After months of seeing art through a computer screen, live events are finally open to the public. And whether it’s the Power Plant’s latest exhibition, a concert at the newly reopened Massey Hall or maker fairs like the One of a Kind show, it’s clear that large crowds of Torontonians are eager to experience art IRL.

On the artists’ side, “people are hungry to get back out there to showcase their work, meet and support one another’s work. We see folks readjusting to this world where they can access coworking and maker spaces again,” says Garrick Ng, the managing director of Artscape Daniel’s Launchpad, a creative entrepreneurship hub in Toronto. “It remains to be seen, however, what this will look like.”

After months of restrictions and lockdowns, this is how Toronto’s creative entrepreneurs are transforming the way they work.

Adjusting for the new normal

Zev Farber, the director of the RBC Centre for Emerging Artists and Designers at OCAD University, has seen how quickly creative entrepreneurs have had to pivot during the pandemic. “These artists are innovative and resilient and able to navigate their own way,” he says. Traditionally, entrepreneurs at CEAD rely on in-person artist’s fairs and other events to sell their products. This year, however, students have been able to keep their businesses afloat by capitalizing on ecommerce. Farber points to a partnership that the Centre has with, a platform through which affiliated makers, artists and designers sell their products. Surprisingly, more sales have been made through this year than last year, Farber says.

In the music industry, Vel Omazic, the co-founder and executive director of Canada’s Music Incubator, notes that one of the biggest challenges facing musicians was scheduling. Many emerging artists release music early in the year to prepare for spring and summer tours. “When touring stopped all of a sudden, people didn’t know what to do with their releases,” he says. Many musicians pivoted to online concerts (CMI has curated more than 100 virtual concerts during the pandemic) while other artists pushed tours back indefinitely.

Putting the “Y” back into DIY

As in-person collaboration was a no-go during lockdown, many artists found new ways of creating that focused on solo work. “If anything, the pandemic has reinforced the idea of DIY,” says Farber.

For some, it meant focusing on skill development. “People were investing in themselves,” says Omazic. “Whether that’s playing or singing or even production skills, artists were building their skills, particularly in production, so they could be more self-sufficient and create quality recordings.” For example, Toronto-based musician Amanda Frances took a course about Facebook ads manager to learn about setting up and running her own ads to expand her business. 

While many artists turned inward out of necessity, the pandemic also facilitated collaborations. “One of the winners from last year’s seed fund contest was a community of creatives, coming together to work on things like their portfolio together and creating a peer-to-peer mentorship structure,” says Alexandra Hong, the project officer at OCAD’s Centre for Emerging Artists and Designers. (The community, which grew into Habit Factory, now offers virtual workshops for creatives around the world to develop their portfolio or passion project in three weeks.) “I think that people are really thinking through how we can support each other, even if we’re doing things alone.”

Looking after each other

On top of providing mentorship and networking opportunities, Artscape Daniels Launchpad offered bursaries with the goal of supporting artists who had lost their livelihoods. “We found that 40 percent of the artists we polled were anticipating food insecurity in a matter of weeks,” says Ng. The bursaries helped artists access Artscape’s workshops, health and wellness programming, resources and spaces without having to stress about the cost. “There’s a recognition of, no, let’s actually step back and acknowledge that we’ve been harmed by the pandemic and that we’re struggling,” says Ng. “Addressing that directly through programming and supporting one another, it’s not just Artscape, but other arts communities in Toronto are leaning into that.”

A lay of the land

While Toronto slowly opens up and live events are becoming more and more common around the city (as are long lines to get into venues), things are looking up for creative entrepreneurs. While many are hoping to get back into live events (Ng notes that Artscape has already hosted roughly 200 events, both their own events and events put on by their tenants and artists since reopening their spaces), virtual events and pandemic-influenced business models will persist.

For creative entrepreneurs, the last two years have meant pivoting away from traditional business models that depended on real-life events to reach a bigger audience unconstrained by physical location. And, most exciting of all, the pandemic has inspired artists to get back to what’s essential. As Farber says, “People went back to the roots of their creative impulses and thought about what they could do — that liberated them from some of the constraints.”

Speaking of creative entrepreneurship, Mustafa, the Toronto singer songwriter who was shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Prize, performs at the newly reopened Massey Hall on December 1. Listen to his spoken word piece on innovation here.