Up In The Air by Carle Steel

In the air, I think about selling the building, about moving to Toronto, where the lines between art, business and life are not so clearly drawn.

Carle Steel is a writer, journalist and arts administrator. She has worked for many years in the arts in the areas of writing, publishing, film and arts funding. She is a regular contributor to the alternative bi-weekly Prairie Dog Magazine, and writes for other local and national arts publications. Her essay Fat Krause Head was shortlisted for the 2006 CBC Literary awards in creative non-fiction. Looking For Tamra Keepness Along The Number 1 appeared in the Dunlop Art Gallery’s catalogue Mind the Gap!  She has just graduated from the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA program. She arrived home to a nomination for the City of Regina Writing Award and a nice fat envelope from the Saskatchewan Arts Board (Thank you, SAB!). 

‚ÄãEvening, WestJet, somewhere over Manitoba. The funnel clouds around Regina this afternoon have come to meet me halfway, apparently: there is so much turbulence that the plane can’t find an easy altitude to fly at, so we bump along across the prairie low in the sky. I don’t know whether to take this as a sign to turn back, or to dive right in.

In the cargo hold below are my two suitcases: one for clothing and the other for my taxes, 35 pounds of receipts and bills and everything else I’ve thrown into bags over the last twelve months, intending to sort, but never did. This is the second time I’ve dragged them between Toronto and Regina this year, unable to fool myself into getting them in for April 30 with the salaried worker bee population.

Normally, I’m keen to get at it. I love the adventure of going backwards through the business year, remembering each purchase, the happy thing it brought to my business, or the way it improved my practice, or opened up an opportunity for the future. It’s like going shopping all over again. The money in, the money out, all those necessary markers to a year of business in the arts, divided into one column or the other, into the kind of symbolic language the Canadian Revenue Agency can place a value on, if not exactly understand.

There is a lot of money in the arts. In 2007 Conference Board of Canada put the broader economic impact of the arts and cultural industries at $84.6 billion.  Money from the arts sloshes through all aspects of the economy, including mine: like many working artists, I have a side gig to supplement my income.

I own Glen Apartments, a mixed-used building on Albert Street in Regina. Over the years I’ve had it, the four upstairs apartments have been home to dozens of artists and cultural professionals from all over the world, working in every discipline from puppet films to the study of trance music. The downstairs commercial spaces have also been dedicated to the arts, housing at one time or another an African import store, a theatre laboratory and a DIY ceramics place. For the last few years the main floor has been entirely dedicated to Indigenous art, with Sâkêwêwak Artists’ Collective and Tatanka Boutique as core tenants. The combination of the upstairs renters and the downstairs spaces makes for a lovely meeting ground for arts and artists, Indigenous and non. It provides a way into the culture of this place for people who move here for work or to pursue their artistic practice, and fertile ground for collaboration.

Renting to artists and arts organizations is my way of saying, “I support the arts,” that quiet political catchphrase we use to counter the dominant narrative of low taxes and small government (valiantly championed by the Regina Chamber of Commerce, my neighbour across the street).  It declares to businesses and governments that the arts and their fans are a constituency that need to be acknowledged and served.

It’s good to identify yourself in this way to them and to us. It can get awful lonely working in the arts around here. That said, I worry that saying “I support the arts” in isolation inadvertently implies that the arts benefit from business and government. In my world, it’s the other way around. The arts support me, and I have 35 lbs of receipts to prove it.

It’s been a good business, too. The income I get from providing shelter to the arts gives me income to support my own writing and the flexibility to balance my practice with freelance income from other work when I need to. I have been able to borrow against the building to fund both a journalism degree and the MFA program I’ve been attending in Toronto for the last three years.

From my position, I have a very clear view of how the money I make through the arts slips through my hands and into those of the friendly local businesses I deal with: the welders and plumbers and electricians and carpenters and all the other local service providers who keep me and my building from falling apart in one way or another.

I also see how the lion’s share of my income goes to far bigger business, public and private: Sasktel, SaskEnergy, SaskPower, and the Royal Bank of Canada. And taxes, of course, which contribute to funding schools and libraries and healthcare, and all the other organizations and services I am pleased to support (with the Saskatchewan Arts Board at the top of that list).

I am also painfully aware that alongside those common goods are the ones that are not so common, and not so good: the new stadium for the Roughriders, support for heavy industries like oil, coal and gas, successive local and provincial governments that seem bent on driving me out of the province.

WestJet is the main beneficiary in that department.

It is on these flights that I contemplate whether it makes any difference where I get my money, or my tenants. I know that if I didn’t get that revenue from the arts, someone else would, and it would go straight back to the same kind of service providers and government bodies that it did before, just through different hands.

This trip I will be fixing up the commercial space where Tatanka Boutique used to be. As always, I think of whether to find a new arts tenant, or just leave it to the market. In the air, I think about selling the building, about moving to Toronto, where the lines between art, business and life are not so clearly drawn.

Sometimes I wish I could fly forever, inaccessible, and never have to commit. I’m not sure what I’ll decide to do; touching down is the only way to know.