The Visual Artist Today:
More powerful than a locomotive?

by Heather A. Fraser.

There are contradictory views on what it means to be a visual artist in Canada today. The artist appears both as a cause for support and as a capable cultural hero. The postage stamp belongs to Canadian Artists' Representation and Artists' Legal Advice Services, Toronto, Ontario.

Some Canadian artists are asked two questions in this article:
Ron Bloore
Kim Moodie
James L. Keirstead
Mary Dawn Allen

Revenue Canada defines the professional artist
The new Canadian Artists and Producers Professional Relations Tribunal (whew) grants union status to artists

Alvin Balkind, a visual artist and cultural worker, suggested in 1981 that Canadian society was unable " maintain a conception of [its] own continuity and integrity." However, there was hope for Canada in the future. And leading us out of our own confusion, Balkind continued in the now defunct magazineVanguard , would be our stalwart and clear-minded Canadian visual artists:

"Contrary to the old myth, artists are by no means a dreamy, romantic, impractical breed. They are more likely to be clear-minded, highly rational, capable of handling dispute, more assured than corporate lawyers, more engaged in the reality principle than businessmen, and certainly at least as close to a grasp of the sum of things as politicians and philosophers."

Fifteen years later, is the artist still able to leap tall buildings, more engaged in reality than the businessman? Hyperbole notwithstanding, if the artist of the 1970's saw himself as a challenged but confident leader, how does he view himself today? In 1996, does he see himself as a cultural hero, a businessperson, a lawyer-like professional, a seer, a lackey, all of the above? In search of some answers, Art Business posed the following two questions to some Ontario visual artists:

1) Is being an artist a job, a profession, a business, or something other? Briefly explain.
2) What prevents most Canadian artists from making a living wage at their art?

Here are the responses:

Ron Bloore, Ontario
1) It's a profession. I spent my life teaching to paint. My avocation is to teach and my vocation to paint. 2) ...the nature of the culture of the country. I don't mind. I warn my students that they will have to do something else for a living. On the whole they don't really care as long as they get a sufficient number of hours to paint. I could do well painting something else but it would be dishonest. Portraiture has always done very well.

Kim Moodie, Ontario
1) Being an artist is a profession and a business. An artist is like any other professional, a writer or a film director. At the same time the artist must be aware of the economics of his profession. 2) The size of the population isn't there to support a thriving commercial scene. As well, the Canadian population is not well educated about visual art.

James L. Keirstead, Ontario
1) Anyone who can make it in the art world is blessed with being able to do what they love. The happiest people are the ones doing what they really want to do. Not all artists have the drive to put out the volume. Only a few are going to make it big and those are the ones who have a popular product and who hustle like crazy. In a job you work for someone else. It is a business and you have to understand all aspects of business. If you don't, you're in a dream world.

There's no such thing as an artist's agent. You'll just be cutting out a portion of your income. You must go and visit galleries and the art goes on consignment -- no one takes a chance on buying outright unless the works are really cheap. A young artist will walk into a gallery and see a painting and say "I can do better than that" -- the dealer might like to sell this for $1500. because he bought it for $300. The young artist isn't even going to make 50%. If it hasn't sold in a few months, if it's not moving, he'll not be invited back. If you are growing with your painting, it is the best of times. The tough part is all the business. We would like to all have an agent and dump it all on someone else. You need to attend to it all.

2) There are too many artists and not enough buyers. Out of 50,000 people, 10,000 have taken a painting course and make their own art. There's not a lot of art market left. Society doesn't seem to be encouraging. The biggest thing is to get out and show your work and get several dealers. Your subjects have to appeal to people other than yourself. If you don't want to compromise that's fine but if you wish to sell... every year I turn out paintings for my own taste alone, many of them don't sell. After you've got many of these, the appeal of painting for yourself diminishes. When it doesn't work out you've got another painting on your hands. You need to price it low enough for the market as well.

Mary Dawn Allen, Ontario
1) When I am creating an idea in my mind or looking at a finished piece, I feel that being an artist is a profession. When I am actually making a piece, the labour involved, the exposure to toxic substances, the mess and my sore back all make me feel like I have a job (my pay can make me feel like an amateur or hobbyist).

2) I don't think this can be easily answered and probably can't be changed even if all the reasons are known. There are many people, artist or not, who feel they should be paid more for what they do. Everyone's idea of what a "decent living" would be, is different. I think the artist faces the same dilemmas of most self-employed people. You just don't get paid for all your time. If you did, there would be only professional artists and no hobbyists. What art is worth is more than just the total of hours and cost of supples required to actually make a piece (Ah, yes, the "perception problem" of what art is worth). It's the non-tangible part, what is passed from the artist to the viewer's mind and soul that is so hard to price and be paid for. Some artists would say monetary value is not what art is about, others would say they can't be paid enough for what their art takes out of them. No matter how understanding the public may be, however, they can't spend what they don't have. I hope what they do buy makes them feel something and that the art is not purchased solely because of who created it or it's price.


The Federal Government and Revenue Canada have no problems defining the occupation of the visual artist as a profession. And the Status of the Artist Act (passed June 23, 1992) clearly distinguishes the professional artist from the amateur by the professional artist's "reasonable expectation of profit". This "expectation" is reviewed in Revenue Canada's Interpretation Bulletin No. IT-504R :

"Section 9 of the [Income Tax] Act provides that a taxpayer's income for a taxation year from a business is the profit therefrom for the year. The concept of profit is critical in determining whether a taxpayer's artistic activity or literary undertaking constitutes the carrying on of a business or is merely the furtherance of a hobby or interest of the taxpayer that is of a personal nature...."

The Bulletin lists some factors contributing to the visual artist's reasonable expectation of profit. These include (to paraphrase):
(a) the extent of time devoted to artistic... endeavours....
(b) the extent to which an artist... has presented his own works in public and in private settings....
(c) the extent to which an artist is represented by an art dealer or agent....
(d) the amount of time devoted to, and type of activity normally pursued in, promoting and marketing of the artist's own works....
(e) the amount of revenue received... from sales, commissions, royalties, fees, grants and awards....
(f) the historical record, of annual profits and losses....
(g) a variation, over a period of time, in the value or popularity of the individual's artistic works....
(h) the type of expenditures claimed....
(i) the artist's qualifications as an artist... as evidenced by education and also by public and peer recognition....
(j) membership in any professional association of artists... whose membership is limited under standards established by that association....
(k) the significance of the amount of gross revenue derived by an artist... and the growth of such gross revenue over time....

The Status of the Artist Act was used in May, 1995, to establish the Canadian Artists and Producers Professional Relations Tribunal. In essence, this Tribunal grants union status to groups of self-employed Canadian artists. Art Business asked a representative for the Tribunal how unionisation would benefit visual artist co-ops, for example. The rep stated that a co-op, once certified by the Tribunal, would have the right to ask federal cultural institutions to negotiate terms of exhibition (the National Gallery is the only crown art museum in Ontario). A real benefit to union certification would be the legal right to establish pension plans, or obtain lower group health insurance rates. It seems that CAPPRT is clearer on union benefits to performing artists.

There does not appear to be a concensus as to how the activities of the visual artist might be viewed in 1996. There are, however, forces pushing the visual artist to consider, in ever greater depth and seriousness, the real criteria of a professional. And, as a professional one thing is clear: if you are not striving to make money at your art, you are an amateur.

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