by Heather A. Fraser.

The Train-Man's Vision:

art is important, useful and in no need of protection....
except from people like me.

In 1991, on a train from Toronto to London, I fell into conversation with a man who worked on the floor of the TSE. While admitting that he was a casual observer of the Canadian visual arts, he claimed to know one thing for certain. He looked right at me and said: "It's people like you who are causing problems for the visual arts."

What? Pardon?

At the time I was working as a curatorial assistant for a medium-sized Canadian art museum and his accusation came as a shock. I, who worked for next to nothing so that I could continue to help bring art to the public, was doing damage? Thankfully, I was less offended than I was curious and asked him to explain his charge.

The man believed that with the creation of the "professional" art museum worker, the visual arts were taken out of the hands of the wealthy, priviledged class. This change resulted most significantly in the reliance on government subsidy. He saw the looming financial crunch (in 1991 there was the onset of another recession, as well as hideously large government debts and deficits) as the end to many arts institutions and the forced sale of museum collections of Canadian art. If the collecting of art had remained in the hands of the rich, the visual arts would have been preserved from this impending denegration.

"But what about the "democratisation" of the arts, bringing the goodness of art to all? The rich have no real incentive to bring art to the public." I commented.

"Nonsense." the man retorted. "Our current museums might have been born as promotional vehicles for the businesses which made their owners wealthy in the first place."

"Well, if that had been the case, what guarantee would we have that their corporate collection would represent the unfettered development of Canadian art? They could choose art that suited their corporate aims. Canadians would assume that this corporate taste represented their heritage." I thought I had scored there.

"What makes you think that the collection in the museum you work for doesn't already serve particular non-altruistic aims? That collection represents the tastes and times of the people who built the collection: the board, the director and curator. It would be interesting to compare the creation of a "public" collection with that of a corporation. They might be very similar."

At the time, I was used to two perceptions concerning the visual arts: a) art is good, misunderstood and in need of protection; and b) art is an unnecessary luxury. To the former I responded sympathetically; to the latter, I became defensive. But this: c) art is important, useful, and in no need of protection except from people like me (who see it as needing protection)!

Five years later, the "train-man's" vision is beginning to take shape in reality. Collections of art, taken from the domain of the wealthy, are preserved within subsidised institutions now on the verge of financial collapse. In our zeal to create culture (like it doesn't already happen on its own!) and protect art and artists (from what?), have we built on quicksand? Regardless of how we arrived at the present, art institution staff and boards are now being FORCED to come to terms with an uncomfortable transition in self-perception which the train-man made clear: from misunderstood, vicitimised do-gooder in need of protection, to confident self-sustaining businesspeople. It is an enormous challenge. Already it is beginning to chafe both cultural workers and their supporters.

This past spring the Ontario Arts Council in Toronto, Ontario, experienced a 28.6% reduction to its budget due to Provincial cuts. Provincial Premier Harris was reported in the Globe and Mail (May 16/96) as saying that the OAC as a body "ought to be looked at... Clearly it just isn't the government that thinks that. It's a lot of people donating money, too." In this the Premier was referring to the Chalmers family of Toronto , a well known Canadian "patron" of the arts. In May/96, the family ended its 24 year donor relationship with the OAC. Their reasons for this dramatic move were summarised in a letter from family representatives to the OAC Chairman. In the letter the family states: "... we will never again entrust our money to the whim and fancy of bureaucrats and appointed boards."

Another instance of conflict between an art institution and donors occurred in September/96 when a judge upheld a 1965 agreement between seed donors of the McMichael Canadian Collection (Kleinburg, Ont.) and museum owner, the Province of Ontario. The donors, Robert and Signe McMichael, were concerned that the art museum board was shaping the museum's collection into something other than they intended when they first donated the museum property and their collection to the Province. The couple launched a suit this past summer.

The judge was quoted in the Globe and Mail (Sat., Nov. 16/96): "The intent and purpose of the McMichael Collection was to create a collection of art based on the artists of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries and works of other artists who have made contributions to the development of Canadian art as designated by the [gallery's] advisory committee."

The judge's decision to side with the McMichaels was a blow to the traditional "arm's length principle" which professional curators and museum boards expect. The Collection's Executive Director commented on the now enforced influence of the seed donors over all acquisitions: "If today's decision stands, it will, in reality, mean the scaling back of the collection and exhibiting of this country's heritage."

What in the world is going on in these examples? Is visual art: a) misunderstood, and in need of protection; b) seen as an unnecessary luxury; or c) important, useful, and in no need of protection except from people who say it needs protection? I think we can rule out perceptions a) and b).