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Policy Reflections: Is a New Creative Class Emerging through Cooperatives?

Policy Reflections: Is a New Creative Class Emerging through Cooperatives?

By Jainaba Beyai, Policy Advisor, OCAD University

Students writing on a whiteboard.

Canada's creative sector contributes significantly to the Canadian economy. However, many artists struggle to financially sustain themselves solely from their creative practices. In fact, the median income of artists in Canada is approximately $24,300 or 44 percent lower than for other Canadian workers. Many factors contribute to the artist hustle including exclusion of temporary work in employment standards legislation and inequities in the arts marketplace, to name a few. These sector challenges require policy solutions that address not only artist precarity but that bolster the creative sectors sustainability and ongoing innovation.

Like my previous blog post on the Post-Growth Summit, this post emphasizes the importance of alternative creative economies that facilitate shared artist wealth and value. The focus of this post is on worker co-ops including FINELINE - a new artist platform co-operative conceived by OCAD U that identifies existing cultural policy challenges via the platforms key design features. I hope this blog reflection assists policymakers in considering applied policy solutions, from the ground up.

A cooperative, or co-op, is a voluntary collective of members that meets the economic, cultural, and social needs of its membership in a democratically controlled business environment. Cooperatives arose as a direct response to the industrialization of the 18th and 19th centuries when factory workers faced a plethora of challenges including long working hours, low pay and hazardous working conditions. In 1844, the Rochdale Pioneers (who were weavers at the Rochdale cotton mills) founded the first modern cooperative in England. Shortly thereafter, the worker cooperative movement took traction across Canada: in 1861, coal miners in Stellarton, Nova Scotia established a co-op store. Afterwards, worker co-op creameries and cheese factories were established in Ontario and Quebec. Since then, cooperative models have been leveraged by artisans and creatives in both formal and informal contexts. Today, the worker cooperative model is leveraged by the creative community to realize innovative ideas, pool resources and meet other mutual needs.


What is the FINELINE platform cooperative and what does it seek to address? 

Canadian artist-entrepreneurs struggle to access business, professional, community and financial resources that help to propel their practices forward. FINELINE by OCAD U is an emerging example of an arts-based platform cooperative intent on pooling resources, like knowledge and business systems that help to strengthen creative solo enterprises in Canada. In this way, FINELINE can be conceived as a warehouse of many creative micro-enterprise members sharing the cooperatives business systems, marketplace and other resources to benefit all members, improving shared wealth and value, collectively.

While artist precarity is definitely part of what guides the impetus of FINELINE, the COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the need for transformative policy solutions that changed the status quo and bolstered those most precarious in times of crisis. But, FINELINE is also a response to the University’s own statistics, which indicate that nearly 85 percent of students graduating from OCAD U pursue entrepreneurship at some point in their careers. OCAD U thus envisions FINELINE as a catalyst nurturing more resilient creative entrepreneurship futures for emerging artists. In this way, FINELINE is quite distinctive from other co-ops as it combines a hub of artist-entrepreneurs with an extended peer and learning network as well as business upscaling tools.

Given the lack of policy and funding opportunities that acknowledge and support creative entrepreneurship, FINELINE is not without its challenges. While the scalability of the platform is on the horizon, funds to adapt and sustain the platform to support artist-entrepreneurs beyond OCAD U is an area of query. Another challenge, which FINELINE is addressing is how to mitigate financial risk of the co-operative with an expensive platform marketplace to maintain. This challenge has led to fruitful conversations about the governance of FINELINE with the University.

How can co-operatives address artist precarity?

As mentioned above, pooling resources is a key function of worker cooperatives. However, there are a handful of examples of how the FINELINE platform cooperative can support emerging creatives to mitigate artist precarity. For the purposes of this blog entry, we focus on how platform cooperatives can provide artist-entrepreneurs with predictable income and/or an artist wage.

Below, I identify three converging ways FINELINE aims to mitigate the precarious artist wage:

1. Cultivating more sales and revenue:

A core part of being an artist is being able to publicly present artwork via exhibition, develop an audience-base and be known in the arts marketplace. FINELINE assists artists by offering access to these opportunities, online, which sets them up for improved revenue generation, reaching extended audiences.

2. Enhancing business confidence and knowledge: OCAD

OCAD U’s FINELINE offers emerging artists a one-stop shop to critical business resources they require to be successful and generate profits. Emerging artist-entrepreneurs at OCAD U have vocalized how access to an ongoing support system after graduation could be extremely beneficial and propel increased confidence when pricing their work or developing client-buyer audiences.

3. Pooling profits, equitably:

FINELINE is based on the co-operative concept of equitable sharing. This means that all co-op members shoulder and equally distribute responsibility for the business operations of FINELINE. This business structure alleviates the burden of business risk from falling to one person – as is the case in solo entrepreneurship. Instead, through FINELINE, artists can gain some income predictably necessary to maintain focus on creative production. FINELINE thus equally facilitates business sustainability and creative production.


Key Takeaways 

The worker cooperative movement has helped millions of people around the world improve wages and financial predictability. Such workplace alternatives have not only allowed workers to cooperatively own and govern their economic activity but have cultivated the vision of producer and platform cooperatives today. Co-ops thus play a critical role in the ongoing development of co-operative innovation including more equitable and sustainable creative labor, inspiring a new creative class.  

The points threaded throughout this post may assist policymakers in determining how to better support artists and the creative economy. Policymakers may further support the growing platform cooperative movement by continuing to invest in digital strategy initiatives, focused on reducing artist precarity and increasing equity in the arts marketplace. Policymakers may also want to consider grants that address the unique contributions of creative entrepreneurs that cultivate Canada’s abundant cultural and creative economies. Through such policy interventions, the opportunities for artists to create meaningful work for Canadians is endless.


This article was peer reviewed and edited by the Cultural Policy Hub administrative team at OCAD University.

Fineline is a project of OCAD University with support from Future Skills Centre to incubate the marketplace and a co-operative that helps artists and designers grow their business online, while developing cultural entrepreneurship skills.