Selling 'Legitimate' Art:
The Drabinsky and Friedland Galleries

by Heather A. Fraser.

Defining 'legitimate' art.
The Drabinsky and Friedland Galleries.
The public art institution at odds with the commercial gallery.
Threatening art market events.

"We sell legitimate aesthetic choices," explained Marilyn Burnett co-director of the Drabinsky and Friedland Galleries, located in posh Yorkville, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

'Legitimate' is a powerful word. And when one considers its economic implications, the word is even more compelling. But what does it mean? What are the economic benefits and challenges in selling what has been sanctioned legitimate in Canada? This question will be answered employing Marilyn Burnett's gallery as a case study. An answer to the question "what is legitimate art?" is complicated at best.

Defining 'legitimate' art.
The larger Canadian art market is a complex weave of artists, curators, dealers, auction houses, collectors, government, critics, historians, media people and many others. The most knowledgeable participants in this market are educated and committed to art. Their committment generally has earned them strong positions in the market. These people have the power to decide what is legitimate art. These 'legitimizers' -- well known curators, art critics, administrators, collectors, etc. -- also share a taste in art.

In years past, legitimate taste was influenced by developments in European art. After WW II, New York became the world's centre for contemporary art. This outside influence on the market for Canadian art, however, has provoked some loud protests in recent years. Some readers may recall the objections raised by Harold Town in the 1960's over the influence of New York critic Clement Greenberg on Canadian artists. Or Greg Curnoe's nationalistic "oregionalism", a philosophy which held that art created in the Canadian artist's backyard was as valid as anything found in N.Y.

In actually describing legitimate art, however, it is best to simply list some works already deemed legitimate. The following works are represented in Dennis Reid's A Concise History of Canadian Painting : Tom Thomson, Autumn Foliage (1916); David Milne, White Poppy (1946); Paul-Emile Borduas, Fence and Defence (1958); Guido Molinari, Mutation rhythmique (1965). A list of more contemporary legitimate art may be obtained by researching the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario or the National Gallery of Canada, for example.

Legitimate art commands tremendous power within the market. It is revered. An evangelical verve envelopes it and frightens much of the general public away. It is made even more inaccessible by prices higher than most people could ever pay.

Significantly, the very fact that so much money can be made from legitimate art has divided the legitimate market into two camps: those who strive to generate revenue from art; and those who do not. Those in the latter group -- some visual artists, art museum workers, art councils -- generally avoid discussion about the economics of art as well as the economic implications of their activities. The aim of the workers in this group is to produce legitimate art and related products such as exhibitions and catalogues. They are very successful in their efforts. They can largely afford not to strive to make money at their activities because they are subsidised.

In the midst of this awkward market we find the Drabinsky and Friedland Galleries. For Marilyn Burnett of the galleries, the market for legitimate art has two remarkable features: there is little connection between public art institutions and commercial art galleries; and recent market events have had the potential to destroy her gallery.

The Drabinsky and Friedland Galleries.
Originally two separate businesses, the Drabinsky Gallery and the Marianne Friedland Gallery merged in September, 1995. The Drabinsky half is named after part owner and Live Entertainment mogul, Garth Drabinsky.

The Drabinsky gallery deals in 20th century Canadian art and the Friedland gallery deals in 20th century American art. Mrs. Burnett and her husband David, who are also part owners of the gallery, are extremely knowledgeable about art. Dr. Burnett is a graduate of the prestigious Cortauld Institute in London, England. Mrs. Burnett has an MA in Canadian Studies from Carleton University, Ottawa. Prior to opening the Drabinsky Gallery, the Burnetts were corporate art consultants.

At the galleries, the Burnetts do not deal in accessible art such as that produced by naturalist Robert Bateman, or romanticist Trisha Romance. As well, it is "taboo" explained Mrs. Burnett, to exhibit art reproductions. Their gallery sells legitimate aesthetic choices.

The public art institution at odds with the commercial gallery.
The Drabinsky gallery has seen little support from public art museums, stated Mrs. Burnett in a November, 1995, interview. And the Canada Council's Art Bank, when it was buying, never paid them a visit.

