Two to tango: performing arts vs Alberta’s economy

 

Note: This article was first published on the Calgary Journal’s online platform in October of 2016 – Two to tango


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Denise Clarke, Jamie Tognazzini, and Karen Hines perform in a piece titled I Love You, But You’re Killing Me during the High Performance Rodeo festival in Calgary, Alta. Photo courtesy of High Performance Rodeo, Diane and Mike Photography.

Albertans agree that arts are important to the province. However – as a result of the economy, as well as demographic and technological changes – there has been a large drop in attendance at live performing arts events and some corporate sponsors have dropped out of the picture. This is causing the arts community to rethink how they reach out to audiences.

According to a 2015 survey conducted by Alberta Culture and Tourism, out of the 1,000 participating respondents, 88.7 per cent believe that the arts are important to their quality of life. But the same survey shows Alberta as having the lowest audience turn out for live events like dance or theatre in the past nine years, with 60.2 per cent of respondents choosing to attend.

Jeremy Park, an independent spoken word artist and theatrical performer, says a decline such as this could stem from the fact that streaming services such as Netflix, Shomi and Crave have provided audiences with cheap and plentiful programming.

But the economy could also be to blame.

Former company dancer with the Alberta Ballet, Ian Buchanan, explains that, “The dip in the oil industry has caused audience members and supporters to be more conservative, while arts organizations are struggling with funding from corporations.”

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Jeremy Park performs a piece titled The News in Calgary, Alta. during a poetry slam. Photo courtesy of James Tworow and Jeremy Park.

It’s funding that is essential because, even though theatre and dance organizations alike rely on ticket sales and audience attendance, a large piece of their financial pie comes from corporate sponsorship and government funding.

Ann Connors, artistic and managing producer of High Performance Rodeo says the festival has been lucky to have only lost one sponsor so far.

For her part, Naomi Lawson-Baird, co-founder of The Jass Parlour, used to have luck with corporate hiring for her small dance company. But now, the staff parties and other events – which used to be the company’s primary source of funds – just don’t seem to be happening because of the rough state of the economy.

Without these additional sources of funding, many Albertan artists will feel their careers come to a halt.

“In general, performing artists do not make a lot of money yet pursue a very difficult lifestyle,” says Buchanan. “So when both money and audience attendance decline, it can lead to artists second guessing their worth, which can lead to less willingness to sacrifice so much for their art form.”

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The dancers of The Jass Parlour (from left to right): Naomi Lawson-Baird, Kimberley Ilott, Sarah Murray, and Francesca Galea after a performance at the Lougheed House in Calgary, Alta. Photo courtesy of Naomi Lawson-Baird.

Charitable giving has also tapered off, according to Connors who says, “There’s some philanthropic giving, but [it is] not as strong or the same as it used to be.”

With audience attendance dropping, as well as sponsorships and donations drying up, the performing arts community is hopeful new approaches to daily operations and funding their events could help.

“I’ve been seeing more and more companies experimenting with sliding scale [payment],” says Park. “You pay based on what your income is or [perhaps] what you think is fair.”

Another way to drive attendance is by offering free events that would turn people who wouldn’t normally attend such performances into future ticket buyers, suggests Lawson-Baird.

“It takes two to tango. You would find an abundance of different artists who would be willing to do something like that.”

She adds that support from the government would also be important, something that Connors agrees with.

“In times of decline and challenges, the cultural sector has to be fed in the same way as any other sector,” says Connors.

“We are economy drivers. Somebody goes out to a show – they’re probably going out to dinner, they’re paying the babysitter, they’re taking a taxi. Everybody gets a piece of that pie.”

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