Status of the Artist – An Update

by Dave Margoshes

Six months after an advisory committee dropped the latest report on artists equity on the culture minister?s desk ? and almost two years after the Saskatchewan government passed a Status of the Artist Act, recognizing the contribution of cultural workers to the enrichment of society ? the report?s own status is unknown. But the arts community remains upbeat on the issue.

?The government has done some good things in the cultural sector,? says Skip Kutz, vice president of the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance and chair of its artist equity committee. ?I?m hopeful that this good will can be extended to this particular piece of legislation.?

Kutz emphasizes that the arts community is not seeking any special favours.

?People need to understand and remember that we?re not asking for special status.? Quite the contrary, in fact. The province?s artists, standing at the back of the employee-benefits line, ?only want what other workers get, the basic benefits owed to everyone,? Kutz says.

As an SAA brochure puts it succinctly: ?Saskatchewan artists are asking for equal treatment, equal ?status? with other workers in society.? Simply put, this means access to social benefits, collective rights and standards, health and safety, income protection, training, insurance and retirement benefits, and artists? work treated as ?real? work and their jobs as ?real jobs.?

It?s been over a decade ? going on 11 years ? since the original Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Status of the Artist made dozens of recommendations relating to the health, education, legal protection and economic livelihood of Saskatchewan artists.

Chief among those, as the SAA sees it, is the right to have a union bargain on behalf of cultural workers. (Of course, not all artists, many of whom work alone, have to be in unions or would want to be. It?s their own choice whether they opt into unions under the alliance?s proposal.) The SAA is also anxious to see establishment of a Status of the Artist Commission and adoption of an Artists? Code ? two key recommendations of the 1993 report.

The Arts Alliance points to recent studies showing the average wage for people in the arts at $13,500, pretty close to the bottom of the economic ladder.

And Kutz, a musician, notes that even someone like a classical musician, tuxedo-clad and playing in one of the province?s prestigious symphony orchestras, doesn?t quite earn minimum wage, when practice and rehearsal time is calculated in.

The thorniest of issues facing the government is how to bring the benefits of collective bargaining ? designed for groups of employees ? to artists, who, by and large, are self-employed. Currently, quite a few Saskatchewan artists, like musicians in the province?s symphony orchestras and actors who trod the stages at Regina?s Globe and Saskatoon?s Persephone theatres, enjoy some benefits of collective bargaining, but it occurs on a voluntary basis between their unions and the engagers. Writers, visual artists and other artists who work largely in isolation have no benefits at all.

?We?re really just playing at union-management relationships,? Kutz says.

Workers in the arts, and self-employed workers in general, aren?t covered by Saskatchewan?s Trade Union Act and lack the protections of the Labour Standards Act or access to the Labour Relations Board.

Kutz points out that bringing artists and other cultural workers under the protection of the Labour Relations Board wouldn?t cost the government a dime. ?This is not rocket science,? he says impatiently. ?All we?re asking for is access to basic protections that other workers enjoy.?

There are some models ? both the federal government and Quebec, which is miles ahead of other provinces in the area of artists? equity, have passed laws that provide or expand collective bargaining rights to artists.

Some artists? group, like the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) and Canadian Actors Equity, have urged Saskatchewan to follow the federal and Quebec lead. Even the province?s own Labour Relations Board, through Gwen Gray, its chair at the time, has urged Saskatchewan to cautiously begin moving toward joining this exclusive club.

Another key issue is the extension of benefits and tax relief to artists. Most have no pensions or disability insurance or enjoy only limited protection. There are indications that a recommendation on tax relief may be featured in the report. Again, Quebec provides a coveted model ? in that province, the first $30,000 of royalty-related income is exempt from taxes.

Tensions between those arguing for collective rights and those who favour more rights for individual artists surfaced during deliberations of the most recent Status of the Artist Advisory Committee last year.

Concerns have been expressed that entrenching collective bargaining might produce labour unrest in the arts, but that hasn?t been the case in Quebec or in federal jurisdictions following enactment of status legislation.

Appointed in September 2002 for a one-year term, the committee was charged with coming up with ways of making good on the largely symbolic legislation passed earlier that year. In April 2003, the committee released a progress report, then carried out a series of consultations and meetings as it hurried to finish its final report by the end of its mandate.

Last September, just days before the provincial election call, the report went to Culture Minister Joanne Crofford, under whose watch the 2002 act had been passed.

Since the election, which saw the New Democrats returned to office by a hair?s breadth, Crofford has been reassigned in cabinet and Joan Beatty, a political neophyte, was appointed to replace her on the culture, youth and recreation files.

A former CBC broadcaster and a one-time SaskCulture board member, Beatty seems like a good choice for the culture portfolio. But what her views are on artist equity is anyone?s guess.

Barbara Young, the chair of the advisory committee, says the report contains ?about 15 recommendations? ? and that they are ?do-able.? She says Crofford ?told us to look for low-hanging fruit, things we could do right away. Most recommendations are short term. We looked for intervening steps to take us to the longer-range goals.? Young is a retired arts educator and a one-time chair of the Globe Theatre board.

The progress report confined itself to five areas: fair compensation and the role of collective bargaining; arts promotion; economic development; benefits and taxation; and education and training. But it made no recommendations in promotion, benefits/taxation or economic development. And, in the education-training area, the progress report said that ?the arts sector itself needs to continue to play a lead role.?

For the most part, the 28-page progress report, while reviewing the history of ?status? in Saskatchewan and identifying key issues, limited its view of action to the compensation area, where it proposed establishment of ?a quasi-judicial authority? to tackle thorny issues relating to how much money artists make.

Since passage of the Status of the Artists Act in 2002 ? Saskatchewan is the first province outside of Quebec to adopt legislation which identifies equity for artists within the workforce ? little has changed for artists, but the SAA has kept up its advocacy work.

For the first time in Saskatchewan, artists are being recognized as workers in the sense that most people are. The act?s recognition of ?the important contribution of artists? and ?the value of artistic creativity? to the cultural, social, economic and educational life of Saskatchewan, is pretty much motherhood ? who would disagree? ? but its nod toward ?the importance to artists of being fairly compensated for the creation and use of their artistic works? is downright revolutionary. So too is its recognition of the ?the right of artists to enjoy the same economic and social benefits that are available to other workers in Saskatchewan.?

In one fell swoop, the government gave to artists rights ? on paper, at any rate ? that most other residents of Saskatchewan have enjoyed for years.

But now, as Kutz says, it?s time to actually make some of that happen.

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

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