Creative Entrepreneurship in the Era of Physical Distancing

Creative Entrepreneurship in the Era of Physical Distancing

Artists and creative businesses took a hard, direct hit from the pandemic. This article explores the state of creative work and entrepreneurship in the era of physical distancing.
Nisa Malli
BII+E Alumni
Stephanie Fielding
Policy + Research Analyst
August 21, 2020
Print Page

In Winter 2020, prior to the pandemic, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship launched a research project exploring creative entrepreneurship spanning freelance artists and collectives to large and internationally-competitive firms and the role of creative entrepreneurship and labour in the innovation economy. As we write up our findings, the economic, cultural, and social landscape has changed dramatically, albeit potentially temporarily. 

Creative businesses and organizations have been hit hard and directly by the 2020 pandemic and public health rules forbidding public gatherings, events, and non-essential in-person work. Early statistics from the April 2020 Labour Force Survey reported the largest employment declines in industries that involve public-facing activities where physical contact is required, or limited ability to work from home. Employment in the Information, Culture, and Recreation sector decreased by 23.8 percent between February and April, while overall hours worked fell by 37.5 percent including within performing arts and related industries, consistent with the cancellation of in-person events, and second only in sectoral decline to the Accomodation and Food Services sectors (-23.9 percent /-63.8 percent). 

Many who are solo self-employed are experiencing deteriorating business conditions: 59.4 percent (1.2 million people) of solo self-employed people across all sectors reported working less than half of their usual hours during the reference week, including 38.4 percent who did not work any hours. Creative businesses and organizations with offices, studios, and storefronts are experiencing the same well-documented financial challenges as other commercial renters during a period of reduced or closed operations. The impacts of the pandemic will likely be felt by the creative community for an extended period of time. As Music Canada reports, bookings for 2021 are far lower than usual for many music professionals, with many not expecting a return to the stage soon, due to government restrictions or personal risk assessment of performing with the virus still present. Physical distancing has also had an impact on collaboration and co-creation, with limitations on shared studio, practice, and gathering space access. 


"Many who are solo self-employed are experiencing deteriorating business conditions: 59.4 percent of solo self-employed people reported working less than half of their usual hours...."

Within this context, the pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities. Race-based data from the United States demonstrates that Black, Latino, and Indigenous people are experiencing higher rates of infection and death due to a combination of lower health levels and higher exposure, particularly at work. Public Health Ontario has identified “existing structural inequities [that] may contribute to increased risk from COVID-19 in Black, Latino and other ethnic minority and low-income populations [as well as] sex/gender, Indigenous identity, homelessness, incarceration, and migrant and refugees status.” The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports that, as of May 2020, two in five youth (aged 15-24) had lost their jobs or the majority of their hours, along with half of workers making $16 per hour or less, while many lower wage jobs such as grocery store workers, delivery and taxi drivers, and long-term care orderlies were deemed essential and continued to go to work at heightened personal risk. 

At the same time, virtual arts and culture consumption is increasing and dissemination models are digitizing, including for-fee and free programming such as streaming services for television, movies, and music and traditionally live, in-person performances now available on Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, Zoom, and Twitch. Video game hardware, software, and accessory sales for the United States (US) for March 2020 were the highest they have been since 2008. A number of  businesses have pivoted from in-person to online sales and delivery, or now offer curbside pick-ups, including bookstores and other retail outlets. Dance studios have shifted online along with performances, practice spaces, and classes of all genres and new digital-first programming and educational opportunities have launched. For example, CBC’s Arts Uncontained is commissioning original programming including digital originals, adaptations of plays that were disrupted by the pandemic, written and video diaries from artists, and museum and gallery exhibition tours. Taking advantage of the virtual medium to reach beyond local experts and participants, Ryerson’s Communities Create Initiative, supported by a consortium of Canadian media and arts organizations, hosts weekly creative workshops led by Canadian artists and makers from a variety of disciplines. As the weather warmed up, some performances and events moved outside into parks and outdoor venues, and many major galleries have reopened with reduced capacity and reserved slots. 

There has also been a rise in the use of illustrated infographics, data visualizations, public art (including both unapproved and city-sanctioned installations and murals) and other visual and art-based knowledge translation, dissemination, and declarations as a communication tool for public health, anti-racism education, and protest. The Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Elijah McClain and others have used performance including dance and music, photography, craft, and graffiti. Art has long been a tool for social change and connection, for communicating ideas and voicing dissent, and for participatory community engagement and this remains true today.

"Ninety-five percent of the 11,000 artists who responded to a survey by the AAA reported that they had experienced a loss of income from their artistic practice due the pandemic, including cancellations, project delays, and illness, with an average annual estimated income decline of $27,103."

