If you were a New Brunswick artist, would you be able to eat well? Would you be able afford day care for your children or earn a pension?
Probably not, to all the above and more. Unless you were already wealthy or got tremendously lucky.
New Brunswick artists live a precarious, sporadic existence, moving from one contract to another, a government task force reported last year.
Task force a good start, but not enough
According to “Report of the Premier’s Task Force on the Status of the Artist,” artists in New Brunswick face economic insecurity with job instability, low income, and a limited regulatory framework for grants and scholarships.
Dozens of artists in Saint John debated the report’s finding at the “Future Possible” conference in late October 2022. A recurring theme at the conference was how this event was possibly the first formal conversation about the future of art in New Brunswick with actual working artists outside the capital.
The majority of artists in the province do not make a living solely from their art, the task force found. Not that artists in any part of Canada are thriving above a living wage, but New Brunswick artists are remarkably hard done by. They have low, unstable incomes, about 40 per cent lower in general than the rest of workforce.
Meager earnings for ‘average’ artists
Despite 41 per cent of artists having earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher education (such as Masters of Fine Arts), as compared to 21 per cent of all workers, they have limited access to meaningful wage or employer-provided health benefits. In some cases, creative work actually costs artists more than the income they make from it. This means few people who would like to pursue the arts professionally can do so, unless they have a large inherited income, wealthy family members or a spouse who can support them.
According to ARTSLINK NB, artists contributed over $572 million to New Brunswick’s GDP in 2018, yet they earned a median annual income of $24,300, compared to $43,500 for all workers. These figures don’t inspire much hope for how artists make rent, raise their families or afford a stable standard of living conducive to the arts.
Artists hard at work
Much of the work happens behind the scenes as artists prepare, research and develop their projects, submit proposals, search for jobs or negotiate contracts, the task force found. This work typically remains undocumented and unrecognized.
Taken for granted by both audiences and consumers in a profit-driven, capitalist economy, some artists find themselves living two lives, with both arts-related jobs and those outside the arts. Often, their career consists of a string of projects working for different employers and clients under different conditions.
Seven years in the making, the report from New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government contains 24 recommendations to improve the socio-economic status of professional artists in New Brunswick “in a deep and substantial way.”
It calls for the establishment of a guaranteed annual income program, the inclusion of “invisible work” in the calculation of tax benefits, and increased funding for arts programs in schools, among other recommendations.
The task force also recommends establishing a transition committee to develop a detailed framework for action with specific timelines. That committee began to meet in June of last year.
However, the recommendations aren’t binding on the government, or anyone. Will anything come of it?
In July, the province issued a statement indicating that New Brunswick artists weathered the pandemic relatively well.
“The downturn in GDP resulting from New Brunswick’s culture sector was 1.7 per cent, the third-lowest decrease in the country behind only the Northwest Territories and Nunavut,” the release stated.
But it’s no accomplishment to lose less GDP than other provinces from artists who are so underpaid they essentially exist out of sheer determination.
In summary, New Brunswick isn’t investing in its top art talent. Without more support, artists are implicitly encouraged to either give up or seek better opportunities elsewhere. Not unlike how we treat teachers, nurses, and other publicly supported forms of work.
And it may be that to really improve the status of the artist, the economy itself will need to be restructured such that the most disadvantaged among us are given more support and opportunity.
Are these changes a Conservative government will be willing to make?
Chris Wanamaker is a mental health therapist, writer and socialist who lives in Saint John.