Canada’s artists are appreciated around the world. From renowned visual artists, such as Kent Monkman, Emily Carr, and Tom Thomson, to famous pop musicians, such as Drake, Justin Bieber, and The Weeknd, Canadian creativity is celebrated around the world.
At the same time, Canadian artists are much more likely than the average Canadian worker to live in poverty. Action is urgently needed to further support artists’ career development and there is the opportunity to enhance the impact of Canadian artists through supporting their development of entrepreneurial skills. Investing in artists to become more entrepreneurial will improve their living conditions, foster a more innovative society, and contribute to Canadian economic growth.
Despite some success, most Canadian artists are struggling. According to Statistics Canada, Canadian artists make a whopping 44% less than the average Canadian worker. A report from The Brookfield Institute of Entrepreneurship + Innovation indicates that “self-employed creative workers generally see dramatic fluctuations in their income from year to year, as many operate on a project-by-project basis and depend on multiple funding streams.” Because of the nature of this work, many Canadian artists lack access to social benefits, such as insurance and pension plans, parental and adoption leave, income maintenance such as sick leave, and paid vacation time. Consequently, numerous artists struggle to meet their basic needs and face housing and food insecurity challenges amongst others.
Like Canadian society-at-large, there are equity, diversity, and inclusion challenges in the arts sector. Artists include musicians, authors, producers, visual artists, artisans and craftspeople, actors and comedians, dancers, and composers. According to the 2016 census, Indigenous women artists had a median income of $17,800, racialized women artists earned $17,900, and immigrants earned $20,800. This compared to an income of $24,300 for non-Indigenous, non-racialized, and non-immigrant Canadian artists. Artists from marginalized communities face particularly significant obstacles to achieving their basic needs.
We need to enhance Canada’s economic and cultural potential by better supporting artists to develop entrepreneurial skills. Canadian artists are more likely to be entrepreneurs than the general Canadian population. According to the 2016 Canadian census, 52% of artists are self-employed compared to 12% of the overall workforce. Therefore, it is especially important for artists’ career development that they have adequate entrepreneurial skills.
“Entrepreneurial” is too often a buzzword left undefined. At Venture for Canada, we conducted significant research and found that The Entrepreneurial Competence Framework is arguably the most thorough existing resource for defining entrepreneurial skills. It defines being entrepreneurial as “identifying and acting upon opportunities to create value for others” and distills entrepreneurial skills into 15 competencies. Examples of entrepreneurial skills include coping with uncertainty, creativity, and working with others.
There’s a correlation between being artistic and being entrepreneurial, with many leading entrepreneurs having backgrounds as artists. For instance, two of Airbnb’s co-founders are graduates of The Rhode Island School of Design. Research from The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology found that artists and entrepreneurs “exhibit higher self-perception of risk tolerance, creativity, openness to experience, and intrinsic motivation compared to other professionals.” A report by venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins found that 20% of privately held technology companies with a valuation over $1 billion had a co-founder who came from an arts or design background.
“Unlocking the entrepreneurial potential of artists can do more than enhance the living conditions of Canadian artists: it can also enhance our country’s prosperity through generating more successful businesses.”
Unlocking the entrepreneurial potential of artists can do more than enhance the living conditions of Canadian artists: it can also enhance our country’s prosperity through generating more successful businesses. Supporting artists to develop entrepreneurial skills will contribute to the development of a more innovative society and culture.
The United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council project on Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture observed that some of the most critical contributions of arts and culture lie in the individual experience: “perhaps not economic impact but rather the capacity to be economically innovative and creative; perhaps not urban regeneration driven by large new cultural buildings but rather the way small-scale arts assets and activities might help communities and neighbourhoods.” Essentially, artists can help build the capacity and infrastructure for a more innovative and resilient society.
How Canada Can Enhance the Entrepreneurial Skills of Artists:
Canada needs to provide support to scale-up entrepreneurship programs supporting artists, which have a track record of success. Many excellent entrepreneurship programs are available to artists such as the Artrepreneur Program offered by The York Region Arts Council, The Artist Entrepreneur Program run by Canada’s Music Incubator, and The Creative Entrepreneurship Program offered by Artscape. There is the opportunity to nationally scale evidence-based entrepreneurship programs for artists that are currently only being delivered in one region of Canada to being delivered nationally. Given existing inequities, initiatives aimed at developing the entrepreneurial skills of artists should prioritize serving individuals from underserved communities.
“Post-secondary institutions training artists need to prioritize the labour market outcomes of their graduating students.”
In addition to providing more practical work opportunities, post-secondary institutions training artists need to prioritize the labour market outcomes of their graduating students. Most post-secondary institutions with arts-focused programs provide minimal career guidance support to their students. When speaking to a dean of a fine arts program at a Canadian university they mentioned that “it’s not the fine arts program’s job” to help graduates secure employment. As of early March 2022, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design had only 16 jobs posted on their campus job board.
Over the last six months, I’ve interviewed several dozen artists across Canada. A common theme from the interviews is that many artists graduate from post-secondary with no direction about what they want to do with their careers. In many post-secondary institutions, artists are accused of “selling out” when they try to be commercially successful. Many arts professors argue that artists should only focus on art for art’s sake and ignore the potential to earn income. Consequently, many young artists languish and are either unemployed or underemployed.
Post-secondary institutions serving artists need to invest significantly more resources in career services. Substantial research indicates that work-integrated learning enhances young people’s labour market outcomes. These institutions should mandate that all students complete basic coursework on what it takes to launch a successful business. Alumni who are entrepreneurs should be invited back to campus to share their experiences and mentor current students about career opportunities.
“75% of students who completed a work-integrated-learning experience related to their field of study were employed full-time three months after graduation.”
More initiatives such as The University of Victoria’s Fine Arts Co-op program, which connect arts students with practical work experiences before they graduate, are needed across the country. Substantial research indicates that work-integrated learning enhances young people’s labour market outcomes. Statistics Canada found that 75%of students who completed a work-integrated-learning experience related to their field of study were employed full-time three months after graduation. In contrast only 48% of recent grads who did not have any work experience during their post-secondary education were employed at the same interval.
Work-integrated-learning is also integral for developing entrepreneurial skills. According to a report from the British Government, “the most effective approaches to developing entrepreneurship skills involve experiential learning based around task-oriented development focused on real business problems.” Small businesses provide work-integrated-learning experiences where students can juggle multiple projects, gain real responsibility, and work in ambiguous environments.
Canada focuses significant investments and attention on fostering the development of high-growth technology companies. There are a plethora of incubators and accelerators across the country aimed at catalyzing the next Shopify. While this goal is laudable, Canada is missing the opportunity to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of Canadian artists.
“Supporting artists to develop entrepreneurial skills is critical to increasing artists’ abilities to meet their basic needs, to build an innovative society, and further contribute to Canada’s economic growth.”
Art is so much more important for our society than art for art’s sake.