Toronto performing artists struggle amid pandemic closures

by | Jan 29, 2021 | A&E

Alex Bird is an up-and-coming jazz singer and songwriter. With his Rat Pack style and swagger, and recognizable sideburns, he’s a regular in Toronto’s jazz scene.

Or at least he was.

These days, the closest he gets to an on-stage performance is doing an Instagram Live stream with his future father-in-law on guitar, standing in for his band.

“It’s been extraordinarily hard,” he said. “And it’s still going to be hard for a while.”

When the pandemic hit, Bird’s live gigs dried up and was laid off from his day job at the Art Gallery of Ontario, he said.

Bird said he feels lucky to be able to turn to family in uncertain times, but his story is one that many of the city’s struggling performing artists have felt.

According to the Toronto Arts Council website, over 10,000 artists lost work at the beginning of the pandemic.

The site also states many of these artists are self-employed and don’t qualify for Employment Insurance.

Jessa Agilo, founder of I Lost My Gig Canada, estimates the arts and other gig-based industries have lost almost $2 billion.

Agilo started Canada’s branch of I Lost My Gig last March to advocate for and gather information about Canada’s gig workers impacted by pandemic closures.

An ongoing survey paid for by I Lost My Gig Canada and conducted by Hill Strategies, found that Toronto gig workers lost almost 3,000 paid gigs between March 30 and Aug. 15, 2020.

That amounts to about $3.6 million lost in income, more than $31,000 per person.

The incomplete survey presented figures based on 995 complete respondents from all across Canada. Self-selected respondents could choose to answer different sections of the survey.

Sixty-nine per cent of respondents identified as self-employed. The gender breakdown of the survey respondents was 67 per cent women, 30 per cent men and four per cent gender diverse.

In addition to financial troubles, Bird said the loss of live gigs has had a significant impact on the mental well-being of Toronto’s artists.

“A lot of musician friends of mine, and myself to some degree, fell into a bit of a funk,” he said. “I think a lot of people fell into a very dark place.”

However, he also said that many artists are now beginning to bounce back.

For instance, he and his band released their debut album, Whiskey Kisses, last October and they landed some live streaming performances over the holidays.

Similarly, Christine Cortes, an emerging actor and filmmaker in Toronto, said she tries to focus on the opportunities that have come about during this time.

“I’m writing my own play right now and I have other ideas that I still need to start,” she said, speaking over video from her bedroom which doubles as her workspace.

Cortes said she has been involved in some film projects that have been shot remotely, using technology like Zoom. But it isn’t the same, she added.

She said she misses the experience of creating something with a community of her peers.

“I love connecting with people and just working with each other and kind of having this whole family.”

Cortes said she began to hear about emergency relief funds for artists soon after the film industry shut down last March.

In addition to the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Toronto artists began sharing news of independent funding efforts in the city, she said.

The TOArtist COVID Response Fund was one of these.

The fund was launched by the Toronto Arts Council for the purpose of supporting artists facing financial headaches due to the pandemic.

Haroon Khalid, Toronto Arts Council’s interim Communications Manager, said the fund raised a total of $836,347 that was distributed to 982 Toronto artists.

Qualifying artists received up to $1,000 each, he said.

The fundraising campaign ended last summer, but a new fund is under consideration amidst Toronto’s ongoing second lockdown, Khalid said.

Meanwhile, in Toronto’s gay village and elsewhere in the city, drag performers have faced the same struggles as other artists in the city.

Miss Shay Dee, real name Ivan Bocanegra, began performing in drag shows in late 2019.

Even out of drag, she exhibited the telltale signs of a performer as she spoke about her craft.

Shay Dee said her drag career was just taking off when the pandemic hit.

“I had all these plans, all these bookings, and then everything got cancelled,” she said.

Outside of drag, she was also laid off from her day job as a nurse coordinator at the beginning of the pandemic, but she said she was able to benefit from CERB as well as a $500 grant from the Community One Foundation.

The foundation’s website indicates that it regularly provides grants to LGBTQ+ artists.

She also got the opportunity to appear in a Netflix series which will air later this year.

But performing for the camera just isn’t the same as performing for an audience, she said.

“I love being my true self when I do drag,” Dee said. “I just hope that this ends soon.”

As the pandemic continues, the federal government recently announced more funding for Canada’s most vulnerable industries in its fall economic update.

The Highly Affected Sectors Credit Availability Program will include more than $180 million that will go toward planning and presenting safe arts events, both live and digital, into 2022.

In the meantime, as hard as things have been on the city’s performing artists, the early rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has sparked some optimism.

“My hope is that we will open up again,” Cortes said. “My hope is that things will go back to normal.”