It should have been a good year for Whitehorse based artist Sharon Vittrekwa, who is Tetlit Gwich’in and originally from the Northwest Territories.
Vittrekwa is an acclaimed master beader and crafter and was looking forward to selling her products in several festivals and markets, including the 2020 Arctic Winter Games that were to be held in Whitehorse in March.
“Last year I did really well,” she told APTN News. “I did a lot of fur hats and slippers, I did a lot of orders for slippers, I did a lot of regalia. I also did a lot of workshops.”
But when COVID-19 hit the Yukon in March, most events were cancelled, and any potential commissions or sales were lost.
“It’s been really rough. For one thing, not having enough unemployment insured hours,” she said.
Indigenous artists financially vulnerable due to virus
According to a report by Hill Strategies, a Canadian company that uses social science research methods for the arts, “Indigenous artists have a median income of $16,600… whereas non-Indigenous artists have a median income of $24,600.”
A national survey launched this year by I Lost My Gig Canada found that as of Aug. 15 the average artisan or craftsperson lost or was at risk of losing $32,400 in opportunities due to event cancellations and loss of sales.
I Lost My Gig is an online resource for creative industries and vulnerable freelance economy workers who have lost out on work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic to connect and share stories.
The survey also expects total revenue loss for the arts industry this year to be $20.7 million.
As a result of expected revenue loss, the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association (YFNCT) launched the YFN Arts Shop, an online arts store in August to help Indigenous artists who have lost opportunities due to the virus.
“We tried to pivot pretty quickly to try to find a solution,” said Courtney Holmes, Arts Coordinator for YFNCT.
The store works by advertising artists’ products through its online platform and social media channels, connecting them with customers outside of the Yukon and beyond, commission free.
Holmes said so far 30 artists have had their items showcased through the online arts store.
“We’re actually quite impressed with the response that we’ve received. People are registering, people are really needing an outlet to sell their artwork and that’s what we’re offering.”
Artists are welcome to join the YFNCT brand, which showcases authentic Indigenous art made in the territory. Artists are provided with marketing materials such as YFNCT branded bags, boxes and stickers, and are also provided with artists cards which advertise information about the artists and the materials used to make items.
Katie Johnson, YFNCT’s director of Arts, said providing branding materials is another way to help artists promote themselves, and ultimately, make more profit.
“When art is purchased through the brand or through retail stores people can actually go this website and truly understand who this artist is and where they come from, what kind of materials were used, and to just add knowledge and value to the work that they’re doing.”
YFNCT will also take high quality photos of artists’ items free of charge.
For artists like Vittrekwa with no marketing experience, the store has helped enhance the look of her products.
“The work that they’ve done is just absolutely amazing and even just taking pictures of your artwork, you know, it’s so beautiful,” Johnson said.
So far, the store has made around $10,000. YFNCT does not take a commission from any sales.
‘Supporting artists of the north’
Holmes estimates there are around 500 Indigenous artists in the territory, and said it’s likely that all have been impacted financially to various degrees, especially in regards to the cancellations of festivals and events in the territory, such as the Adäka Cultural Festival.
“It’s the loss of the gatherings, the loss of the craft markets and sales and we’ll see it again this Christmas as well with the restrictions being offered,” she said.
While the store isn’t meant to be a main avenue for artists to generate revenue, it’s a resource that artists like Vittrekwa are thankful for during a time when they need all the help they can get.
She’s now one of its stop sellers, and has sold upwards of 30 items.
“Thank God I am busy with orders, like a pair of slippers, that takes a lot of time. It’ll take about 50 to 60 hours, so, (the store) is great for that,” Vittrekwa said.
“I’ve been getting a lot more clients, and I’ve been getting a lot more from around the world which is just absolutely fabulous for me. It’s getting my work out there and so that they can support the artist of the north.”
YFNCT will continue to monitor the store to determine if it will remain in operation post-pandemic.