Quizzing the Ontario Arts Council
by Heather Fraser
Reprinted with minor changes from Art Business: a newsletter
on the economics of art, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April, 1995).
One of the five "priorities" in the Ontario Arts
Council's Meeting New Challenges, OAC Strategic Plan, 1994-95 to 1996-97
is "Priority: The Artist in the Marketplace". With such a promising
title, it seemed only natural to want to know more about this part of the
OAC Plan especially when the first line of it reads: "The OAC will
support the ability of artists to earn a living wage in the marketplace."
Is the OAC tackling the artist's most thorny problem of how to earn a living
from his art?
According to its "Statement of Objectives", found in the Plan,
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." The
OAC subsidises the creation of art and its presentation to the citizens
And yet, perhaps the OAC understands that to encourage an increase in product
without encouraging the public to do more than just look, to actually buy
it, results in an excess of product and frustrated producers. That promising
section "Priority: The Artist in the Marketplace", lists a number
of subsidised means of distribution (art museums, artist-run galleries,
and exhibitions) that bring the artist "into the marketplace":
"Creation and distribution form a consistent whole, beginning with
the initial creative act and moving through development, refinement and
into the marketplace." It is this repetition of the word marketplace
--"into the marketplace" and "living wage in the marketplace"
-- which gives such promise as well as a sense of expectation.
Is this promising meeting of subsidised art and subsidised public exposure
successful in terms of making money for the artists? The following questions
were faxed to an informed source (who preferred to remain unnamed) at the
OAC and responded to in writing. Both questions and responses are published
with the approval of that same OAC source. The OAC is exempt from the Freedom
of Information Act and discloses information at its own discretion.
ABM: According to your Strategic Plan, the "OAC recognizes the
importance of the issue of distribution in the broad sense of how art and
the artist meet the marketplace". At the areas of distribution is it
fair to say that simply through exposure of product, the market will buy
the artist's work?
OAC: The process we encourage is creation and distribution through channels
such as public galleries or artist-run centres. We hope that through exposure,
the artist sells something. The public art museum is not there to sell,
only to expose -- but this exposure can serve as a stepping stone to selling
ABM: Is the intent of the subsidised distribution channels, where the artist
meets "the marketplace", to sell the artist's product? If so,
who sells it? Are these people trained in sales techniques?
OAC: The artist is responsible for selling his or her own works (see question
ABM: Have you been able to assess the results of your encouragement of "distribution
OAC: It is an allocation of resources problem. Annually, we subsidise 2,000
artists and 1,000 organisations and institutions. It is built into the reporting
process of funded institutions -- they have attendance figures -- but we
can't keep track of the artists.
ABM: What about business skills for artists?
OAC: Training for these skills is available in schools and through continuing
education. The artist can also learn from experience.
ABM: You mention [in our discussions] supporting artists' training in promotion
and marketing skills. How many artists have had this training?
OAC: No way of knowing. 500 artists per year attend Ontario Contact and
Contact Ontarois combined which offer marketing workshops. OAC also funds
service organisations to provide marketing training services.
ABM: Is one of the goals of the OAC's subsidisation of art to foster independence
OAC: Yes, of course. We give money to artists and insist on artists' fees
when they exhibit at spaces we fund in order to give the artist time to
produce more art. Our assistance may limit the artist's need for alternative
employment. We buy time for them to do work, to build up a body of work
and get exposure.
One may draw many conclusions from this dreary exercise, not the least of
which is that the OAC appears unable and perhaps unwilling to assess the
success or failure of its "priority" program "Artist in the
Marketplace". This may be, in part, because the OAC defines its activities
as objectives not as goals -- goals, by definition, are measurable and have
time frames. Another conclusion one may draw is that this OAC "priority"
is something of a red herring. The use of the term marketplace suggests,
to this writer, a specific concern with the sale of art which is not the
case in this section of the OAC Plan. The oddly phrased first line
of the section was a first clue: "The OAC will support the ability
of artists to earn a living wage in the marketplace."
One final question was faxed to the OAC: "Is the visual artist's financial
success in the marketplace a priority objective for the OAC?"
An answer was not forthcoming.
OAC employees are sympathetic to the economic hardships of artists and "hope"
that they will sell their art. Clearly, however, the OAC itself does not
have as one of its objectives the sale of the visual artist's product. The
OAC's unmeasurable objectives are: to subsidise the creation of art products
and to expose them to the citizens of the province. Which is exactly what
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