Some uncomfortable truths about the Canadian contemporary art scene

I was talking with a discouraged and candid gallery owner (of a very respected and established contemporary gallery) the other day who had some things to say about art in Toronto and Canada. It was refreshing, insightful and full of perspectives I have heard muttered and hinted at during my hundreds of gallery visits over the last year and a half.  I had also arrived at many of the same conclusions, and realize that burn-out and embitterment are two very real destinations for art workers in Canada – hard work only counts for so much, unfortunately. I have compiled a quick, simple list of these observations of Canadian contemporary art at this time in our history.

  • Art critics dream of being interviewed by other art critics and this is their sole motivation. Remember this.
  • You cannot publicly critique mid-career artists, critics or curators or your own career will be damaged.
  • Art in universities is isolated and focused on social activism and issues and therefore is beyond the realm of aesthetic / formal criticism. Art programs in universities are fundamentally compromised by a grading system designed for dimwits in other academic areas and applied to an area that, in essence, is populated by bright minds unsuited for such bureaucracy.
  • Canadian curators have never made an impact internationally or historically.
  • A common international criticism of Canadian contemporary art is that tries too hard to be appear intellectual. The result is boring but safe work.
  • Successful public gallery / commission artists tend to write more than produce work, and the art work should be manufactured / fabricated to deflect any criticism of technique. This perception has resulted in many talented painters giving up hand-done work and becoming lost in the realm of cheap, small-scale theater because they cannot write very well and therefore cannot afford the manufacture / fabricate their concepts.
  • On your own merit you cannot make a living in the contemporary art scene. Most successful artists, curators and independent gallery owners are already privileged individuals with another source of support be it family or spouse. Therefore, they have no idea what it actually takes to become successful and their work reflects that. The following generation mistakenly assumes these people are the model of success and suffer greatly and unnecessarily as a result.
  • The Canadian public are snobbish, puritan and convinced that entertainment is the measure of the success of any artistic output. The vast majority of people will not go to a gallery even once a year. Most assume there is an admission fee, and if there is not then they are deeply suspicious that it will not be entertaining and therefore will not attend.
  • The dream of artist-run gallery culture to counter many of the criticisms above has been compromised decades ago by individuals who “squat” in the paid 1, 2 or sometimes 3 administrative positions forever. The public funding system must take responsibility for this as well as those who have received funding are able to continue receiving funding but new centers find it next to impossible to receive funding unless they can exist and produce publications for a length of time and veracity that demonstrates they do not need funding to survive.  Those artists with jobs inside the funding agencies will not risk changing this either for fear of their jobs, and those who protest are ostracized by all concerned. The cyclical and expectant culture of “not rocking the boat” thus continues, and no truly experimental and progressive work is produced.
  • Perhaps the most discouraging truth dispels the myth that artwork sells in Toronto. That’s what I thought when I moved here as many across Canada thought and still do – but there is a dirty secret. The truth is that successful galleries and artists in Toronto make their living by selling work in the USA. It is a bleak landscape that compared to the rest of Canada, Toronto is a great place to sell and exhibit work.

Young, ambitious and creative individuals are stifled from reaching their potential as a result and the best and brightest are the targets of “brain drain” to other industries or internationally – as they should be.

Am I too old to move to California?

One comment

  1. Art Dealer · September 13, 2010

    A super post – very interesting indeed and somewhat disturbing… what is happening to the Canadian contemporary art market?

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