photo of woman painting on wall

New Brunswick Artists in Survival Mode

by Chris Wanamaker

If you were a New Brunswick artist would you be able to eat well and drive a functional car? Would you be able afford day care for your children or receive a pension? Would you be able to establish a viable business based on selling your art? Probably, the answer to all of the above, and more, is No. According to Future First, a report of the Premier’s task force released last year, artists in NB face economic insecurity with job instability, low income and a limited regulatory framework. The report was debated by dozens of artists at a contemporary arts conference in Saint John, NB in late October 2022, titled “Future Possible.” It was, perhaps, the first opportunity for artists to confer in person about the report which was released last year.

The majority of artists in the province do not make a living solely from their art, the task force found. They have low, unstable incomes, about 40% lower in general than the rest of workforce. Although 41% of artists have earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 21% of all workers, they have limited access to benefits. In some cases, creative work actually costs artists more than the income they make from it.

According to a government news release, artists contributed over $572 million to New Brunswick’s Gross Domestic Product in 2018, yet they earned a median annual income of $24,300, compared to $43,500 on average for workers generally.

Much of the creative effort happens behind the scenes as artists prepare, research and develop their projects, submit proposals, search for jobs or negotiate contracts, the task force found. This work typically remains undocumented and unrecognized. Taken for granted by both audiences and consumers in a profit-driven, capitalist economy, some artists find themselves living a double life with both arts-related jobs and those outside the arts. Often, their career consists of a string of projects working for different employers and clients under variable conditions.

In short, New Brunswick artists live a precarious existence, moving from one contract to another, somewhat like seasonal workers do in agriculture and fisheries, the task force reported.
Seven years in the making, the report from New Brunswick’s Conservative government contains 24 recommendations to improve the socio-economic status of professional artists in New Brunswick “in a deep and substantial way.”

The recommendations include the following:

  • Establish a guaranteed annual income program
  • Increase the median income and establish social benefits
  • Establish minimum fee scales
  • Recognize invisible work
  • Include invisible work in the calculation of tax benefits
  • Document barriers to child care accessibility
  • Document workplace injuries and sickness, and establish a means of prevention
  • Review and adapt the existing Employment Insurance measures
  • Include invisible work in the calculation of pension contributions
  • Adapt and strengthen the Canada Pension Plan
  • Establish an artist-in-residence program and strengthen the current program
  • Increase funding for arts programs in schools

The task force also recommended establishing a transition committee to develop a detailed framework for action with specific timelines. That transition committee began to meet in June 2021.