Tag Archives: galleries

Get a job

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Years ago in Ontario we ushered in a new conservative provincial government who brought with them something called the “Common Sense” revolution. As I was young and lived a fairly unstable lifestyle I noticed this government’s action’s consequences over time – the most damaging of which have never been resolved. Almost half my friends in my art community quit or took teaching jobs. The rest of us struggled on. Some moved away from a city like I did. Some left the country.

In the years following many of us tried to figure out how best to live our lives under a new paradigm where we all had to become art-terpreneurs, use small business as a winning example of how to be an artist (“you make product don’t you?” I was told) and be shoved through the degrading vortex of Richard Florida’s “creative cluster” zeitgeist. We were held up as an example of how to gentrify our city’s neighbourhoods and told over and over and over how much money the arts contributed to the overall economy. We were an economic engine! Oh goody, I even used the phrase myself.

Our recent exhibition in Toronto. Here is where we engage with what I am going to start calling ‘defiant beauty’.

Meanwhile in my universe incomes plummeted. And lots of peers scrambled back into academia where the thought was that at least there would be steady income. Now the art world runs on academic fumes; art galleries have given over to DJs & nightclubs, and the contemporary work being made seems to be about tech or a sociological context in which talk, consensus, convergence, conversation, and more talk seems to loom larger than anything hanging on a wall or sitting in the middle of a gallery. Language and ideas reign in the new contemporary field. For the rest of us not welcome in this new world order – we just tried to hang onto our studios and hoped for the best.

What we should have all been doing is safeguarding our art worlds against the tyranny of ideologues. We should have been shoring up public support and public money (not grant and council money but actual private sector money in the form of people purchasing art). We should have spent our time not aggressively making our supporters test themselves against a changing world – we should have spent our time reassuring them about art and its importance. We should have spent our time creating more art supporters not more artists.

Ahh but I learned in therapy not to ‘should’ people. As a community the arts in Canada has always worked in an uneasy balance between socialized ideals and nurturing millionaire art stars. I think however things began to get a bit lopsided when the Chair of the Canada Council started calling themselves a CEO. Remember when being a CEO was cool and now it’s public enemy #1? That didn’t take long.

But where to go from here? In Ontario we are now on the verge of a new “common sense” revolution in the form of a new conservative government, although their motto now is “Poor? Get a job.” Their transparent love of hate seems to be a selling point. Yes, and that is where we are in civilization, being run to a certain extent by people who think compassion, justice, fairness is all part of some liberal conspiracy to make everyone gay. And there are Nazis again now too.

Art now for who or what? I guess most of us have just reconciled ourselves with the fact that we will not be saved. We must survive. What gives me hope is the fact that many of my peers who have just steadily continued to work at what they do have gotten very, very good. This may be an epoch of ‘defiant beauty’ – I can only speak for painting at this point. All this “the world is ending, the world is ending” isn’t really having a negative impact on the work. And it never did.

I think the artists who just enjoy their work, make it regularly and do their best to get it out there for people to see are real leaders in this cultural climate. The hope is in the art – it always has been, it always will be.

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amateur hour

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

A very popular blog regarding the disadvantages to being a professional artist made the rounds on social media over the last month. The writer wrote about how being called unprofessional is an insult but the term professional and how it is used doesn’t begin to describe his own art world experience. He went on to debate with himself how the word can be both a moniker for the seemingly smooth transactions among artists and galleries, those artists who know how to act appropriately and also for institutionalized behaviour that holds creativity in it’s mediocre grasp.

It’s a really good article and I sympathize with artists who can’t muster enough of a “go to” personality to walk up to that curator and just introduce themselves. I can’t do that so I get it. I also hear loud and clear how branding/marketing oneself can seem to be cynical and perhaps kill any spontaneity one might have about how they work. He makes an excellent distinction between the rights of an artist and getting paid and how fitting one’s life and work into an economic cycle can prove disastrous to our best working practices.

But I don’t think being an amateur or dilettante is the best solution. I would agree that the years I’ve spent trying to look professional, slick and smartly alive with all the best things put forward has gotten me a modicum of respect but has done absolutely nothing for my bottom line. I see loads of other creative people making way more money than me without knowing how to spell or craft a sentence. Or brush their teeth before attending an opening or even being nice. In fact I believe, in Toronto anyway, it seems like the more disengaged you are the better your chances of success because no one seems to like enthusiasm. I’ve often quelled my reaction to art at openings for fear of being seen as an idiot – forgetting that I’m supposed to not care and then shuffle off to a bar and not talk about what you’ve just seen.

I will always remember someone telling me that they began weeping in front of a Paterson Ewan and their companions asked embarrassedly, “What’s wrong with you?” To which he replied, “What’s wrong with you?” I love that.

My niece exploring the art gallery. Kids need to know right away that someone made that painting.
My niece exploring the art gallery. Kids need to know right away that someone made that painting.

Being professional perhaps isn’t the best mode of behaviour as an artist; it’s too much to ask and way beyond the work you want to just make. But the alternative is what exactly? By acting disengaged, or being slovenly or just being without guile can’t be the answer either. How to navigate the world of art without compromise but being able to pay your bills is all of our goals. It is a balancing act that no one can understand until they actually live day to day working almost entirely on making art work. Who does it well and how?

I would say that a large portion of the really successful artists tend to have some kind of capital in their background – a financial cushion so to speak. I don’t resent these people I only wish we all had that; it would make for a level playing field. But we don’t and we can’t go on and on complaining about it since this is a fact of life that will never change unless there’s a miracle and basic income is ushered into our lives. I have spent way too much time on the issue myself and I am definitely done.

However I do think that by changing (and attitudes are definitely changing) our ideas about what we do we stand to reinvent how we see our selves as professional. We are workers really. We are part of the labour movement and the labour movement is definitely reinventing itself. Branding and marketing ourselves isn’t something we throw out of the mix but we move it to the periphery of our working lives. We should now just get engaged in the sea change that is happening all around us: people matter and what we do is how we create our world. It’s a shift really, not a total revolution. It’s just a shift in thinking and acting.

We begin by helping each other, by forgoing our need to be defined as magicians and geniuses and join the world of the worker. This idea is all around us as artists have now created collectives and partnering situations that are advantageous to everyone and fighting for fairness all the time. We could start by getting more engaged with how art work, regardless of medium or trends, is all made by people. It’s our flesh, blood and bones at work here, its all we have and the grace that can come from the simple act of work is our gift.

Artists of the world unite. Just kidding. No, actually I’m not. Think about it….

photo by Mariellen Ward