Zainub Verjee: COVID-19 crisis has exposed hypocrisy about artists and their labour

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      By Zainub Verjee

      In times of uncertainty and fear during the pandemic lockdown, enjoying works of art—an online painting or performance or reading—has become a routine. Yet in a cruel irony, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed our hypocrisy about the artists and their labour. It reflects how the deeper questions on labour of artists, apart from lip service, continues to be an unattended policy issue.

      Though the centrality of the role of artists in society has never been questioned, the strength or fragility of artists is in what we envisage. As the ironies of these times reveal, despite the legislation, the status of artists in Canada is uncertain. Today, the world of labour looks a lot like the way art labour has looked for decades.

      In mitigating the impact of the COVID19 crisis, the federal government swiftly responded with economy-wide measures as part of its immediate relief. It is in this roll out of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) that officials discovered the many gaps in addressing the labour force in the arts—the artist. More than the employment of the labour, it was what constituted their income that became the challenge and eluded the fit for an artist.

      Grappling with artist income has never been a straight story. It is unclear, particularly for artists, as to what qualifies as employment income and whether this income is net or gross. 

      In the Fall of 2018 the case of Nova Scotia artist Steve Higgins brought this issue to the fore. Broader advocacy made the Standing Committee on Finance recommend in December 2018 that the government “Recognize the professional status of Canadian artists by implementing fair taxation, and establishing a more coherent and predictable support and fiscal ecosystem.” In Canada, the province of Quebec has an exemption for income derived from copyright royalties, including neighbouring rights and the public lending right.

      What does an artist do? How much does being an artist cost? Artists’ status, the need to acknowledge the atypical way in which they work, and their low and irregular income are international issues. The estimated value of the art and culture in the global market is US$2.3 trillion as per the UNESCO document

      It is the irony of the times, that this year we mark the 40th anniversary of the Status of the Artist—the declaration made in the 21st session of the UNESCO at its meeting in Belgrade recommending the adoption of the Status of Artist.  In October 1980, Canada became a signatory to this declaration. By 1992, the federal Status of the Artist Act was passed and it was not until 1995 that substantial provisions of the Act were implemented. 

      The legislation attempts to place artists on an equal footing with other professionals in the labour market and to earn a more equitable share of the profits on their work within the economy. Some Provinces followed the suit in the first decade of this century as much of the art and culture work falls within the provincial remit. 

      Often provincial policy on arts has dropped the ball. For instance, the generous increase in federal funds actually saw Provincial cutbacks. Mirroring the broader neoliberal policy armature, they have continued to prioritizing economic impact in engaging arts for nonartistic purposes such as tourism. This has relegated the status of the artist to the lowest priority.  

      One of the crucial aspects mentioned in the part 1 of the legislation which enabled a Canadian Council for the Status of the Artist, as a conduit for artists to recommend to government, was temporarily formed in 1991, and thereafter by 1996 it ceased to exist and by 2010 it was eliminated. So, in its current form, we have a diluted version of the Act.

      With Art now established as an Asset category, Art Market creates a false narrative on the status of the Artist. While we saw how the Heffle case triggered a politically expedient decision to knock off those two words—national importance—to enable specialized tax credits for artwork donations. The Artists are up in demand for the resale rights to get their due from the profits others make off their work.

      As the ironies of these times reveal, despite the legislation, the status of artists in Canada is uncertain. 

      This crisis has reminded once again the imperative of making the Status of Artist Act more robust, meaningful, effective and enriching for the community.

      Zainub Verjee is the laureate of 2020 Governor General's Visual and Media Arts for Outstanding Contribution. An artist, critic, with expertise in cultural policy and cultural diplomacy, she was at the forefront of the cultural policy work in the 1980s-2000s in Canada and internationally. She has worked on issues of Artist Labour, Racial Equity, and Culture Trade. Former Executive Director of Vancouver's Western Front, her work on the BC Arts Board led to the formation of B.C.Arts Council. Currently, she is the Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries in Toronto.