Wanted: One serious advocate for artists
Stroll along Bloor between Dufferin and Lansdowne, and you see change a-comin’… Art galleries popping up in long-vacant storefronts. New design shops, bars and cafés so hip they don’t need signs (or keep the retro signage of previous occupants).
Artists began moving to this neighbourhood as they were priced out of other areas like Queen Street West and Parkdale. Some were even able to buy houses in this somewhat affordable corner of the downtown.
Like many Toronto neighbourhoods before, this one seems set for a renaissance, perhaps evolving into a creative centre, a hub for the entire City. Most recently, big-time videogame developer Ubisoft announced it will set up shop just north of the Lansdowne subway, with a plan to hire 800 high-skilled employees over the next few years.
A 2009 study by Hill Strategies Research mapped out where Canada’s artists reside. It’s no surprise that Toronto has the largest community of artists and cultural workers. Cultural workers in Riverdale, Beaches and Danforth represent between 13 and 15 per cent of the labour force residing east of the Don. The highest concentration of artists is in the downtown west-end, from Parkdale to Bathurst and north to St. Clair.
Actors, visual artists, dancers, musicians, writers. The City is crawling with them. We take for granted the depth of artists’ contribution and for too many Torontonians arts funding is an "extra," relegated to the backseat. In other big cities, like New York, artists are fleeing to smaller centres where they can afford a roof over their heads and studio space. New York is freaking out. They've glimpsed the future and the potential impact on their culture and economy, and it ain't pretty.
Luckily, in David Miller we had a mayor who understood the creative economy. The arts and cultural sector had an advocate. It’s no coincidence that Toronto’s film and television industry has experienced a healthy bump lately. That’s thanks in part to Mayor Miller’s responsiveness to the industry’s list of asks, largely met, not the least of which was making it easier to obtain film permits by reducing red tape.
And there was the recent budget decision to ensure the billboard tax finally went to the arts. Finally, Council is living up to its commitment to the Culture Plan by increasing Toronto’s per capita spending to a competitive level. In short, Miller created a “Film Friendly Toronto” in the worst of economic times… and we will reap the benefits well into the future.
There is so much more to be done, and it’s going to require a Mayor willing to advocate for Toronto’s artistic community by demanding change at the provincial and federal levels.
First, we need a Mayor willing to fight for Income Tax Averaging, ensuring more fairness for artists and other self-employed workers who would be taxed based on their average income over a set number of years. Far better than being penalized for one good year amidst, say, four really lean years.
The average earnings of Toronto’s 22,265 artists are nearly 40 per cent less than the average of other local workers. Depending on the particular form their art or craft takes – writer, screenwriter, actor, poet, painter, sculptor, filmmaker, dancer, etc – an artist may be lucky enough to belong to a union or guild that provides some insurance or retirement benefits, negotiates minimum rates and working conditions, and secures for them a little piece of the pie if their work is shown, used, sold in the future.
But even for those that benefit from such representation, most artists face enormous income insecurity throughout their career.
Our Mayor could demand that the Feds make the new EI benefits for self-employed workers REALLY work, and expand them to full benefits. The introduction of these benefits was a (rare) step in the right direction, but the criteria are such that – as currently envisioned – most artists won’t be able to take advantage.
Our Mayor could stand up to the province and demand fairness for film and television production in Toronto… So workers don’t have to truck out to distant locations just to film something that could more easily be made here, while producers take advantage of higher tax credits outside the City.
Our Mayor could continue and expand use of the planning process to ensure no net loss of artistic space in areas of dramatic change, like Queen St. West. And our Mayor could explicitly link cultural wealth to neighbourhood diversity by continuing to support affordable housing initiatives in the city core.
We need someone to continue along the path Miller laid out for us. As a City we need to embrace artists for what they bring to our lives, our neighbourhoods, and our economy. We need, in short, a Mayor willing to stand up for artists.