"I feel that there is no support from public institutions for our gallery," she continued, "I know that they do not have budgets to purchase, but there is no interest. They do not look at our new artists. They do not send us clients."

Mrs. Burnett believes that there "should be a relationship between public museums and commercial galleries". It would help to develop and maintain a thriving arts community and it would be mutually beneficial.

"We can arrange for them to get gifted. We have connections. Many people call about making donations. Jessica Bradley [Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto as of July, 1995] has never been in our gallery."

Certainly, there is obvious benefit to the dealer befriending the museum, the ultimate legitimizer containing legitimate art selected by legitimate professionals. But why do museum administrators perceive little benefit in such a relationship? While the author was unable to contact Jessica Bradley at the AGO for an answer, there is a logical explanation for the lack of interest art museum administrators have in commercial galleries: there is no economic incentive.

Government intervention has created an imbalance in the art market. There are more producers of art than there are distributors or consumers. Artists and art museums that produce legitimate art, exhibitions and catalogues, outnumber the buyers of those products. Dealers attempting to balance the scales, to further distribution and encourage consumption, are rebuffed by big producers such as art museums. They are rebuffed because the market is driven by producers who do not strive to make money from what they produce.

Case in point, the Ontario Arts Council provides art museums, some visual artists and art groups with substantial grants. According to the OAC's "Statement of Objectives" in their Strategic Plan, 1994-95 to 1996-97 , the OAC seeks: "...a society in which all artists of talent and commitment have full opportunities to create art; and in which all Ontarians regardless of circumstance or location may share the benefits of the arts." Noble, but unbalanced. The OAC does not seek a society in which consumers buy art on a regular basis. Nor does the art museum.

Threatening art market events.
The business of selling legitimate art can be lucrative. Prices can soar. The Drabinsky gallery represents east coast painter, Alex Colville. A small Colville can sell for more than $100,000. However, there are enormous risks in dealing in legitimate art, especially in times of general economic instability.

"There was the Lavalin scare," Mrs. Burnett recalled.

In 1991, Lavalin Inc., a Montreal engineering firm, declared bankruptcy and was forced to sell its assets to pay debt. Its assets included a collection of approximately 1300 pieces of legitimate art, mostly by Quebecois artists. In order to preserve the collection as a whole for Quebeckers and Canadians to experience, the Quebec Ministry of Cultural Affairs provided the Musée d'art contemporain in Montreal with a loan of $5.4-million to purchase the collection. According to MAC spokesperson Louise Faure, who was there at the time, there was thought given to the effect the sale of the collection on the open market would have on dealers. The market for legitimate Quebec art might have been flattened. In fact, a Globe and Mail article (Toronto, June, 25, 1992) contends that pressure was exerted by art dealers on the government to protect the market. According to the article, much of the art was reported to be of uneven quality. Under normal circumstances this art would not have been acquired by the museum. The museum is still struggling to pay back the government loan.

This is one instance where government intervention benefited the commercial dealer. Whether it benefited the museum is another matter.

No wonder Marilyn Burnett uses the word 'legitimate' with ease. She is a knowledgeable participant in the market and recognises the network of support the word evokes. However, an important implication of the word is the power it gives to legitimizers. In Canada, influential legitimizers have persuaded government to continue its support of the production of art. Government intervention also saved many Canadian commercial galleries from potential market disaster. However, intervention has also allowed the market to favor producers over distributors and consumers. A result of this imbalance is that the ultimate legitimizers, the art museums, are allowed to ignore the economic implications of their activities. Without an economic incentive to associate with commercial galleries, art museums may actually be hindering the development of a thriving arts market.

Meanwhile, government continues to cut spending to the arts. And what if subsidy levels hit a critical low? Arts councils may cease to exist. Some art museums may go out of business. And their collections, too large to be assumed by other institutions, would spill out onto the legitimate art market. Prices of legitimate Canadian art would drop. At that point, would the consumers of legitimate Canadian art begin to outnumber the producers of that art? And what of the dealers? No doubt these are questions we will all be facing in Canada in the near future.

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