Some problems with the Canadian contemporary art market

Had a beer with a commercial, independent gallery owner last night. We talked about some of the realities of the local and national arts economy. We both based our opinions on the fact there are fantastic artists and curators in Canada. With our combined experience and bitterness, here is a brief list of some of the key points:

10. A large population base is the single greatest challenge for the visual arts economy. It is simply a game of numbers and Canada, as a whole and its cities do not have enough people for meaningful sustainment in a “free-market” model.

9. There are no industries in Canada that are “free-market”. They are all subsidized by government in one way or another. Anyone who tells you differently is not to be trusted at their word. Public support of Canadian culture, as opposed to buying an Ikea “art” or mass-produced decorative crap from another country is, is important and valuable. As my friend said “People don’t realize what the have until it’s gone.”

8. Sadly, most painters and non-public galleries must vigorously tap into the American market and attend many international art fairs to turn a profit.

7. Though there is a market for mid-range (50k) work, it is young professionals in condos that drive this and that is a very limited market with a definite end in site.

6. Most professionals, i.e. lawyers, simply prefer a larger flatscreen TV or the next generation of their car to buying art. The blame for this lack of meaningful intellectual engagement can be traced to our shift in education from free and liberal to expensive and business oriented. Canadians are now, more than they ever were, shallow consumers.

5. There is a bias among most Canadians that art is recreation, a hobby that best fits as a column in the parks & recreation budget of a city. There is no real understanding of the significant and positive impact of the arts to the economy.

4. The critical and media community that supports the arts in Canada is  small and insular. It is so small and thin-skinned that there is no tolerance for genuine criticism. What results is a herd mentality of supporting the already successful and the emerging as anointed by others with money and status – common in the art world, but especially the norm in Canada. A neat trick to observe is how some artists who keep getting reviews are already collected by the reviewer.

3. Life as a public artist is full of compromises and uncertainty. A public artist borders on the decorative.

2. Art that is graphically pleasing, as a first impression, sells well.

1. Most successful galleries are located in buildings owned by the family of the galleriest. Most successful artists are financially backed by their wealthy family. In the end, counter-intuitively, this is the opposite intended effect of the merit system and a total free market system would create an environment where this would be the only way to succeed.

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