Where are Canada's starring artists? - Macleans.ca

Where are Canada’s starring artists?

Canadian art has its lovers and its haters, but it needs a new funding model—and more Canadian eyes on it

Close up of writting on Ken Nicol cluster fuck 254,000: homage to the fuckin' square I & II, 2015 ink on paper (diptych) 48" x 48" - each. (Ken Nicol/Olga Korper Gallery)

Close up of writing on Ken Nicol cluster f–k 254,000: homage to the f–kin’ square I & II, 2015 ink on paper (diptych) 48″ x 48″ – each. (Ken Nicol/Olga Korper Gallery)

The first meme posted to the Instagram account “CanadianArtWorldHaterz” featured a car wedged between vehicles, parked on its side. A metaphor for art graduates who can’t find a place in the country’s art scene, the post got traffic in mid-March and attracted a flow of further submissions (also triggering the creation of an opposing feed, “CanadianArtWorldLoverz”). The account’s anonymous curator has since posted memes to slam the state of art in Canada, daily.

In the post-postmodern spirit of trollism, the memes tap into a sentiment that Canadian fine art is in the midst of an epic fail. The country hasn’t produced household names in the field since the ’60s, and the long-deceased Lawren Harris, Emily Carr and Jean-Paul Riopelle still account for a third of Canada’s international art sales. Defenders offer the excuse that Canada lacks venues to expose new artists and the public lacks love for art. Yet the memes pry at problems nobody raises: some artists’ work is too obscure to sell, while art funding is spread so thin that appealing artists don’t rise to fame.

READ MORE: Inside the sale of Lawren Harris’s Mountain Forms

“We lack champions,” says Stephen Ranger, business vice-president at Waddington’s auction house in Toronto. “We haven’t created a sort of star system in the way that other countries have, and I think that’s what needs to happen if we’re going to dial forward.” The Canadians closest to achieving name-brand recognition include Michael Snow, Jeff Wall, Brian Jungen, Douglas Coupland and Carl Beam. But compared to America’s Jeff Koons or Britain’s Damien Hirst (one of the “young British artists” famous enough to earn the acronym the YBAs), Canada’s front-runners are—who?

Without big shots, art venues are suffering. The Museum of Inuit Art in Toronto closed last year; Sotheby’s auction house shut down its Canadian gallery in 2013, and other galleries have followed suit, leaving four auction houses and one privately funded museum, the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C. (the U.S. has more than 7,000 art galleries and dealers). Art magazines like Parachute are dropping off, but Canadians flock to exhibits like Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, curated by Steve Martin.

If Canada wants artistic lions, then funders must concentrate money on the best artists rather than spread it thin. The Canada Council for the Arts sprinkled its grants across 19,476 artists last year, giving an average of just $1,820; as of 2017, it will dedicate a quarter of its grant money to first-time recipients. “I do not think the art world should be totally democratic,” says Olga Korper, owner of a gallery in Toronto, though she acknowledges the Council does consider merit to some extent. “I think stars are a wonderful thing,” she says, but in Canada, “we seem almost embarrassed and apologetic and knock them off their pedestals.” She adds, “Only in Canada could passion be mistaken for asthma.”

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Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft began her career because she received a grant in 2006 of $80,000 over two years. “I can tell you, it changed my life,” she says, noting it allowed her to quit her day job. But as a juror on a provincial arts council, she hesitates to grant big sums to few baskets. And novices do need money. Dick Averns, a sculptor, performer and photographer, describes a small grant from the Calgary Arts Development as “really helpful,” explaining: “Five hundred dollars means a lot to me right now.”

“Loverz” of Canadian art say it’s doing fine. “Geniuses come along at about the same rate [here] as they do anywhere else,” says Peter Larisey, an art historian at the University of Toronto. “I’d be very careful in dumping on the Canadian art scene at the moment.” Aboriginal artist Kent Monkman recently sold work to the British Museum, and public art is attracting thousands to nighttime festivals like Halifax’s Nocturne and Toronto’s Nuit Blanche.

Yet in the world of “high art”—up-market auctions and international fairs—our geniuses are still going incognito, perhaps because their work is too weird. Canadian artists are tending to focus on feelings of alienation and identity struggles, topics that might be no-brainers for right-brainers, but aren’t always accessible to the wider public. “Otherness has become a buzzword,” says Thorneycroft, who is currently melting toy horses in her oven and remoulding them into “monstrous mutants” that, by her own admission, aren’t “flying off the shelf.” Her previous work explored Indigenous history, but, she admits, “who wants a photograph of a priest ogling a little boy in their house?”

Of course, art would dissolve if artists made work solely to please an audience. Even Toronto’s Korper stresses the need for artists to follow their inspiration, and she’s often surprised at what sells. She exhibited one work in which artist Ken Nicol had obsessively written and rewritten a profanity in tiny font; the National Gallery of Canada purchased a two-piece canvas containing a quarter of a million repetitions of “f–k off.”

