by Dave Margoshes
Issues of ?equity? for artists dominated the 2005 Saskatchewan Arts Alliance congress, as they have for the past several years.
To be more exact, artists? equity, aka Status of the Artist, dominated day one of the two-day congress, held May 6 and 7 in Regina. On the second day, the issue was barely mentioned ? except, to the disappointment of many in the crowd, for a prediction from Barbara MacLean, new deputy minister of culture, that there?d be no progress on the file, or any other arts-related issue, this fiscal year and well into the next one, partly because, she said, there are new people in her department.
The one possible exception might be emergency relief for lottery-dependent groups, like the one hundred-plus organizations supported by SaskCulture, that are facing a funding crisis this year partly because of a too optimistic prediction by Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund on lottery revenues on which SaskCulture bases its budget. Lottery revenues held steady but didn?t match the prediction, so SaskCulture is in a serious budget deficit position. Both MacLean and Industry Minister Eric Cline, who spoke earlier, expressed guarded optimism that the government might be willing to at least partly bail out the cultural sector ? along with recreation and sports groups also wedded to the lotteries. ?At least we?re being allowed in the door,? MacLean said, referring to emissaries from her department to Treasury Board on the issue. The problem ?has had a fair amount of recognition within government.?
MacLean and Cline also gave a glimmer of hope on the issue of procurement which had been raised on the first day, when delegates heard how Status of the Artist legislation has been changing things, for the better, in Québec, and many exhortations for advances at home, where ?status,? despite its approval in principle by the Saskatchewan government, is still in its early stages.
Sheila Roberts, a long-time researcher on the issue, for both government and the SAA, put it simply: ??status? is real easy. It?s about equity, but also about respect. Unfortunately, it?s very easy to say but very difficult to tackle. So it?s easy and hard at the same time.?
A perfect example of that conundrum arose early in the first day of the congress, during one of several sessions in which artists gave snapshots of their lives and in a panel discussion of ?bread and butter? issues for artists that Roberts moderated. Photographers Darrel Kajati and Gary Robins told about the irony of the Saskatchewan government, even while it was taking baby steps toward developing status for artists, making routine copyright grabs against creators, ?dictating working conditions,? driving down value and creating ?economic chaos? for photographers and other creators selling services to the government. ?They show no respect for our work,? Robins said.
This set off a general discussion of the government?s procurement policies, which ? from anecdotal evidence ? may overlook homegrown talent (actors, writers, film crews and so on) in favour of imports.
Cline, speaking specifically of the copyright issue, said he hadn?t been aware of it earlier but ?it does concern me.? He said it sounded as if it might be ?contrary to our cultural industries strategy?we have to take a hard look at it.?
He added that ?we?ve gone a long way to maximize the use of Saskatchewan content? in advertising. SAA president Skip Kutz, also a musician and musicians? union leader agreed, especially with SaskTel.
MacLean indicated her department was on side on improving procurement policies with this trenchant comment: ?we underestimated the lack of understanding throughout government? on the issue.
Robins had a more sanguine assessment, blaming the copyright bullying on ?lazy bureaucrats? who would rather own a photograph or other piece of creative work outright than have to negotiate with its creator. Politicians ?may be sympathetic,? he observed, but ?bureaucratic foot-dragging? had slowed down reform.
The congress got rolling with a keynote talk by Gérard Masse, head of the Québec Musicians?Guild, a professional musician himself, and a leader in the fight for ?equity? in Québec, which is now years ahead of the other provinces in the area. ?Who is the winner and who is the loser?? Masse asked rhetorically. ?We?re both (artists and employers) winners.?
Masse used the analogy of a love affair to describe the relationship between producer and artist: it starts hot, with each partner believing the other can do no wrong, but after a while things can cool off. Status of the Artist legislation ? which enables collective bargaining and guarantees other employee rights for self-employed artists ? ensures that the relationship stays on a businesslike level, he said. He repeated several times ? as if still amazed at it himself ? that musicians in Québec now get paid vacations and pensions.
Twenty years ago, when the issue of artists? equity first began to be discussed in Québec, ?there was hostility to the idea (from producers), now it?s completely accepted.?
If Saskatchewan can get similar legislation, he said enthusiastically, ?you?re going to be in business.?
In an interview after his talk, Masse said that, to his knowledge, all Québec artists have benefited from the legislation, or will soon ? even writers and visual artists who tend to work in isolation. ?Once you put your foot in the door, you open it to the possibility of negotiation. Then, anything is possible.?
The biggest laugh of the weekend came during a conversation on arts issues between Cline and poet/arts administrator Brenda Niskala, who mentioned that, with limited resources, arts groups involved in the cultural industries sometimes ?chose to look good and live poor.? Cline quipped back, on behalf of policiticans ?we live rich and look bad.?
In the discussion of ?status,? Kutz used the example of the Regina casino, where all employees are unionized except musicians playing in the show lounge, who are deemed to be ?independent contractors? and therefore ?second class citizens.? Kutz went on to describe a phenomenon that has developed in the music world, a ?gap between people who ?have,? old buggers like us (players in symphony orchestras and established stars) and a subculture of young people who work for almost nothing. Only the privileged can afford to play in these groups.?
Colleen Bailey, chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, put the issue of arts funding into context while recounting the pitch she made to Premier Lorne Calvert for more money for artists: it costs about $500,000 to build a kilometre of road ?and we were only asking for three.?
(What the government giveth, it can also taketh away. While SAB funding was, in fact boosted last year, support to cultural industries was slashed.)
Kutz pointed out, though, that ?status isn?t only about more money, it?s also about how the money will be spent. We have a group of people who have been marginalized.?
Although there was plenty of talk from politicians, bureaucrats and arts administrators, some of the congress?s highlights came in the form of vignettes of artists? lives.
The aptly named Susan Risk, a filmmaker, told how a bicycle accident that left her with her jaw wired shut for six weeks robbed her of almost a year?s worth of productivity, without adequate insurance or income. ?When we make a choice to be an artist, we make a choice to be vulnerable,? she observed ruefully. ?We?re outside of the normal protected environment of most workers. For us, being out on a limb is normal.?
Visual artist Lyndon Tootoosis gave an emotional talk in which he told how the discovery of art, particularly carving, helped to turn around a wasted youth marked by alcoholism and violence. The first time, at age 27, he picked up a piece of soapstone, he recalled, ?something inside me warmed up.?
Robin Brass, visual artist and teacher, raised concerns that currently in the Saskatchewan arts community there is a failure to adequately recognize the broad diversity and differences of thought among artists of Aboriginal ancestry, with an increasing (and dangerous) tendency to over simplify concepts of the ?traditional?.
Actor Ian Black told how the theatre community rallied around to assist him when he was struck by cancer and left with little income or insurance. Organized labour has many rights that society takes for granted, he reminded the delegates, ?but they fought for those rights. We have to organize and fight for our rights too.? He urged artists to ?organize and pressure producers to contribute to a benefits plan. It?s not going to happen until people organize at a certain level and demand it.?
Risk offered a sort of status of the artist wish list: ?I want to be able to apply for sick leave, I want to be able to pay into an insurance plan, I want to have a benefits plan, I?d like to have a holiday? we [artists] deserve to have a safety net.?
Dave Margoshes is a Regina fiction writer, poet and journalist.