Lending a hand

Featured Story

June 2020

Although many of us heard the warnings, with news outlets saturated with reports about COVID-19 from abroad, it still feels as if the arrival of the pandemic in Toronto was incredibly sudden. The cascade of announcements of closures, postponed and cancelled events, which seemingly happened within a matter of days, made the shift to our current reality all the more startling. One moment, we were face to face with friends and colleagues at theatres and galleries, and the next, we’re at home, isolated.

Individuals are finding themselves with expanded responsibilities, be it child care, senior care, disability care, or more. Some are working from home, working while putting their health at risk, or forced out of work. Access to services, support, technology and space is indeed a privilege, while the crisis is exposing long-standing structural race, gender, age, health, geographic and economic inequities. The call for collective solidarity is great.  

The repercussions this crisis is having on the arts sector is profound.* Financial losses are threatening beloved institutions of all sizes, and artists’ livelihood is at a standstill. This is a resilient sector that is no doubt adapting and learning at a remarkable pace. Yet don’t we all yearn to once again feel the energy of a live, packed venue concert or dance performance?

Despite the losses – and they are great – a shift in the way communities think and operate is taking place. In her eloquent and honest open letter, General and Artistic Director of The Theatre Centre, Aislinn Rose writes: “For the first time in a long time, for me, the future feels inventable, rather than inevitable.” COVID-19 response measures, like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, and collective community efforts, has caused individuals like Rose to feel hope. 

Examples of people and organizations coming together to offer assistance and support are emerging everywhere in our arts sector. Leadership Emergency Arts Network (LEAN) was one of the first.

Created in late March by Celia Smith, Jeanne LeSage and Michele Maheux, LEAN is a pro-bono one-on-one national network of advisors who offer help and confidential support to non-profit professional arts organizations of all sizes during this crisis. The creation of the grass-roots initiative was “inspired by the basic desire of so many of us to tangibly help the arts community during this crisis,” says Smith. Intentionally designed to have no budget or funding, 175 advisors from every province and territory, working in both official languages, have offered to volunteer their time.

This is no easy feat. The issues raised by arts professionals are serious. “In general, people are grappling with the enormity of cancelling seasons and programs; furloughing staff or managing teams remotely; the prospect of very challenging health and safety barriers to returning to work and programming; complete loss of revenue, both earned and in some cases, contributed; and overall, the psychological toll of grappling with such uncertainty and loss,” explains Smith.

Another initiative also relies on the expertise of volunteer mentors, in this case offering advice to emerging and mid-career artists, as well as arts workers and community arts educators who have questions about adapting and continuing their practice during the crisis. Mentor in Residence was launched by Neighbourhood Arts Network and North York Arts in April along with partners Urban Arts, Scarborough Arts, Cyborg Circus Project, WorkinCulture, Tangled Arts, Airsa, and Jessika Watkin. “Our goal was to create an ecosystem of support and collaboration to support artists and arts workers who will ultimately help Toronto move forward towards healing, recovery and transformation” explains Angie Aranda, Manager, Neighbourhood Arts Network. Sessions immediately booked up, and more are in the works to be added throughout the summer.    

These, and many other peer to peer mentorship programs, advocacy initiatives, impromptu conference calls, workshops, speaker events and online artistic offerings are shaping a new way forward, allowing the collective strength of many, each bringing their unique experience and perspective, to lead the way.

Research projects, such as #Lights-On, a collaboration with Toronto Arts CouncilToronto Arts FoundationRyerson University’s School of Creative Industries, and The City of Toronto, are working with the sector to build guidelines and models for how to address the impacts of the shutdown on their organizations and begin processes for safely reopening. Organizations that rely on large crowds for income, and those that don’t, are looking into ways of diversifying their revenue. Steps are being taken as a community, across disciplines, to persevere. The strength and innovation of Toronto’s cultural sector ensures that this will continue.  


*For a summary of statistics, sourced by Statistics Canada, showing the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on businesses in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector, see this CAPACOA post