An opinion editorial by Dave Margoshes about equity for Saskatchewan artists.

By Dave Margoshes

Perhaps you're a potter who has developed an allergic reaction to the chemicals in your glazes. Or a dancer with a sprained ankle.

Or maybe you're an actress and a single mother – forced in exasperation to seek other work because of the unavailability of flexible daycare.

Maybe you're a poet – acclaimed by the critics, respected by your peers, but living below the poverty line, and facing old age with neither money in the bank nor a pension.

Unlike most “workers” in our society, those with regular jobs, paycheques and benefits, the potter, dancer, actress and poet have no built-in safety net for these occupational hazards and distresses. These artists, and the many self-employed artists of all disciplines, may have their own private health and/or disability plans, or be on the plan of a spouse, but they have no workers compensation, no employment insurance, no pension. Even for those on contract, work is precarious and benefits are limited.

Like all self-employed people, most artists are on their own.

But, unlike a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, or an engineer who chooses to be independent rather than work for someone else, unlike, in fact, any independent business person who makes the choice to be self employed, artists by and large don't have that choice.

Some artists are lucky enough to make a living from their art, and work at it full-time. Most don't. They cobble together a living with a little of this and some of that. A writer may teach a class, take on an editing job, do a bit of freelancing. A painter may strike it rich and spend a few weeks working on scenery for a film shoot. A musician may strike gold with a television jingle. An actor may land a juicy film contract between waiting on tables.

Between these short-term gigs, they struggle to produce art and keep their skills fine tuned, all the time walking a high-wire bereft of the safety net most workers take for granted.

And they have no choice about it.

It's this precarious state that the Status of the Artist initiative is designed to correct.

Status of the Artist – Years in the Making

You may remember the Minister's Advisory Committee on the Status of the Artist, a group of Saskatchewan artists appointed by the government early in the last decade to look not into the state of the arts, but the status of the province's artists. Action on Status of the Artist had been the number one priority of an earlier government committee, the 1990 Arts Strategy Task Force, which had urged “comprehensive legislation” in the area.

The Advisory Committee's report, made public in the fall of 1993 – eight years ago! – makes dozens of recommendations relating to the health, education, legal protection and economic livelihood of the province's artists.

Since then, the report has done little more than gather dust.

The recent reorganization of a culture department and the appointment of a minister with knowledge of the artistic community in Joanne Crofford has opened an opportunity to revive the community's Status of the Artist hopes.

Artists are primarily interested in making art.

But they're also concerned with putting bread on the table.

Bread and Butter

The focus of Status of the Artist initiative is just that: not art itself, but the bread-and-butter issues that surround the making of art, that allow art to happen.

The centrepiece of the Advisory Committee's recommendations is enactment of an Artists Code – not all that dissimilar to the province's Human Rights Code, which guarantees certain rights for all Saskatchewan residents – to guarantee some fundamental rights for artists. The Code would be a sort of “charter of rights” for artists.

Going hand-in-hand with the recommendation for the Code is one to establish a Status of the Artist Advisory Commission. The Commission's function would be to defend artists, to lobby on their behalf and to assist in the implementation of the committee's recommendations as much as possible.

An Artists Code

What exactly is the Saskatchewan Artists Code? And why is it important?

The Canadian Artists' Code, proposed by the Canadian Advisory Committee on the Status of the Artist in 1988 and partially adopted by the federal government, provides a set of principles for the concept of “status of the artist.”

The fundamental principles articulated by the Canadian Code and endorsed by the Saskatchewan Advisory Committee include respect for the artist and the artistic process; recognition of the economic and social contribution of the artist to society and that the artist should share equitably in the fruits of that contribution; and affirmation that all people should have the broadest access to artists and their work.

The Code would recognize the artist's economic and cultural contribution to society, establish an artists' bill of rights, and provide an opportunity for collective bargaining rights for artists and their organizations.

More specifically, the Code would guarantee that artists enjoy: full ownership of their creations; freedom of expression; right of association; a reasonable livelihood; a safe working environment; freedom from sexual and personal harassment and exploitation; continuing educational opportunities; equal treatment by all levels of government and equal access to all benefits; and freedom from discrimination.

Status Advisory Commission

What exactly would be the Status of the Artist Advisory Commission? And why do we need it?

The Commission would monitor progress of recommendations and advise the minister. Fundamentally, it would be an ombudsman for artists and work to keep Status of the Artist issues on the government's own front burner.

The object of the original exercise – Advisory Committee, study, report and recommendations – was to begin bringing economic and social justice and equity to the province's artists, allowing them to be treated like other workers. The report was envisioned as the precursor to legislative, policy and program changes affecting artists and their organizations within Saskatchewan. Indeed, Carol Carson, the Minister responsible for culture who commissioned the report in 1991, pledged that legislation would follow from its recommendations, legislation that, in her words, would “finally give (Saskatchewan) artists the social and economic recognition they deserve.”

The report was also designed as a way of guiding the provincial government in its representations on behalf of artists and their organizations with the federal government for legislative, policy and program changes.

Areas covered by the recommendations include federal, provincial and municipal tax reform; loosening of unemployment insurance rules to allow coverage for some artists; assistance in creating pension, insurance and other “benefit” plans for artists; inclusion of artists in workers compensation and occupational health and safety coverage; improvements in grants, copyright and dependent care; enhanced educational and training opportunities for artists; and ways to enhance visibility and improve access to audiences.

Many of the Committee's recommendations fall under federal jurisdiction, and some under municipal; in these cases, all that is asked of the provincial government is that it support these changes.

Many more, however, fall solidly in the area of provincial jurisdiction, and include recommendations relating to training and education, insurance, safety standards, income opportunities and many other bread-and-butter issues for working artists.

Economic and Social Justice

The Recommendations are divided into economic and social areas.

In the economic area, for example, it's a fact that most artists are poorly paid, their incomes mostly at or below the poverty level. In addition, most artists do not enjoy the income protection that other workers enjoy. Artists typically experience short employment periods, fluctuating income, and self-employed “contracted” status, and often work in isolation.

The economic recommendations, therefore, are aimed at improving artists' economic status.

In the social area, it's clear that most artists are excluded from normal protections in the labour market, including health and safety protection, worker compensation and collective bargaining rights. In addition, artists are woefully behind other workers in areas of “fringe benefits” such as pensions, insurance and child care.

The recommendations in this area, therefore, are directed toward providing artists with the same access to social benefits that other workers in Canada enjoy.

Action Called For

According to Carol Carson, the NDP minister who commissioned the report, the Status of the Artist initiative would “give the rights generally available now to other workers in the province to artists…one of the poorest paid and least protected groups” in the Saskatchewan work force. The objective of the initiative, she said, was to provide legal recognition to artists and their organizations and, as a result, improve their standard of living.

In the words of the minister, the process was to send a signal to the people of the province and the rest of the country “that we consider our artists to be valuable contributors to the economic, industrial and social well being of Saskatchewan.”

Unfortunately, that signal was short-circuited.

But the time to revive it is now. The Saskatchewan Arts Alliance hopes to get the process moving again and is urging the government to act.

Dave Margoshes is a Regina fiction writer, poet and journalist.

© For permission to reprint this article please contact the SAA