Ted Harrison and Canada’s artsiest economy

Robert Service helped put the Yukon on the global literary map. The poems he wrote in Whitehorse and then Dawson City made him famous and, it's worth pointing out, rich.

Robert Service helped put the Yukon on the global literary map. The poems he wrote in Whitehorse and then Dawson City made him famous and, it’s worth pointing out, rich.

In the days before rock stars and movie icons, a writer like Service could make quite literally a fortune. “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” is said to have earned Service over half a million dollars, a huge sum a hundred years ago.

But Service was like a meteor. He flashed brilliantly in the Yukon sky and then was gone. He inspired others, but did not leave a group of acolytes in the Yukon to develop their own careers.

This is too bad from a literary point of view, but also from an economic one. Service’s impact on the Yukon economy diminished every year he lived in Brittany cashing his royalty cheques.

The same holds true of Jack London. His writing made him a millionaire, but he only spent a year or two in the Yukon.

Recently I wrote about the economy of Port Townsend, Washington, which has branded itself as a “Victorian Seaport and Arts Community.” A few readers expressed surprise that arts and culture can be a significant part of the economy, so let’s look more deeply at some of the numbers and what they mean for the Yukon.

Hill Strategies Research, an Ontario firm, puts out a useful report based on Statistics Canada data. It shows how different the Yukon arts community is today from Service’s time. Today, the Yukon’s cultural economy is big and deeply rooted.

Based on 2011 census data, there are 970 “cultural workers” in the Yukon or 4.62 per cent of the workforce. This definition includes people in nine arts occupations such as visual artists or dancers, as well as a broader set of cultural industries such as museum curators or graphic designers.

Under this definition, the Yukon has the artsiest economy in Canada, well above the national average of 3.82 per cent.

We don’t have detailed income numbers for Yukon cultural workers, but at a national level they earned $42,100 on average in 2010. This is 12 per cent below the overall labour force average. Within the cultural worker category, there were wide variations. Dancers earned the lowest, at $17,893 each on average, with musicians coming in at $22,770 and visual artists at $24,672. Meanwhile writers, producers, directors and choreographers earned above the average.

Unlike in Robert Service’s day, government has developed a wide range of programs to support the arts for their own sake and also because of their broader role in economic development.

Hill reports that culture spending by all levels of government in the Yukon was $1,194 per person in 2009-10, triple the national average. The territorial government spent $628 per Yukoner, quadruple the level of the highest-spending province. This was partly cancelled out by Yukon municipalities, which only spent $13 per person versus a level of $87 on average in the provinces.

If you put together the Yukon’s talented “installed base” of cultural workers and add this level of government support, you get several benefits. First, culture workers earn income, often as exports since they sell to non-Yukon clients. They also buy supplies from local businesses and pay taxes. There is also an indirect benefit in that they make a community more attractive to live in, which can attract other workers and families to the Yukon.

Life is not all about economics of course, and the Yukon’s artists do more than merely contribute to gross domestic product. They also add something special to life, helping build the vibrant community that long-time Yukoners and newcomers all enjoy.

I think Robert Service would be surprised if he came to next week’s fundraiser for the Ted Harrison Artist Retreat Society and caught a glimpse of the arts community of today. Not only is Ted Harrison one of the artists who put the Yukon on the visual-arts map, he also endowed the retreat to nurture the next generation.

An example of this is up-and-coming Yukon artist Emma Barr. She was a young artist-in-residence at the Ted Harrison retreat (as well as being supported early in her career by the Yukon Foundation, another of our community-building organizations). She will be telling her story at the fundraising event, including her time at the Ted Harrison retreat, and donating a piece of her own sought-after work.

In addition to a Ted Harrison original being auctioned off, the fundraiser will also feature art from many other Yukon artists, including Jim Robb and Halin de Repentigny. The size of the crowd will be clear evidence of how deeply rooted the cultural industry is in the Yukon today.

We’ve come a long way from the days when the Yukon’s cultural industry could book himself a one-way ticket to Brittany and disappear.

For readers who would like to attend the Ted Harrison Artist Retreat Society art show and fundraiser on Friday, May 29 from 6:30-930 p.m. at the MacBride Museum, phone 668-4405 or email sfairman@lawyukon.com. The event is open to the public and free of charge. The Harrison family is also hosting a celebration of Ted Harrison’s life at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 30 at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith