Second in a series of four stories by Steven Ross Smith

Commissioned by Saskatchewan Arts Alliance.

Steven Michael Berzensky sits at his desk in a cluttered apartment in Yorkton and works well into the night on his latest poem. For over thirty-five years he has dedicated himself to this work, and to creating stories, music, articles and chapbooks. This dedication has resulted in six published books, twenty-six chapbooks, more than seven hundred poems published, awards for his work, and inclusion in more than forty literary anthologies.

Meanwhile, in Meacham, about seventy kilometres east of Saskatoon wife and husband team, Louisa and Angus Ferguson, work hard at any and all tasks to keep their enterprise – Dancing Sky Theatre – a vital and active dramatic force. Since the founding of Dancing Sky in 1992, they have mounted nineteen plays, employed one hundred and eight actors, directors and other theatre professionals, and have toured three works.

The statistics of these dedicated creators demonstrate success. But there are other numbers that cast a different light. The average annual income earned from poetry, even factoring in grants, is less than $8000. Theatre directors and actors fare little better. In 1993 when Angus and Louisa first moved to Meacham and were developing their theatre company, they cut their own firewood, grew their own food (which they still do), and managed to live on $8000 per year.

Angus and Louisa are theatre graduates – Angus from the University of Saskatchewan in 1985, and Louisa from Concordia in 1989. Berzensky finished his formal education at San Francisco State College in 1965. Given the high level of education of most artists, one wonders why the work pays so poorly.

In Canada there are 577,000 cultural workers. Less than one-third are actual creators – performers, authors, composers, dancers, and so on. The other 404,000 workers include librarians, archivists, secretaries, accountants and more. In Saskatchewan, there are 18,000 arts-related jobs, which make up 4% of the work force.

The average income of a worker in the national culture sector was $28000 in 1999 (the national average of all workers is $30,000). Looking deeper into this we see that paid employees in culture occupations had an average income of $35,000 annually, while the self-employed workers (most of the artists) earned on average $18,000, with many artists earnings at or below the poverty level.

Artists do not enjoy the same income protection as other workers, nor is their work pattern like the majority of peoples’. Artists have short employment periods and fluctuating income; fifty-eight per cent of cultural workers are self-employed, with no company benefits, retirement income plans, sponsored child care, or professional development assistance. They often work in isolation, and are excluded from health and safety protection, and collective bargaining. When workers’ compensation is available the artist has to pay both the employer’s and employee’s contributions.

Most artists take unrelated employment – as teachers, taxi-drivers, construction workers or administrators – to put food on the table and pay the rent. This takes valuable, often unrecouped time away from their art-making.

The Status of the Artist legislation, passed in Saskatchewan in 2002, is intended to address such issues. Now artists would like to see regulations and concrete measures which will integrate the principles of the legislation with the reality of the artist’s life and work.

For example: government programs such as Employment Insurance and Workers’ Compensation could develop definitions for particular art job designations; insurance companies and artist organizations could begin to cooperate to create low cost benefit and retirement fund packages for artists; rules could be established to require all arts employers and granters to contribute to insurance and retirement benefits; the right to collective bargaining and fee standards for artistic work could be set, requiring producers/engagers/programmers to negotiate with recognized professional associations representing the artist, for payment of fees for work.

While there is obviously a great deal of work required to implement such measures, it is not beyond the scope of government agencies. There are models: labour standards are in place for all Canadian employees; since 1987 the province of Quebec has had legislation to guide collective bargaining activities for professional artists and their engagers; in Australia artists are exempt from paying tax on materials and equipment; in the Netherlands government and private artists associations administer and contribute to the Artists’ Provident Fund, which provides weekly minimum wage, holiday expenses, health insurance and more; and Ireland exempts some artists from paying income tax.

