Manitoba performing arts organizations anticipate fiscal crisis in 2024 if governments don’t step up

Performing arts organizations in Manitoba and across the Canadian Prairies say they’re nearing a fiscal cliff crisis in the coming year and direly need government support, after two years of COVID-19 lockdowns and other health restrictions changed the landscape of live arts and their audiences.

Federal rent and wage subsidies carried many performing arts organizations through the darkest days of the pandemic, but they’ve found live audiences in the first post-lockdown seasons are not yet returning to pre-lockdown levels.

The executive director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra says organizations like hers will run out of cash in early 2024 if sales continue to hover between 65 to 70 per cent of what they were before the pandemic.

“We’re fine this year, but next year that’s going to be a huge problem for us,” Angela Birdsell told CBC News.

“We’ve got a lot of colleagues that we’ve been speaking with — not only here in Manitoba … but specifically in the Prairies, that are saying we’re not going to make it next year.”

Ticket sales at the WSO are up from last year but she said they have yet to catch up to pre-pandemic years, and they’ve been given “every indication” from all levels of government that there will be no more support coming in the next year.

Younger Canadians have said they plan to decrease their spending on arts and cultural performances in 2023, while the opposite can be said for older Canadians, according to recent data conducted by Nanos Research.

While more performing arts organizations on the east and west coasts expect a noticeable bump in attendance in the coming year, prairie organizations forecast a minimal increase, the data says. 

Letter sent to federal minister

Twenty arts organizations from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba signed a joint letter to Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez in late March to request additional federal funding.

They say the data shows the arts and cultural sector has been among the last industries to recover from the pandemic. And among arts sectors that recovery has been slowest for the performing arts, particularly in the Prairie provinces.

Inflation and labour shortages have added more challenges to the sector’s plate as it is now harder to hire and keep workers, the letter says.

“We are requesting renewal of the 2021-22 iteration of supplemental support from the federal government for Covid recovery delivered through Canada Council for the broad sector of operating clients,” the letter states, adding that British Columbia and Quebec have both recently injected major funds into their performing arts sectors.

Birdsell says her biggest fear is the infrastructure of Manitoba’s performing arts sector will crumble because governments failed to recognize their needs.

“We all know how profoundly we relied on the cultural sector during the time of the pandemic. It’s a living, breathing entity,” she said.

“I always say nobody walks out of high school onto a Netflix set. All of the local cultural organizations and arts groups feed into the development of stories, the development of music, [and] the development of talent in the sector.”

‘Come into the dark,’ theatre director urges

In addition to the WSO, representatives of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Manitoba Opera and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre signed the letter.

The head of the RMTC says her organization got about 79 per cent of their pre-pandemic audience back into the centre this season, which is a positive trend, but not the 85 per cent they had anticipated.

“Assuming that the numbers stay the way they are, we’re looking a little softer than we hoped and certainly softer than we were pre-pandemic,” executive director Camilla Holland told CBC News.

A building is pictured.
The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s wish is for more people begin to miss the live arts, and return to the downtown area in greater numbers once they adjust to inflationary pressures, executive director says. (Grajewski Fotograph Inc./Royal MTC)

Volunteer numbers are also down, she said, and have remained near 80 per cent of what they were pre-pandemic.

Holland hopes more people begin to miss the live arts, and return to the downtown area in greater numbers once they adjust to inflationary pressures.

“Remember that the arts [are] a really wonderful way to spend a spring evening. Even if it’s gorgeous outside — come into the dark,” she said.

But not all hope is lost, she said. Plays like Rosanna Deerchild’s The Secret to Good Tea and the return of The Nutcracker have revealed a “pent up demand” for the performing arts.

The WSO is looking to experiment with new models and opportunities to attract audiences back, but it’ll take some time to bear fruit, and the symphony needs support until it can get there, Birdsell said.

“We will continue to be optimistic but we also don’t want to downplay the very real nature of what’s facing us next year.”

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