As for the founder of the “haterz” Instagram account, he might be merely a bitter failure—he’s identified himself as an artist. But anyone who says Canadian art is thriving undermines the need for a better funding model and—no matter how much money artists are granted, or how accessible they make their work—the need for the public to go to exhibits.

Canadian art is out there. Look at it.


Where are Canada’s starring artists?

  1. As an author, I can state unequivocally that the last thing the arts community needs is more funding, or a better funding model. Government funding of the arts is corrosive, and erodes the basis of art. When government funding is available, the funding committees feel compelled to push the envelopes of artistic merits, mostly in order to advance their own personal need to appear to be in step with avant garde sensibilities. This, in turn, leads to an ever increasing gap between what is considered art by those taxpayers from whom funds have been confiscated in order to fund the art, and what is considered art by those disbursing the funds. This devalues all art by extension, and devalues the arts community in general, as it is then (rightly) viewed as parasitical.
    Secondly, government funding of the arts creates a dependency upon government funding. The availability of tax-based funding creates a tendency for the artist to think of the funding committee as his core customer, and then create works that are meant to please that customer in order to gain funding. Fed by their own desires to appear “cutting edge”, the funding agencies and the artists themselves become entangled in a spiral. The average consumer of art is increasingly alienated by what he is told is “art”, even repelled by it, while at the same time being forced to pay for it.
    Instead of sustaining themselves through the creation and sale of artworks that please the art buying public, thus allowing them the freedom to create works of art that are solely for the purpose of self-expression, tax-based arts funding simply locks the arts into competing for tax-based funds. It’s a lose-lose deal.
    Thirdly, their is a profound irony in the craven willingness of so many artists to accept the funding of government. There is a tremendous irony that the arts communities are apparently so willing to invoke the corrosive and coercive authority of the state in order to fund their freedom of expression.
    A terrible irony indeed.

    • @Bill Greenwood — Bill, I think it’s a balance. Because Canada is such a small market, the audience isn’t big enough to support artists who have to rely soley on sales to the public. A best-selling book in Canada is 5000 units (and advances something like 10-15K only.) Not enough to live on. Same for music, same for visual art. If one creates only for market sales, then you’ll get vast amounts of books about zombies, movies about superheros, songs about bling, paintings about trees. Alternative funding (govt or private) can help ‘better’ art get made. Various filmakers, writers, musicians and so on have been able to grow to a bigger audience precisely because of govt funding. Funding is speed; it can help get ambitious work get made in a year, instead of 3 or 4, done in and around other jobs. (Art making shouldn’t be only for the independently wealthy.)

      Is government funding of business corrosive? Oil companies, Bombardier, all the big banks during the crisis all received backing and huge tax breaks from the government. And there is also funding for small businesses. Is that craven? I’m not sure — maybe it’s as necessary as funding the arts (which adds something like 50+ billion to the economy every year.)

      • Interesting that you used Bombardier as an example, as it’s appropos. Bombardier is no longer in the business of making airplanes. Bombardier’s chief business appears to be that of being a consumer of government grants and subsidies. Aircraft is now a sideline. So, yes, government funding is corrosive. Any business that has evolved to a point where it profits more from government grants than producing a specific good or service is not a viable business, because all businesses will gravitate towards serving the most profitable segment of its concern.
        Businesses such as oil companies and banks do not derive profits from government, so that’s not at issue.
        When you express a concern that forcing artists to be more commercial will result in more art being geared towards pop culture (zombies, superheroes, and trees), the correct response is “So what?” What is inherently wrong with expecting people who wish to make a living from there art top actually do so? What’s wrong with expecting people who wish to make a living, or simply earn money from artistic endeavors, do so commercially? Forcing people who wish to profit from their art to do so in a free market has the added bonus of making them more focused on doing exactly that. It’s also a great reality pill.
        Bombardier is a great example of that. Because of the ready availability of government money to push Bombardier’s bottom line from red to black, it no longer has to focus on the very hard work of making money building and selling airplanes or trains. Robertson Davies made essentially the same comment about Canadian literature. He observed that American writers work tirelessly to write successful commercial novels so that they might become rich enough to devote themselves to writing the Great American Novel. Canadian writers, instead, try to write the Great Canadian Novel in order to receive a Canada Council grant. It’s no coincidence that, because of that difference in cultural philosophies, there are more than 10 times as many commercially successful American novelists as there are Canadian scribblers. The availability of government money has led far too many writers to focus on the wrong customer.
        In my youth, I won several writing competitions, but for many valid reasons chose not to pursue writing. I have no regrets that I chose other avenues in life. After writing a popular weekly opinion column for several years in our local daily, I decided to tackle writing a novel based on a storyline that had been kicking around in my head for decades. I wrote it, and published it as an e-book. From that, I’ve learned several things. One is that I’ll never make a living as a novelist. I’ve also learned how small the market is. Both of my books have been in Amazon.ca’s top 50 for a short period of time, yet I won’t be making any mortgage payments with my royalties. I have also learned that great reviews from the buyers of my books make all the hunting and pecking and deleting and proofreading worth it. That’s what makes it fun, and creating art should be fun.
        And I have learned a lot about the Canadian publishing industry. A lot of it isn’t to like. There’s a LOT of government money dangling out there to entice people to write politically correct books that no one will read, but millions have paid for. My wife and I raised three kids on a very modest income, and I can tell you with complete certainty that there were a few years that the portion of our taxes that funded “the arts” (that we most certainly did not enjoy) was more than we spent simply going out to enjoy a movie. How is that fair?
        The correct answer is that it’s not, and that’s why I vehemently oppose any and all government art funding.

