I think of an art community like a forest. It has an ecology. Some trees may grow larger than others, but to place more value on an old growth tree than on the worm that feeds the bird that nests in its branches, is to miss the point entirely. Symbiosis and diversity are where it’s at, in nature as in art.
So I cringed when I heard one of our federal candidates at the ArtsVote all-candidates meeting, organized by Artspace, EC3, and Showplace, declare that a healthy economy trickles down to the arts. I won’t single out an individual candidate because, although they were all informed, involved and genuinely supportive of our local art scene to varying degrees, I came away feeling that they shared this all-too-common misconception; as if the arts were a sibling that should be grateful for hand-me-downs, or a charity that we pat ourselves on the back for supporting.
In fact the arts trickle up. And out. And in. Culture is not a frill or luxury, but lifeblood, manna: the band that continues to play while the Lusitania is sinking, the writer or filmmaker who risks their life and liberty to speak the truth, the composer who invents a universal language to describe our emotions, the sculptor who builds a memorial to collectively grieve our loss, or the singer who breaks the race barrier once and for all.
If you’re thinking that’s all very nice, but this election is about the economy and the arts are a minor player, read on, because you’re wrong.
“The Gross Domestic Product generated by culture in 2010 was $48 billion, with 650,000 culture-related jobs,” writes Cathryn Atkinson for Whistler, B.C.’s, Pique Newsmagazine.
“By comparison, according to Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and quoted in Alberta Oil magazine in 2014, the oil and gas industry offered ‘tens of thousands of jobs and currently generates about $18 billion annually in royalties, taxes and other payments to Canadian governments.'”
It has always baffled me why governments and businesses don’t keep a handful of artists on retainer to shake them up and give them insight on their thorniest problems. Or why we don’t study artist networks as a social model. If I had my way, all political hopefuls would be required to intern in the trenches with the arts community. Inclusive to a fault, most artists are as social status-, colour-, mental health- and gender-blind as children. Thrifty economists? Living below the poverty line and yet building an enviable quality of life proves what savvy financial managers artists are. Generosity and cooperation are built into artist culture. The community steps up to help fellow artists as well as others in need; it’s rare to learn of a collaborative project where the spoils were not fairly distributed among the artists.
If we added art like a secret sauce to everything we do, life would be instantly richer and saner, on so many levels. Want world class cuisine on a shoestring? Eat where the artists eat. Some of them are fabulous cooks too. How to look like a million bucks for $5? Skip the mall and let an artist style you from the thrift shop. Throwing a party? Everybody knows artists throw the best ones. Want to make a killing in real estate? Buy where the artists live, then sit back and wait a few years.
Resourceful and independent, cultural workers are not as easy to muzzle as scientists, but remain vulnerable nonetheless. Artists and arts organizations not only have to fight against the narratives that keep them devalued and even feared in society, but these days they may be forced to censor themselves so as not to lose those hard-won grants or to accept funding from sponsors whose ethics do not align with their own.
For every artist who achieves notice, there are dozens of highly talented artists, for whom creating is not a job, but a vocation. Though you may never see or hear their work, without them a community would not thrive. Not all artists produce accessible work, are successful at juggling an art career and a day job, talented at self-promotion or grant writing. Yet these artists are critically important for a healthy ecology of art, and by extension, of a nation.
What our leaders and the general public fail to grasp is that real economic value is derived from the cultural sector, but also that this real value is found in the artists themselves, not merely in what they produce. Just because it seems impossible does not mean it’s impractical. Innovating, reframing ideas, exposing injustice, reconciling the irreconcilable, embracing the outsider and making something out of nothing – it’s what artists do. If ordinary Canadians are concerned about the economy, they should be concerned about support for the arts. We all know by now how the story of a trickle down economy ends. Let’s get behind the principle of trickling up.