Self-fulfilling Prophecy in Post-Secondary Visual Art Education

In 1993, 51% of Canadian visual artists reported having a university degree compared with 15% of the total Canadian labour force (1991 Census). Such a well educated group and yet, in 1993, the visual artist's average income from his art was $8800. If the 51% was instructed as this writer was (during the 1980's) it is likely that they learned that because the visual arts are undervalued by society, artists will never make a decent living at art. Is it possible that the average Canadian artist's financial condition is a self-fulfilling prophecy? How is society completely to blame for the artist's troubles but not the artist and the art community?

What is taught about the relationship between business and visual art in our post-secondary visual art schools? I began with the Dundas Valley School of Art in Dundas, Ontario (near Hamilton). One of the school's stated purposes is "To prepare individuals for careers in the visual arts." To school Director, Trevor Hodgson, this means that the school will teach aspiring "professional" artists to think critically about art and to develop skills in making art. Understanding how to make money from your product is an altogether separate course of study, states Hodgson.

"Obviously, learning business skills, dealing with government, etc. is important," says Hodgson, "But when should that be introduced into the artist's learning? I think that the first thing is to become an artist and then learn those things."

"Business is important but it is not to do with art," continues Hodgson, "Think about a doctor. If he takes his fees in chickens or makes a killing in Beverley Hills as a plastic surgeon it has not a thing to do with the quality of the doctor. Just so making a lot of money or none at all has no reflection on the quality of the artist."

When asked why most artists, "quality" or otherwise, are unable to make a decent living at their art Hodgson considered, "There are so many people who call themselves artists. Only some are going to be successful.... The very nature of art schools is to produce artists."

DVSA is in the business of producing amateur artists. Few of these artists go on to become professionals. Surely, as Hodgson says, supply and demand is a market principle at work on artists and their art. However, there are many variables influencing the economic picture. At art school, still, the artist rarely if ever encounters any dialogue on solutions to an ongoing and fundamental economic problem: most artists are unable to make a living in their chosen discipline. You don't find many doctors complaining about that.

The new Kingston School of Art, in Kingston, Ont., is modelled on the Dundas school. KSA, a private, non-profit school, is the initiative of teacher-artists laid off by St. Lawrence College, Kingston. KSA's board includes seven artists and one law student. I asked board member artist Richard Buff where the school is located and how they have funded it. The school has rented space at a Portsmouth Elementary School in the Frontenac School Board and started operations Sept. 15/95. The school had hoped to apply to Jobs Ontario for a grant to pay its administrative staff (part timer for small pay) but with current provincial government policy, says Buff, this was not possible. They can afford one part-time administrative person. The school generates some of its revenue from tuition. It has also applied to various Foundations and has had a raffle to raise money for equipment. They have purchased used lithographic equipment from St. Lawrence College.

Avoiding dialogue on making money in the visual arts is part of the hidden curriculum at art school. Hidden curriculum is what students learn outside the formal curriculum. It is the underlying values, prejudices and expectations the students absorb from institutions and teachers. What do art students learn when they see how their school does business? The Kingston school's model DVSA, also a private non-profit school, receives aproximately 25% of its total budget in government grants. The rest of it comes from course fees and fundraising. Director Hodgson, by his own admission, is "not a businessman" but he attempts to make ends meet.

"I've been here 17 years and it has been a constant struggle," states Hodgson, "I've managed to do it here because of my priorities in spending. I cut out cosmetic things like painting the place and we let the roof leak and put buckets on the floor. People accept that."

If this is acceptable to visual art teachers it will be the norm for their students as well. But are leaking roofs acceptable when theatre (as an example of another art form) is gaining tremendous financial ground as popular entertainment? How do artists and cultural workers resolve the root of their financial problems, the fine vs. popular, high vs. low art debate? Remember that Shakespeare was popular entertainment of his day and Michelangelo painted what he was told to paint (or be killed). Such thoughts and questions should be part of a dialogue on economics at the post-secondary level.

Dr. Madeleine Lennon, Chairperson of the Visual Arts Dept. at the University of Western Ontario has some positive and enlightening thoughts on the formal education of the visual artist and his future. Dr. Lennon has observed that students are seeking connections between "the fragments", between courses and programs, between thoughts, "Many students are taking theoretical training at university before going on to community college or a professional school."

Post-secondary students, faced with problems never encountered by their parents, are beginning to discover the value of interdisciplinary studies -- of combining Jean Foucault with Tom Peters. Bringing together previously unrelated forms of knowledge may provide new perspectives and creative solutions. This as opposed to the traditional categorization of knowledge as subjects learned in a particular room at a particular time.

Dr. Lennon believes that we are in a time of great change, "It is a period of rethinking. It's not bad. People must be more creative."


The poverty of artists is often blamed alternately on the government or the public. The government is responsible for the arts, many believe. And the public is unable or unwilling to learn about art. Saying this is about as helpful as stating that artists are unable to learn about business because they are right-brained. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if we taught art school students that as a visual artist one should expect to gross $100,000. a year? It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of another sort.

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