  2. Okay, and where are Canada’s starring patrons? Damien Hirst (vitrined shark) was funded privately by Charles Saatchi, and now Francois Pinault (LMVH). Jeff Koons (balloon sculptures) was funded privately by Eli Broad. Etc. Big ideas take big patrons willing to take some risks, and over some time. The UK, the US and other countries or cities (Rekayvik, Berlin) have marketed themselves as centers of ‘cool’, and have big funding and marketing for avante garde ideas (see ArtAngel in the UK) that help artist go worldwide. Only very recently has Canada even had private collection or foundation spaces (Toronto now has Scrap Metal; Calgary has the Esker etc.) Lots of money in Toronto/Canada, but it’s conservative — the same reason perhaps Silicon Valley isn’t here — and would prefer to spend in New York or Art Basel Miami Beach. Is the cliche true? Canadians aren’t risk takers? Cantnada? Toronot? -K.I.A. PS: I’m not sure the cliche is true… and pssst: patrons in search of some big ideas, see here: http://www.nu4ya.com )

  3. Amazing that in an article about arts funding in Canada you somehow manage to get the name of the Canada Council for the Arts wrong.

  4. I posit the real issue is that the best Canadian Art isn’t being produced by white men (Riopelle and Harris were name checked here) but by women, indigenous peoples, and racial minorities. It’s about a diversity blind spot. These people produce in your face stuff that confronts the white majority beyond the “edginess” of modern formalism. White people don’t like that. Canadians were upset and protested Voice of Fire. Imagine if their deepest seated values are attacked beyond aesthetics. All one has to do is look at the comments on any aboriginal issue on Maclean’s to know why Indigenous artists aren’t “Household Names.”

    • Barnett-We didn’t hate “Voice of Fire” because it was edgy and in your face. We hated it because the government threw several million dollars of confiscated funds down the memory hole to purchase a piece of art that is unimaginative, amateurish, hokey, and devoid of any indications of talent. We could see that we had been scammed, and that the high priced help at the National Gallery were wilfully blind to the fact that the artist had no talent. Far too much of this goes on on the taxpayer’s dime. It’s organized theft.
      I have no problem with people paying outrageous sums of their own money for whatever they consider art. I have a real problem with the government taking money from people by force of law, using said funds to by us gifts that we neither want or need, and then calling us ungrateful when we criticize or question the value of the purchase.
      Get. Government. Out. Of. Arts. Funding. Entirely.
      What about that is hard to understand?

  5. As an professional artist for 24 years now. My view of being an artist in Canada has not changed. As the landscape of how art institutes in Canada has not changed nor evolved.

    I lived in London England for 6 years. I saw how Nicholas Serota and The Tate Modern encouraged young artists. I saw how Charles Saatchi support young talent.

    As Canadians we lack the vision, and for a lack of better words – balls. To really encourage Art and Living Artists in Canada.

    I look at the National Gallery as a graveyard – a crematory.


    Patrick John Mills


    • The very best way to encourage artists is to drill it into their heads that they will likely never make a dime from their art. Full stop. Once they have accepted that premise, we can then encourage them to make artistic endeavors part of their lives. There is nothing wrong with telling an aspiring painter to pursue a career in graphic arts in order to give them the resources to create art.
      By doing the opposite, we have created a culture of dependency in our artistic community, along with a mind numbing conformity. We have created a community of artists focused on “in your face” avant garde works meant to catch the eyes of funding councils. The “art” being created tends to follow the pattern of success of other artists who got funding.
      By teaching artists to pursue true self support, and the self funding of their artistic goals, we free them to create art for the sake of art, and we free the citizenry to consume art on their own terms, as well. Only those artists with drive and talent are then rewarded.
      By using monies confiscated from the citizenry to fund only that art which pleases the appointed apparatchiks of the state, we make the artists themselves agents of tyranny.