Arbitrary Closures Show Most Canadian Executives Don’t Value Artists

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The famous Koerner Hall in Toronto. In Ontario, all indoor art venues of all kinds are now closed as provincial governments face the highly transmissible variant Omicron with very different regulations.Tom Arban / Koerner Room

The father of a six-year-old recently told me that the Ontario government reminded him of a nervous new driver: body leaning forward in the seat, hands gripping the wheel, eyes fixed on the driver. meter of sidewalk just in front of the hood. Parents in Ontario, who received a notice one weekend that the school was moving online, might envy those in Nova Scotia and Quebec who received a full week’s warning.

If Canadian parents are frustrated with the reactive measures, artists and arts groups are on the verge of despair over the latest round of erratic restrictions in their fields. Provincial governments are faced with the highly transmissible variant of Omicron with very different regulations, seemingly not anchored by hard data on what works and what doesn’t. In British Columbia, the new rules halve capacity limits at performance venues, in Quebec, they close all theaters and performance spaces, and in Ontario, all indoor art venues of all kinds are closed. now closed. Often, the rules say more about what particular leaders like than what could stop COVID. The country’s major art institutions, including the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, all say no cases of transmission have been reported associated with their reopening: Quebec has exempted the museums of this new closure; Ontario locked them up.

Artists, especially in the hard-hit entertainment industry, need to ask themselves how much Canadian society really values ​​the arts or understands that being a violinist, singer-songwriter, or stage actor is a grown-up job with so many talents. real benefits, not just for the low-paid arts workers themselves, but, more importantly, for the rest of us. Few people talk a lot about the damage done when people can’t come together to hear a band at a club, see a new play, or attend an art exhibition. The day before the forced closure of the AGO, nearly 2,000 people stayed there safely. It’s a more subtle relationship than schooling with kids, but the arts are at the heart of psychological health – not to mention economics.

This week, I spoke with Mervon Mehta, Executive Director of Performing Arts at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and responsible for the concert programming at the renowned Koerner Hall. He had just emerged from a three-hour meeting to re-budget in which he juggled three different scenarios for 2022, as the venue faced yet another shutdown and round of cancellations.

In a typical year, Mehta schedules around 100 concerts and rents spaces for another 100. In 2021, that number has been reduced by three quarters. Yet when things opened up last September, the Conservatory hosted 75 public events; the audience took their seats; music students came and went at all hours. No one has been allowed in the building which has not been vaccinated; there were no meals, drinks or intermissions, and in the four cases where a client refused to wear a mask, he was asked to leave. Mehta said there was not a single case where exposure to COVID was reported during those four months of operation. If the current closure only lasts three weeks, the Conservatory will cut a total of 1,500 days of work for ushers, technical teams and artists, all concert workers.

“I understand that the government cannot choose, but we have called for a more nuanced approach,” Mehta said. “Look at a museum: everyone is vaccinated; everyone is left behind, yet Canadian Tire is open but the [Royal Ontario Museum] is closed. … It’s easy to make a quick judgment: let’s close all these things. Looks like the government is doing something. But it destroys these industries and destroys mental health. “

Anyone dedicated to a career in the arts is a risk taker accustomed to inconsistent income, but the damage caused by COVID, especially in the performing arts, is unprecedented; this is the fourth time in two years that arts workers have had to put their careers on hold. Federal income support has been renewed but at a lower rate; in December, the federal government announced the $ 60 million performing arts workers resilience fund for 2022-23, but it will not be available until spring. Many agency and contract workers have simply moved on to other jobs, while newcomers are unlikely to join such precarious fields. Closed institutions, which depended on wage subsidies but are now trying to determine if they qualify for new programs, will survive, but individual artists will abandon the arts, robbing Canada of their creativity.

When the pandemic finally ends and Canadian cities attempt to restore their inner cities, they will need musicians, actors and dancers to bring back the nightlife, but could find this workforce so exhausted and depleted. than that of the health care sector.

Mandatory provincial closures that are killing quarry appear to reveal the values ​​or fears of politicians more than anything else. Quebec’s paternalistic leaders are clearly afraid of partying: it’s the only jurisdiction in Canada that has imposed curfews – which made plays and concerts logistically difficult during a period in the spring last where the theaters were open but the curfew was in effect. On the other hand, the regime of François Legault does not have an exaggerated respect for religion: no service is authorized except funerals, and these have a limit of 25 people, that’s all. Meanwhile, Doug Ford’s government in Ontario is allowing church services to go halfway.

Moreover, in Ontario, some business areas are largely left alone: ​​Under the new rules, Amazon’s retail, factories and these absolutely essential warehouses all remain open.

The truth is, you are less likely to catch COVID in a museum or movie theater than in a factory. When the Vancouver International Film Festival offered 280 screenings and lectures to over 30,000 attendees over 10 days last October, no transmission was reported. Meanwhile, at the Toronto International Film Festival, there was only one case where a client said they tested positive after screening but said they did not catch the virus from TIFF . It is this inconsistency in the rules that has so discouraged artists. The message, certainly in Ontario, is that the arts are a flourish, not a business.

Yet there is one arts sector that has not been asked to close since June 2020: Film and television production, a $ 9 billion industry in Canada, has not stopped since that initial three-month shutdown. . Money speaks, and the manufacturing industry, which creates the equivalent of 245,000 full-time jobs a year, can afford dedicated COVID agents and ongoing testing. The commercial theater sector, where it is impossible to rehearse without contact without a mask, was not so lucky: on December 23, Mirvish Productions was forced to shut down the musical Come from afar, which had just reopened to a happy audience. The last straw was a single case of COVID in the company, but the theater producer was already struggling financially with Ontario’s decision (before the new lockdown) to halve theaters’ capacity.

Movie theaters didn’t fare well either: in Ontario and Quebec they are now closed, while British Columbia has halved their capacity but still allows them to sell popcorn.

Motivations differ and it can be difficult to judge whether individual groups or companies that are all struggling for survival are serving their own interests or those of the public. In the Ottawa area, the twin institutions, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., And the Canadian War Museum in the capital, took proactive steps and shut down before government orders to Ontario do not fall, closing their doors on Dec. 23, partly due to the increase in Omicron cases in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, and partly because of some cases among museum staff – well that not identified as an outbreak. If museums followed provincial guidelines, we would be back in Alice in Wonderland territory: the War Museum in Ottawa should legally close; the History Museum, located two kilometers across the Ottawa River, could remain open, as Quebec has exempted museums from its recent restrictions.

It’s not all bad news out there. In a regular year, the Art Gallery of Ontario welcomes approximately 35,000 schoolchildren on school trips. In 2020-2021, 700,000 children and their teachers took advantage of the online equivalents. In Vancouver, the Boca del Lupo Theater has partnered with the Dr. Peter Center, an AIDS / HIV organization, to promote the deployment of the vaccine by commissioning Dialogues for the hesitant and those who love them, four short audio pieces performed by four theater companies across the country. They are distributed as free podcasts to anyone, anywhere. Access is a critical issue for arts institutions, ensuring that their publicly funded programming reaches all sectors of society. When we finally come out of COVID, there will be a great social task ahead, helping artists restore their careers and ensuring that all audiences can benefit from the arts.

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