Alberta’s creative economy: contributing socially, economically, culturally

By ATB Financial 3 March 2021 7 min read

The United Nations (UN) has declared 2021 as the International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development.

The UN defines the creative economy as “the sum of all the parts of the creative industries, including trade, labour and production,” further stating that, “today, the creative industries are among the most dynamic sectors in the world economy providing new opportunities for developing countries to leapfrog into emerging high-growth areas of the world economy."

Creative industry is an umbrella term for a wide range of sub-sectors dedicated to the generation and/or delivery of knowledge and information. This includes fields ranging from advertising to architecture to performing arts to software.

In this three-part series, we’ll be exploring:

  • Alberta’s creative economy and how it ties into sustainable development;
  • The growing “source local” movement; and
  • How cities are driving sustainability best practices.

Creative thinking. There’s no question that during a time when economic diversification is top of mind for many, the ability to think creatively and take an unconventional approach to problem solving is a major asset. With process-driven jobs being increasingly automated, creativity is becoming more and more in demand as a skill set for a wide range of industries.

The creative economy is one sector in which creative thinking is front and centre. According to Alberta Partners for Arts and Culture, it’s also a sector that:

  • Provides $5.3 billion to the Alberta economy on an annual basis;
  • Creates over 50,000 jobs annually for Albertans; and
  • Contributes over $3 billion annually in Alberta labour income.

And while, like many others, the creative industry has been hit hard by COVID-19 (particularly venue-based organizations like museums and theatres), the global pandemic has also shone a light on the importance of this industry. The creative industry has provided entertainment during a time when people are isolated and housebound. It has continued to deliver cultural experiences in innovative ways. It has risen to the heightened demand for new digital ways to work and engage.

“Alberta's creative economy is constantly changing, evolving and growing,” Derek Stevenson, ATB’s strategic team lead – Branch for Arts and Culture points out. “The very nature of creative endeavours is that they are unique from other business ventures. Alberta is looking for ways to grow and diversify our economy, and I imagine our province utilizing our highly educated population, the creative industry and capital resources for more inventive entrepreneurial and creative ventures.”

Below, we’ll further explore three sub-sects of Alberta’s creative economy.

Screen-based production

Step aside Toronto and Vancouver—there is a new Hollywood North player in town! A recent list compiled by MovieMaker has named Calgary as the tenth best place to live and work as a movie maker (just ahead of Toronto, which came in at number 11). In fact, over the last 15 years Alberta has accumulated more Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe wins than any other Canadian province.

Dylan Rhys Howard, founder of Truthful Work Productions, describes what makes Alberta a good hub for the film industry. “The first thing that comes to mind is the incredible light and the wild diversity of landscape that we have in this province. These are things you still can’t hire an overworked, over caffeinated group of animators to build for you on a computer.”

It’s not all glitz and humble brags though. Alberta’s film sector is responsible for the direct employment of 3,000 Albertans annually, and production spending extends to local vendors, tourism and hospitality. Plus, it means that the likes of Brad Pitt and Kate Beckinsale occasionally spend time in our fair province. Win-win!

One of the producers of the Alberta Government’s COVID LOVES campaign, winner of an A&E Short Filmmakers Award, and director of the CBC documentary Digging in the Dirt, Rhys Howard sees huge potential for the future of the screen-based production industry in Alberta. “We’re at a moment in time where we undeniably have to pivot in terms of our economic diversification as a province. It’s mind-boggling to me that we haven’t doubled, tripled, QUADRUPLED down on film production, because it’s also an industry that can support such a wide spectrum of skills and adjacent industries. As we’ve seen over the last year especially, people have unlimited demand for film and TV. Imagine if we invested in an industry like that.”


Talk about an industry that has had to pivot hard. With the days of concerts and music festivals firmly on hold, musicians and performers have felt the brunt of COVID-19’s economic impacts. Amanda Burgener and Matt Masters are two such performers who saw their livelihoods threatened when the lockdowns began (Burgener plays with the Calgary Wind Symphony and Masters is a country singer-songwriter and guitarist). With a young family at home and bills to pay, the married couple knew they needed to find a way, to not only remain employed but to continue making music, during these trying times. And thus, Curbside Concerts was born."

A curbside concert is a 40-minute performance where an artist arrives at a destination (often a residence, although we have performed at businesses as well), sets up a portable battery-powered speaker, and performs for the household and neighbours,” Masters explains.

Launched in April 2020, Curbside Concerts delivered 550 performances all across Canada by the end of 2020, and has set a goal of 5,000 concerts in 2021. To order a concert, customers visit the Curbside Concerts website and select from a roster of 60+ artists from across the country, ranging from folk to hip-hop. This live music delivery model has put almost $200,000 into the hands of Canadian artists.

Masters is grateful to be able to continue to deliver the gift of music during these times of physical distancing. “Music is fun, but more than that, it is important. Can you imagine a wedding or a funeral without music? When people listen to something together it is the fundamental community experience—think back to ancient times when people would gather to hear stories. It’s an incredibly powerful experience.”

Equity, diversity and inclusion

The UN has declared that there are strong ties between the creative economy and sustainable development, and a major piece of sustainable development is ensuring that equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is the norm. And society, including Alberta, has work to do in this area. That’s where an organization like Creatives Empowered can make a true and long-lasting impact.

"Creatives Empowered is a collective of artists and creatives, both emerging and established,” explains Founder Shivani Saini. “Our primary purpose is to serve as a safe and supportive community for marginalized talent and to empower racialized artists.”

In addition to representing and advocating for their membership, Creatives Empowered also works to increase professional opportunities for Black, Indigenous & People of Colour (BIPOC) talent. Creatives Empowered board member, Michelle Wong, shares how critical these increased opportunities are.

"From an institutional angle, as women have risen through the ranks in the film and TV industries, they have understood the need to share the privilege and power that they have, to share the seat at the table. That’s real change, when it’s more than just a program, when you see that equity at the table.”

In addition to being known as the year of COVID-19, 2020 was also a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement gained significant international attention and spearheaded widespread dialogue.

“2020 was huge as far as changing the public discourse,” Saini recalls. “There is an understanding that things need to change, and there is a desire for this change.”

Saini is looking forward to a time when Creatives Empowered has accomplished its vision. “In an ideal world, there is no need for Creatives Empowered. It becomes obsolete because it is no longer necessary—the equity is there.”

The potential impact from this equity, Saini describes, is “a more diverse and robust ecosystem, with stories being shared that have never been shared before. It will help us to better understand ourselves and each other, and this will create a momentum that will be unstoppable. We’ll move from being an environment that is merely sustaining itself to being one that is thriving.”


This is just a sample of the types of organizations working in Alberta’s creative economy. And this industry is poised for great things. “Since COVID-19 began impacting Albertans we have needed creative thinking, problem solving and innovation more than ever,” Stevenson shares. “The world changed for us all overnight and new challenges have added on to existing ones. I imagine Albertan creatives being the leaders for growing the economy in our province over the next decade, whether that is through advertising, fashion, film, photography, music, performing arts, software, computer games or video games.”

Interested in learning more about Alberta’s creative economy? Listed below are a few resources to check out.


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