In cities across Canada, taxi drivers are becoming increasingly enraged by the presence of Uber, the San Francisco-based company responsible for a smartphone app that connects riders and drivers. Critics allege Uber operates a clandestine taxi service that evades the necessary requirements for regulation or taxation; in response, the company claims to provide a means of digital communication, not vehicular transportation. Our municipal governments—not usually known for their nimble responses to innovation—appear perplexed by the most appropriate way to bureaucratize the company’s disruptive business model. Ostensibly, the Uber debate focuses on concerns about insurance, security, and safety—of both vehicles and people. At the real core, though, this dispute exposes the precarity of labour. In most Canadian cities, the taxi industry is notoriously complicated, with a Byzantine system that strictly controls the quantity of available licenses and vehicles; as a result, a hierarchical system has emerged, providing different economic opportunities for drivers depending on their status as owners, owner-operators, employees, contractors, and even subcontractors. Complex agreements determine who assumes responsibility for gas, insurance, maintenance, brokerage fees, and other costs. While Uber’s recruitment campaigns cheerfully proclaim, “You’ll never have to choose between earning a living and living life,” taxi drivers know, first-hand, that the number of hours worked doesn’t always correlate to financial stability; in fact, under some arrangements, taxi drivers could work for an entire shift, only to walk away with zero dollars in their pocket.
Therein lies the parallel between driving cars and the performing arts; when it comes to the precarity of labour, theatre serves as a canary in the chorus line. The concept of a “gig economy”—characterized by freelance and short-term contracts—has surfaced as a contemporary employment trend, spurred by the popularity of tech-driven opportunities like Uber, as well as Airbnb, Etsy, and others. For artists and cultural workers, though, subsisting on a patchwork of freelance and short-term contracts has been the longtime reality, not just a recent tendency. As noted by Hill Strategies, “The rate of self-employment among artists is many times higher than the self-employment rate among the overall labour force” (2). In addition to the lack of stable employment, artists and cultural workers “have lower average earnings than the overall labour force” (Hill Strategies 38).
And yet, artists continue to create art. In the face of unfavourable economic conditions, artists are increasingly demonstrating innovative resourcefulness. Consider, for example, the acclaimed, all-women version of Glengarry Glen Ross featured in the cover photograph. Vancouver’s Classic Chic Productions generated support for the show with a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo—one of a number of web-based platforms that allow artists and arts organizations to collect money via individual contributors, rather than governmental funders.
This issue of Canadian Theatre Review considers the topic of funding, with an understanding that the term evokes a broad range of concepts. I began this introduction with a reference to Uber in order to underline a core idea about arts funding—although discussions often emphasize governmental policies, organizational structures, and economic principles, the effect of these sometimes-abstract notions impacts individual people in deeply personal ways. Arts funding is not just a system of circulating resources; arts funding is an ecosystem that shapes if, how, and when people can engage with the arts.
Of course, previous issues of CTR have offered many lucid perspectives on funding and related matters. In the very first article in the very first issue, Don Rubin contextualizes the post-1945 Canadian theatre landscape with references to the Massey Commission, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, cash prizes for artists, and the Local Initiatives Program (LIP) grants. CTR’s second issue features a pair of articles that share perspectives that sound hauntingly similar to 2016. Peter Hay wryly notes that “most Canadian artists are defeated by a grant-application form” (14). In addition, Frank T. Pasquill offered highlights from his 1973 report on the Canada Council; he “concluded that the performing arts in Canada were in a bad financial state,” with a recommendation “that a more even geographic distribution of funds be attempted” (16...