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City looks to boost supports for local artists, culture workers

Artist Jimmy Baptiste works on a mural in Ottawa on July 10, 2020. The city's community services committee has passed a motion directing staff to examine poverty reduction strategies for local artists. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Artist Jimmy Baptiste works on a mural in Ottawa on July 10, 2020. The city's community services committee has passed a motion directing staff to examine poverty reduction strategies for local artists. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Ottawa's community services committee passed a motion Tuesday directing staff to explore poverty reduction strategies for local artists and culture workers.

The motion, introduced by Coun. Ariel Troster, would incorporate those options into municipal cultural and community safety plans that are currently in development.

"We really need to start thinking about how we can help these artists sustain their craft and also sustain themselves, because increasingly they're falling into poverty," Troster told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

According to a report released last year by Hill Strategies, in 2020 the median personal income of Ontario artists was $29,600.

That's 41 per cent less than the median income of all Ontario workers, which was $50,400.

Troster said because artists are typically gig workers, they don't have many opportunities to collect a pension or benefits. Furthermore, working contract-to-contract can be precarious, she added.

Troster also highlighted other municipalities that have organizations that assist their local artists, like in Nashville, which is well-known for its music scene.

There, a non-profit organization called the Nashville Industry Fund helps artists and hospitality workers on their pathway to home ownership by offering classes and connecting them to programs to improve their credit.

"I'm really encouraging staff to think outside the box," Troster said.

Coun. Ariel Troster hopes that the city's plan to ease the path to converting office towers into apartments will help enliven the downtown core.
Coun. Ariel Troster hopes that the city's plan to ease the path to converting office towers into apartments will help enliven the downtown core.

Coun. Ariel Troster says other municipalities including Nashville have organizations that help artists with their finances. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Artists want reliable funding, says advocate

Cassandra Olsthoorn, executive director of Arts Network Ottawa, which works to strengthen the city's local arts sector, said artists have commonly reported they need accessible and affordable spaces, reliable funding and investments in audience development.

Non-profit theatre companies need to balance their budgets, Olsthoorn added. If costs are high, then they have to put on fewer shows or cast fewer artists.

"That's less opportunities for artists to work … and for audiences to engage within that work," Olsthoorn said.

Cassandra Olsthoorn, the executive director of Arts Network Ottawa, says city funding can help stabilize artists' finances, which allows them to pursue private funding.
Cassandra Olsthoorn, the executive director of Arts Network Ottawa, says city funding can help stabilize artists' finances, which allows them to pursue private funding.

Cassandra Olsthoorn, executive director of Arts Network Ottawa, says city funding can help stabilize artists' finances, allowing them to pursue private funding. (Submitted by Cassandra Olsthoorn)

City funding is important because it can stabilize artists' finances, Olsthoorn said. With that baseline, artists can go and attract private funding, push for donations or work with various foundations.

Another barrier for artists is gentrification that pushes them out of their studio spaces, Olsthoorn said.

In Ottawa, Hamilton and Montreal, local artists have previously told CBC News about their experiences with developers who propose new buildings or purchase existing ones that contain their studios.

Some are pushed out, while others have struck deals with the buyers.

Troster said on this issue, the city's planning and housing committee, of which she's a member, could help since it's already considering what to do with abandoned office buildings in Ottawa.

Those buildings can be converted to housing, but not all of them are easily convertible and could instead be used by non-profit organizations or artists, Troster said.

"This is an issue I intend to bring up at both committees and I hope that it's something we can talk about as part of our cultural strategy as a whole," she added.

There's no clear timeline for these potential poverty reduction strategies, but Troster said city staff will be putting together the first draft of the municipal culture plan this year.