s inadequate,” she says, noting that for people like her, living in major centres like Toronto and Vancouver, “$2000 is our rent.” And although provinces across the country, including Ontario, have halted evictions temporarily, without legislation suspending the payment of rent across the country, neither EI nor the emergency funding will be enough to protect renters from hunger and destitution.

Okemaysin, who has partner support and lives in Regina, where rent is about half of what it is in Toronto, says he has a big tax return coming that will help him as he tries to transition to online performances and teaching, but even that small amount of cushioning isn’t available to everyone. “People are going to be homeless in a month,” says Benaway, adding that the supports announced by the federal government are “more focused on businesses than on individuals, and also on families and people who own houses.”

Most provinces have banned evictions, attempting to ensure that tenants like Benaway and the roughly 13 million other Canadians like her who have suddenly found themselves unable to pay rent on April 1, aren’t left homeless during the crisis. But Claire Gallagher of the social campaigning organization Leadnow says that what is actually needed is the cancellation of rent payments until the crisis is over. “Banning evictions doesn’t go far enough,” Gallagher says. “You might not be affected in this moment, but you don’t have any guarantee that if you don’t pay your rent right now, you won’t be evicted down the line.”

Gallagher says that Leadnow, which presented a joint petition with more than 800,000 signatures calling for the cancellation of rent to the federal and provincial governments on Monday, has been working with labour and tenants unions to make sure that tenants are protected now, and when the immediate crisis has passed. “A rent freeze wouldn’t work because tenants aren’t in a position to pay a backlog of rent at a later date,” Gallagher says. “It’s not an option for them to kick the problem down the road.”

In the meantime, Benaway says she doesn’t know what she’s going to do to survive, but she’s frank about what her options are. “Maybe sex work,” she says. “I’m a transwoman, that’s what we have to fall back on.” But she notes that sex workers are facing their own downturn right now as the pandemic drives down demand for in-person services and workers struggle to make the transition to online services, which require a different skill set and equipment. “Sex workers are really struggling, too,” Benaway says. “I don’t know that that’s even viable right now.”

Okemaysin says the crisis has made him realize how reliant members of the artistic community are on one another. “The bigger thing I’m taking away from this is how much collaborative effort and group effort and community effort is needed in the industry to support one another.” Dima agrees. “The arts community is still trying to reach out to the public, and I hope that that results in some kind of economic prosperity, because that’s really what people are losing here,” she says. “Reaching out to the public is nice, and bringing creativity into people’s lives during this pandemic is nice too, but a lot of people are also just trying to pay the bills.”

While the financial crisis facing artists is the most urgent problem of the moment, what is being lost runs deeper than monetary compensation. “It’s about opportunities,” Benaway says. “I was going to get to travel out of the country for the first time. I was going to go to South Africa.”

Dima, who has had two of the festivals that she relies on to exhibit her work cancelled, agrees that artists are losing out on the possibilities that open up during the summer months. “This is the time where artists would be using the nicer weather to exhibit to the public, and now we can’t do that.”

Benaway says that the earlier an artist is in their career, the harder the hit. “For kids who are just starting out, I think the impact is so much worse because they’re missing so much exposure.”

She has no illusions about the difficulties that lay ahead. “I’ll try my best to survive, but I can’t say that I will.” And although there is a common human impulse to believe that times of trouble will inspire great works of art, Benaway says that she’s not writing poetry right now. “It feels too difficult,” she says. “And to be honest, it kind of feels pointless.”


Links to help artists and others struggling at this time

For 2SLGBTQ artists:

For entertainment professionals:

For writers:

For musicians:


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David Gray-Donald (David Gray-Donald)
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