New programming, mediums, and dissemination channels are making arts and culture more accessible to those with a fast internet connection and home devices, but it is not compensating for the full loss of income to individual artists, arts organizations, and creative businesses. ArtsPond reported an average income drop of $25,189 and 36 gigs lost among 796 Canadian artist respondents between March 30 and May 27, 2020. As of May 2020, the American Association for the Arts (AAA) reported a $5.5 billion economic impact for U.S. non-profit arts and culture organizations alone. No comparative data is yet available for Canada where restrictions on event size, public gatherings, and business closures have been slower to lift than south of the border. Ninety-five percent of the 11,000 artists who responded to a survey by the AAA reported that they had experienced a loss of income from their artistic practice due the pandemic, including cancellations, project delays, and illness, with an average annual estimated income decline of $27,103. Sixty-eight percent reported that they had experienced unanticipated expenditures such as unplanned travel, new cleaning or disinfecting procedures, and new technology or marketing approach, and 80 percent said that they do not have a plan to get back on their feet, with more than half reporting that they had no savings. Sixty-six percent said they could not access the resources they needed to continue their creative practice, including supplies, physical space, and social networks. Forty-nine percent of those who also worked in non-creative jobs said that they had been laid off or furloughed, which may suggest higher numbers of hybrid employment in more precarious or predominantly in-person occupations. In many countries, artists have the highest rates of holding second jobs, compared to other occupations, including high rates of combining employment and self-employment and using multiple job-holding as a transition stage to entrepreneurship, making them potentially more precarious in a recession.  

A survey by the Canadian Council for the Arts (CAC) reported that 61 percent of self-employed artists and smaller arts organizations and groups would need to rely on emergency income support measures to mitigate the financial impacts of the pandemic, including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), and Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) in order to sustain the financial impact of the pandemic. However, access to these funds has remained elusive for many in the creative sector, with some applicants reporting that they are ineligible due to not earning enough income in 2019, earning too much self-employment income, receiving royalties for past work, or having inconsistent income all common realities in gig-based creative labour and micro-enterprises. Many smaller arts organizations have also been affected, particularly those under a certain size, with budgets below $500,000, and those whose workers are considered to be self-employed and thus deemed ineligible for payroll requirements for government wage subsidies through CEWS. Such eligibility constraints have prompted some self-employed artists and cultural workers to reconsider gig or employment opportunities which would help keep them afloat during uncertain times. In response, in April 2020 the federal government expanded CERB to include support for those still working but making less than $1,000 a month and extending the program to unemployed seasonal workers who had exhausted their regular Employment Insurance (EI) benefits.

"The overall picture is one of challenging unknowns, precarity, and innovative resilience among Canadian artists and creative entrepreneurs. But it is clear that the sector remains culturally, socially, and economically vital."

Many in the creative and cultural industries have stressed the need for additional government assistance to address the challenges now facing their sector in the long term. This advocacy includes, for example, an open letter to the Canadian government, written in July 2020 by a group of independent artists, writers, technicians, and performers, alongside 34 arts organizations, guilds, and unions asking for the “guarantee [of] basic income for those in need, regardless of their work status.” As the group suggests, such a guarantee could be built on existing programs, such as CERB, which many artists already rely on for income while public gatherings and indoor venues are banned. Though self-employed people have been able to pay into and access EI as of 2010, until CERB, uptake has historically been low. As of May 2020, 40 percent of self-employed people reported applying to CERB, compared to 12 percent of private sector workers and five percent of public sector workers. In August 2020, the federal government announced a new employment insurance program that will provide expanded access to self-employed and gig workers and 10 days of paid leave for those who fall sick with COVID-19

The Canadian government has announced $500 million in pandemic-related funding for arts, sports, and culture sectors, and the workers they employ. This includes funding aimed at “television production houses, publishers, community and local papers, music associations, and media organizations”, nonprofits that are “too small to qualify for bank credit or additional loans,” and organizations such as FACTOR and Musication that support Canadian music talent. Some provincial governments have committed additional funding, including $250 million from the Government of Quebec to encourage creative professionals and artists to start producing again, announced just before recording studios and filming for TV and movies were allowed to reopen in the province. Most major arts funders, including the Canada Council for the Arts (CAC), have decided not to claw back funding already spent on events or projects that were postponed or cancelled and are offering advances on funding for core-funded organizations. Several, including the Toronto Arts Council, have launched emergency funds

As of now, it is not yet certain what the medium or long-term impacts of the pandemic, physical distancing, and business closures will be on creative entrepreneurs, businesses, organizations, and workers. The overall picture is one of challenging unknowns, precarity, and innovative resilience among Canadian artists and creative entrepreneurs. But it is clear that the sector remains culturally, socially, and economically vital. There there is a need to understand the contributions and operations of creative labour and entrepreneurship and to creatively imagine a safe future for performance, collaboration, and convenings.

For media enquiries, please contact Nina Rafeek Dow, Marketing + Communications Specialist at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.