Canada and Saskatchewan have, in the last few decades, arrived at a level of phenomenal artistic maturity. This can be seen in the increase in arts jobs, and the number of terrifically successful artists and organizations. Our visual artists show in Europe, our writers win national and international prizes, our musicians play and are played at home and abroad, and our performances and festivals draw local and international clientele. At home in Saskatchewan we can note success in all the arts – dance, theatre, visual art, music, writing and the artistic crafts of ceramics, woodworking, fabric art and more.

It must be acknowledged that some artists are doing very well. We have, in Saskatchewan our share of ‘stars’ who earn respectable (or better) incomes. But these are a distinct and fortunate minority, and most of them have spent several years labouring in circumstances discussed in this article. It is quite likely that they would not be successful without the entire generative milieu of individual artists, which make viable the galleries, theatres, studios, concert halls, publishers, organizations, events, awards, festivals and more. This critical mass makes success possible.

In Saskatchewan more than 240,000 people attend performances by our province’s performing arts companies annually. This number is many times higher when visits to art galleries and museums and cultural events are included.

The arts and culture sector is one of the most productive sectors of the provincial economy. Its direct impact in Saskatchewan is over 450 million dollars or 2.3% of the Saskatchewan Gross Domestic Product. The national culture sector’s contribution to Canada’s GDP in 2001 was estimated at 26 billion dollars. This productivity is built on the shoulders of many artists.

Steven Michael Berzensky, whose 1997 book Variations on the Birth of Jacob won the Saskatchewan Book Award for Poetry, says, “I’ve experienced many, many satisfactions from writing poetry. But in the late 1960s, when I chose to pursue poetry, I was not aware of the full ramifications of such a choice. I’m definitely not raking in the dough.”

Dancing Sky Theatre was seven years old before Angus and Louisa earned a steady income. Today, for their full-time work each now earns a salary of $15,000 (before taxes). And their work includes producing, directing, costuming, acting, and even preparing and serving food and drink for the dinner part of their theatre.

Low incomes are definitely not a reflection of the quality of the works of these artists. They are professionals and have earned achievements, awards, and respect from their peers and communities

Among the plays that Dancing Sky Theatre has produced are: Street Wheat by Saskatchewan playwright Mansel Robinson, and Gold on Ice by Saskatoon writer Geoffrey Ursell. Angus Ferguson emphasizes the theatre’s “keep it local” philosophy and their mandate to program for the rural community while not compromising professional quality and content. He also expresses his desire to contribute to the art form of theatre and to keep actors, writers and other theatre professionals in Saskatchewan by providing work opportunities.

Yet to do so places the Fergusons in a dilemma, the common conflict of ideals and practicalities. Grant writing and budgets are a constant reality, but Angus and Louisa worry about being put in a box by bureaucratic definitions, or about “getting backed into a corner by always having to talk about money.” But theatre is an expensive and collaborative art form, and artists have to eat, so concern about money is inescapable. Actors are helped by fee standards set by the union Canadian Actor’s Equity, but standards and collective bargaining are not in place for all theatre workers, nor in all artistic disciplines.

There are further economic ramifications. Fees and salaries have not kept pace with inflation. And, as there usually is no company employing artists and making contributions on their behalf, the individual artist’s benefit and retirement package is small or nonexistent, and the artist often cannot afford to purchase such measures on his or her own.

Lacking health or compensation benefits, Angus Ferguson says, “I have to be careful not to fall off the ladder when I’m hanging a light on the grid.” Now in his sixties, Berzensky can’t afford to retire. “I don’t ever plan to retire,” he says. “George Bernard Shaw was still writing at ninety-five.”

The Saskatchewan Status of the Artist Act recognizes “the important contribution of artists to the cultural, social, economic and educational enrichment of Saskatchewan;” and “the importance of artists being fairly compensated for the creation and use of their artistic works.” And it names as a principle for developing policy, “the right of artists to earn a living from the making of their art.” Translation of these principles into the reality of Steven’s, Angus’ and Louisa’s lives, and the lives of all our artists, is yet to come.

Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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