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Guelph's rich art scene struggles to perform during the pandemic

The estimated economic impact from lost revenue in arts and culture across Canada is over $1.5 billion
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Yonatan Gat surveys the crowd off the main stage at 2019's Hillside Festival. Musical festivals in Guelph were cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday file photo

It has been a difficult time for art during the pandemic as local artists and art organizations have struggled to keep their craft alive. 

In the artistic Royal City, the pandemic not only put a stop to live performances, live galleries, and festivals — something artists thrive on to survive — but it has also made it difficult for artistic community spaces to cater to these artists. 

“A lot of us are struggling and it's a scary time to look t the future and not really see a clear cut end,” said Scarlett Raczycki, executive director of Silence which provides a space for artists to showcase their work on Essex Street. 

She said since the closure of Silence in March, approximately 100 artists have been affected.

“Because our venue is small, it is difficult to make sure that everyone is safe when they’re in there in a bigger capacity and we have to take into consideration how we can fit artists if we can only fit 10 people,” said Raczycki. She also added that the venue is now available for rent for small events. 

Raczycki said while the organization has been very fortunate to receive government funding — $15,000 from the Canadian Council of Arts — a lot of them are beginning to wrap up.

“Right now we’re just looking to find new ways to support musicians and artists and still be able to connect audiences to them as well,” said Raczycki.

She said there has been an intense call to perform virtually, but that that option is difficult to monetize. 

“Folks are so used to having free access to a lot of content online so I’ve noticed a great many of online live streams and performances musicians are offering are free which has been super uplifting for audiences online but doesn’t help contribute to the lack of funding musicians have had,” said Raczycki.

And needless to say, a virtual performance does not offer the same experience a live performance does. 

“You want that human contact. I would classify myself as an entertainer rather than a musician. You need that connection,” said James Gordon, a well known Guelph musician and City of Guelph councillor.

Gordon performed his last concert in February.

“That's a long time to be without any income, a long time to not be connected to your fans,” said Gordon who had a solo concert tour scheduled to perform in 20 cities in Western Canada right when COVID-19 hit. 

“In one day, I lost about $20,000,” said Gordon. “I can't think of many other vocations that are 100 per cent out of business, but we are.”

He said the pandemic helped shine a light on an already struggling business for local artists where no one buys CDs. 

“It’s going to catch up with us eventually because if recording artists can’t generate revenue from the recordings they make, then they cant do it and those people that are getting it for free won’t get anything,” said Gordon. 

“Something’s got to change.”

A survey about COVID-19 impacts on arts and culture which surveyed over 800 respondents across Canada found that over  $20 million in income was lost due to COVID-19 as of April 12.  The estimated economic impact from lost revenue in arts and culture across Canada is $1.5 to $1.9 billion. The income loss per artist is estimated to be approximately $22,000 per person. 

Patti Broughton, executive director of the Guelph Arts Council — who caters to a range of artists such as performance artists, theatre artists, musicians, visual artists and writers among more — said the impact on livelihood is very significant because artists are losing numerous paid gigs. 

“Notice that artists aren’t the most paid of workers, you can easily see the impact,” said Broughton.

“There’s so much about the arts that have in the past happened in person so the live performing arts have been pretty devastated by this."

During the months the Art Gallery of Guelph was closed as a result of provincial regulations, the gallery had to reinvent itself, go online and support alternative forms of learning and public engagement.

“It was a particularly challenging period for the Art Gallery of Guelph and yet one full of new insight and opportunities as well,” said Shauna McCabe, executive director of the Art Gallery of Guelph.

“With the declaration of states of emergency around the world and the shutdowns that resulted, artists globally have been faced both a lack of spaces and stages to share their work and the elimination of sources of financial support,” said McCabe. 

McCabe said despite financial insecurity, she has seen the struggles of artists paralleled by immense generosity from artists and performers to assist and support their community. 

“If we think about how important creative expression has been to all of our lives throughout this period, it is clear that the arts provide us with both a sense of context and community," said McCabe.

Raczycki said many can agree that the world turned to art to help cope with the pandemic whether it's been binge-watching Netflix, revisiting an old vinyl collection or tuning in to music live streams. 

“There’s been a lot of community togetherness being led by musicians and artists putting together different digital projects," said Raczycki.

She said it’s important for the community to remember that if they want something to be there at the other end, they have to check-in. 

“We’re in it for the long haul. We want to survive through it but it's a matter of having that community buy-in and being able to come together after. This is going to be a really magical moment,” said Raczycki.