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Artists, Art Practice and the Arts Market

March 16, 200816 March 2008

Special Issue: Visual Arts Summit

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In the context of dismal earnings statistics for visual artists (average earnings of only $18,700 for visual artists and $15,500 for artisans and craftspeople, well below the average earnings in the overall labour force in Canada – $31,800), it is not surprising that the issue of the need for artists to make a living was a key theme of the Summit.

One artist noted that: “The profession of artists should be viable, not suicidal. Individual artists are human. We cannot dismiss the human needs of the people who make the stuff that this industry is based on. Artists don’t fit neatly into systems. We disrupt. We are an untidy problem.”

A number of other participants reiterated the argument that there is a lack of concern for the conditions of working artists. Some wished to demand a minimum wage for professional artists.

As expressed by participants:

  • “Art making is not an act of charity.”
  • “Poverty is the ultimate issue for artists.”
  • “It is time to form a coalition with other disadvantaged people in society to address such issues as poverty and housing.”

Compared with other Canadian workers, visual artists’ earnings do not increase substantially with age or education. Some participants indicated that “there is very little for mid-career artists. There are countless opportunities for emerging and established artists, but mid-career artists are left in limbo.” “We need more steps for artists to ascend, more glory, more successes.”

Others noted that very few contemporary artists live from their sales.

There was much discussion of the idea of a Public Lending Right model – where writers receive royalties from libraries. Could a fund be created for museums to pay artists for the exhibition of their work? As noted in the announcement at the beginning of the Summit, the idea of a new Exhibition Right Fund is being explored.

Another discussion highlighted the need for affordable, raw studio spaces in cities. In addition, many art materials are highly toxic. Could there be a study of artists’ occupational health and safety?

One participant noted that there is currently unprecedented art market activity. Is it artificial? Will the bubble burst? In theory, having more art collectors should mean a better living for artists and art dealers. However, in other discussions, a participant noted that “the secondary market leaves artists completely out of the loop.” Questions concerning private collectors include their appropriate role (if any) in the formation of public policy and their obligation (if any) to collect Canadian art.

Another market issue concerned the relative lack of representation of Canadian artists at art fairs in Canada and abroad.

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