Jen Vasic is a City of Waterloo Councillor for Ward 5, PhD candidate and social worker.

Arts and culture have become widely accepted as key economic drivers for communities. Citing Statistics Canada data from 2017, the Ontario Arts Council reported that Ontario gets $25 billion of its GDP from culture, more than from food services ($16.2 billion), utilities ($14.6 billion), agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting ($7.4 billion), and mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction ($6.9 billion). Given these numbers it’s not surprising that this sector has received an emergency support fund from the federal government. The Ontario Arts Council has also developed a COVID-19 response initiative.

However, in Waterloo, Ont., where I am a city councillor, some local arts leaders I’ve spoken with have noted that political leadership at both levels of this two-tier municipality – the City and the Region of Waterloo – has been relatively silent about our support for arts and culture.

Perhaps this silence is a function of knowing that that this sector has keenly and skillfully adapted to whatever is thrown (or not thrown) at it, which remains true during the pandemic. Locally, many arts organizations have pivoted to online programming (Expressions 45 exhibition of student work in Waterloo Region, Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony concerts, various musicians performing live); online sales (Button Factory Gift Shop, the Clay and Glass Gallery’s Play with Clay take-home kits); a heightened social media presence (see: everyone); online summer camps; addressing gaps and opportunities for mentoring Black, Indigenous and persons of colour in theatre and theatre production (MT Space); and measures for the community to support itself (the Plan B GoFundMe established by artists to help local artists financially, and the Indigenous Art Market which has moved online and, responding to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, invited Black artists to sell their wares). The City of Waterloo has also moved many of its events and programs to an online or pop-up format this summer.

While it’s tempting to emphasize praise for the sector and its artists for their resilience, we must not shy away from the reality that they are experiencing substantial challenges that will have severe repercussions into the years ahead. Some of these challenges include:

  • staff layoffs
  • financial and human resources required to develop and install new health and safety protocols
  • meeting mandates that require unrestricted access to public and indoor spaces
  • and the inability to convey the full sensory experience associated with watching a musical or theatre performance in person.

Finally, while organizations are thinking creatively about how to access new funding sources, funding remains a key challenge. Many local businesses and corporations have had to pull sponsorships to meet their own financial challenges and it is not certain if private sponsorship will return to pre-COVID levels. Signature fundraising events, programming and art markets have been postponed indefinitely or cancelled outright, which also affects finances. It is believed the worst may be yet to come, as government supports wane and public health measures and the associated changes to public behaviour last.

City of Waterloo and area municipality staff and volunteers have been working to address some of these challenges. The city’s arts and culture department has surveyed its affiliated organizations, asking various questions including what they need from the city. In the meantime, the S.O.L.E.R. (Support our Local Economic Recovery) initiative is designed to temporarily make private and municipal land available for local businesses and artisans affected by the pandemic. The Region of Waterloo – the area’s upper-tier municipality – is currently developing a grant program for arts organizations. City-affiliated organizations and those receiving cash grants have been notified they will receive their 2020 funds from the city, which they can use for purposes other than what they applied for – for example, if they received funds for an event that had to be cancelled. These funds will not be withdrawn even if there are programming impacts related to COVID. The city is also thinking about what financial supports will be needed to address long-term effects of COVID on this sector.

This is a good start and many in the local arts community have shared their appreciation for the work to date. They also have some suggestions about where the municipality should go from here, which can inform the more robust policy response that will be needed:

  • As a start, have city council make a statement about the importance of the arts and our commitment to their ongoing survival and flourishing, not only as a backbone of the economy and for social cohesion, but also as a benefit in and of themselves.
  • Provide financial and practical support to meet additional and ongoing health and safety demands that are more onerous for smaller organizations to implement (i.e., an in-kind health and safety expert dedicated to helping organizations with training and supervision).
  • Pledge to maintain funding that has been earmarked for organizations and artists beyond 2020, even if they are not able to deliver programming as intended as a direct result of the pandemic.
  • Increase and maintain regular communication with artists and arts organizations to identify emergency funding and other emerging needs (i.e., set up meetings with different groups within the community, including Indigenous artists currently rallying to reclaim their land).
  • Review if and how local funding models fit with or need to adapt to support anti-racism and equity.
  • Develop a greater appreciation for the arts and culture sector and how it operates, as well as the permanent implications of arts organizations closing.
  • Ensure councillors promote and attend events, which both amplifies the work and demonstrates that local leaders care about this sector and the artists that form it.

The arts have long been a tool for enabling individual resilience and social transformation, as noted by Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery executive director Shirley Madill. In our lifetimes we may have never encountered a greater need and appetite for resilience, transformation and hope, and consequently we may have never needed the arts more. Yet while the arts continue to play a vital role in our individual and collective lives during the pandemic, their survival is at risk. This sector’s resilience in the face of adversity is no justification for its being overlooked. If local leaders believe arts and culture to be important – and I believe we do – it is incumbent we say so and then address these challenges with solutions informed by answers from the community itself.

Note from the author:

Thank you to those who were able to take time to share their perspectives with me, all of which informed this piece: local arts and culture leaders; the City of Waterloo Manager of arts and culture who provided an overview about what the city is working towards, as well as results from a survey the city distributed to its affiliated cultural organizations and individual artists; and residents who shared their perspective in this broader survey about life after COVID.


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