Surviving a pandemic will be hard for most small businesses. But if you’re an artist-run start up with a revenue model based in events …

What do you get when you combine precarious labour, a co-op start-up, and a pandemic? A major struggle for survival, that’s what. But you also get opportunities to do things a bit differently.

A great example of this is Vancouver Artists Labour Union Cooperative or VALU CO-OP – a for-profit worker co-op formed shortly before the pandemic hit North America. A group of artists and cultural workers started this unique business to help provide stable work to its membership.

Doing Art Work Differently

With a revenue model based largely on events and conferences, a recently purchased piece of expensive equipment, and a new studio, this creative group had to shift their thinking quickly once the shutdown took place. What they chose to do might surprise you.

“We were barely off the ground as an organization, and then the pandemic hit,” said Catherine de Montreuil, VALU CO-OP’s board president in a recent interview with Canadian Art Magazine. “We watched our entire income model deflate, because all of the goods we produce are often given out at conferences and the like by our union partners, and those events have been unilaterally cancelled.”

The founders of this innovative blend of union (The Arts and Cultural Workers Union or ACWU — IATSE Local B778) and worker co-op set up the business specifically to help address precarious labour among arts and culture workers – a labour source historically, culturally, and socially linked to precarious work long before the sharing economy made it a part of everyday life.

The longer-term aspirations of the group include representation of arts and culture workers – including freelancers – throughout BC, and an offer of extended, portable health benefits and other resources for its membership.

A Need to Adjust

To create revenue to reach these goals, the group purchased printing equipment and secured a studio space. But, with the shutdown of the province, the main distribution lines for their products – events and conferences – shut down along with everything else.

“We just bought a really beautiful, fancy printer, so we can work with a huge range of print materials. We also do screen printing: T-shirts, tote bags and other campaign materials, like buttons and stickers,” said de Montreuil. “That is essentially our income-generating model; it’s how we’ve created jobs for ourselves, and how we are building funds.”

Faced with this kind of challenge, more traditional businesses have shut down or turned to online and delivery type solutions. Many have pared down their workforces and leaned on government supports to make it through. While VALU CO-OP has also adopted some of these tactics, and benefitted from external supports, they chose to do something a bit different.

Choosing to do better

They took the opportunity to use their talents to do some good. They designed a bunch of merchandise, set up an online store, partnered with Coming Together Vancouver, and are promoting this merch across Canada to raise money for the non-profit while also providing a revenue stream to help keep their membership employed.

“[…] it felt weird to just be looking out for our own survival at this time, when so many people are in need,” said de Montreuil. “So we’ve partnered with Coming Together Vancouver on a mutual-aid project.”

Coming Together Vancouver is a “grassroots initiative facilitating mutual aid” and linking people to share resources. To support the initiative, the artists designed a retail collection to promote across Canada with the surplus funds generated going to Coming Together Vancouver.

“It’s a way for us to survive this difficult time while also leveraging what we do have in order to provide support to our community,” said de Montreuil.

The strength of a network is the advantage of a co-op

Without question, the network strength of membership and clear purpose of the co-op may help it survive a pandemic. But, with innovative thinking, like engaging in a mutual aid effort to maintain a revenue source, the co-op has an opportunity to do more than simply survive.

What makes a co-op different is both structural, in how it distributes profit and decision-making, and in how it organizes and energizes its ownership base – its members.

Members are the beating heart of any co-op. Together with a clear sense of purpose and focus, the co-op model has a history of being able to mobilize the network strength of membership and weather a crisis. We wish VALU CO-OP all the best as they work together to weather this one and survive a pandemic.

To learn more about how you can support the mutual aid project, visit