COVID-19 a chance to re-examine how we value the arts, says creative community

The arts have been a much-needed source of entertainment and comfort during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the creators themselves have been hard hit by shuttered productions, cancelled tours and postponed performances.

Dan Mangan, a Vancouver-based musician, was on tour in Toronto on March 12 and fresh off a performance at the Danforth Music Hall, when new physical distancing guidelines came in. 

"By the Friday morning, everything had changed, and it was very clear that the [upcoming] show had to be cancelled. Within a couple of hours, 21 shows had been wiped out for March and April, and another 10 or 12 for May," Mangan said. 

At the same time, across the country on Vancouver Island, Emily Molnar, the artistic director of Ballet BC, was getting ready for two performances of Medhi Walerski's Romeo + Juliet in Victoria when it became clear that the performances would no longer go on. 

"We were back on the ferry the next morning," Molnar recalled. By the next week, seven performances at the Sydney Opera House were cancelled. All of the company's May performances followed suit.

"Our 21 dancers were immediately put on layoff. It's a half a million dollars for us as an organization that we will lose in revenue."

Michael Slobodian/Ballet BC

The staggering losses are a common refrain for creators across the arts industry. Countless tours, performances and much-anticipated events have been delayed, postponed or cancelled outright because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The ramifications for Canada's cultural industries are still unknown at this point, but they could be huge. In a report released last year, Statistics Canada estimated the GDP of Canada's cultural industries was $59 billion in 2017. Its contribution to the economy is larger than agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting ($39 billion) or accommodation and food services ($46 billion).

Omari Newton, a Vancouver-based playwright and actor, says Vancouver's film industry — which has ground to a halt — doesn't just support the cast and crew, but the locations that they rent out and the restaurants that they eat at. 

"It's one thing that everything's shut down, but not knowing when anything's going to get back to any level of normalcy is really stressing people out," Newton said. 

Dan Mangan/YouTube

But Molnar, who was set to take up a new position with Nederlands Dans Theater in Holland before the pandemic struck, says there's some comfort in knowing she's not alone. 

"I'm just going day-to-day but, of course, it's uncertain. I'm really trying to keep my eye on where do we need to take this conversation and where will the arts be a part of that."

Newton said there's an irony that during this time of physical distancing and anxiety, many are turning to the arts for comfort while many of its creators are struggling.

"I hope people remember what they turned to in times of crisis and remember the arts coming out of this," Newton said. 

Mangan said he still has a sliver of hope at the end of it.

"If scarcity makes things more special, I can't imagine how special it will be to return to the congregating and the gathering."

Listen to the panel on CBC's The Early Edition:

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.