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 of Ontario.

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 their work.

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 #1).

ABM: Have you been able to assess the results of your encouragement of "distribution channels"?

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 from subsidisation?

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 it does.

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