Studies & Facts

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Valuing Artists' Work

First in a series of four stories by Steven Ross Smith.

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Commissioned by Saskatchewan Arts Alliance.

When David McIntyre was a precocious four year-old he liked to pretend he was a composer. He made up pieces at the piano and then asked his parents if it was Beethoven’s, Mozart’s or McIntyre’s music. He was thrilled when they chose Beethoven or Mozart. Though he knew as a child that he would “always be in music,” he had no idea that his four-year old compositional whimsy would become his major in university, and eventually become his adult profession.

As a child Catherine Macaulay always liked drawing and painting, but had never thought it could become a career. There was no model to follow, as there was no visual art program in her high schools in Stewart Valley and Swift Current, and by the time she got to university she’d chosen Library Science. It wasn’t until she was in her thirties, and well into her career as a librarian, that she began to study drawing and painting and understood that painting could be a profession. Even then she didn’t know that she would eventually be driven to take up painting as her life’s work.

Growing up in a minister’s family, David Freeman was encouraged to think for himself and to pursue his interests. This fostering may have given him the combination of creativity and practicality that has enabled him to combine craft, art and business into a satisfying career. He followed his passion for wood and music to become a luthier – a maker of fine stringed instruments. He’s been at it for over twenty years.

In examples such as these we see the concrete evidence of what artists sometimes refer to as a ‘calling’. Many say that they didn’t choose art, it chose them; others make a deliberate choice. Yet art, as calling or as choice, lures the artist along an often precarious path.

The artist’s work – and it is work – is not well understood among legislators or much of the public at large. In a series of four stories I will endeavour to illuminate the work of the artist and the implications of the choice of a life’s work dedicated to an art form – painting images, composing music, writing poetry or fiction, creating and performing dance, making fine instruments, and more. I have talked in depth to several Saskatchewan people whose primary work is creating art – and I use that term to encompass all the arts – and they will be presented in these stories.

But first some history. In 1993 in Saskatchewan, after three years of work, the Arts Strategy Task Force and the Minister’s Advisory Committee, (a group of ‘stakeholders’ – artists and cultural workers, and government representatives) presented a report to the then Minister of Culture, Carol Carson. The report urged “comprehensive legislation” to improve the state of the arts and the status of artists in Saskatchewan. Recommendations included issues relating to the work, health, education, legal protection and economic livelihood of Saskatchewan artists. In 2003, legislation which would have legitimized these concerns was drafted to be presented to the Legislative Assembly. When the house shut down for the election in 2003, the legislation had not been presented. So, for fourteen years, this well-intentioned and beneficial initiative has borne little fruit. One wonders why.

The artist seems an odd and uncategorizable citizen of the modern world - definitely creative, but often seen as eccentric or as subversive, or as a freeloader or frill in society, despite the large number of users and fans of artistic products and services. Artists may be tolerated, but they’re expected to be quiet, to conform, not to confront or challenge the values of society, but rather to merely reflect them. This despite the historical fascination with artists, and the fact that cities and societies that attract the most attention, visitors, dollars, and revivification are those with a great artistic past or current life; for example, Paris, Venice, Athens, and New York.

The artist is like the farmer – a primary producer who is the underpinning of a huge industry that sits on his or her shoulders. Secondary processors, distributors, and administrators almost always receive more recognition and financial gain that the producer herself. The artist’s work is undervalued and misunderstood.

Catherine Macaulay has recently relocated to Val Marie, for love of Saskatchewan’s grasslands geography – to hike, become immersed in the landscape and to paint there. She has “always loved the magic of working with images, paints and ideas”, and she draws on nature as her subject. Macaulay’s dramatic water-colour paintings are very bright, and feature finely-skilled brush-work to render close-up and enlarged images of flora found primarily in Saskatchewan and also in Scotland, her other hiking locale. She is considered to be a successful artist because her sales are steady and at Saskatchewan market prices. Yet she paints slowly – at a pace necessary for her to achieve high quality. A one thousand dollar painting may take six weeks – from research to framing – to complete. And a percentage of the sale price goes to the gallery. The art buying market in Saskatchewan is small, and Macaulay is thrilled that people like and buy her work. Yet she still laments her “low economic power.”

There are many reasons why artistic production is often ‘slow’. The artist is a one-person operation. He or she must research, buy supplies, create, administer, market, correspond, ship, invoice, and more. The artist performs all the tasks which in business are carried out by several specialists. And the dollar value of these supporting tasks most often can’t be incorporated into selling price margins, the way they can with mass-produced retail products. So the artist absorbs these costs herself.

Macaulay also notes the “lack of recognition” for the importance of the work of the artist. “Our role in making this an interesting place to live is so often ignored,” she says. In our celebrity and global culture, ‘stars’ from somewhere else achieve more visibility, respect, and financial gain than artists living, working and contributing in our communities. We’re losing our regard for the local, even here in Saskatchewan.

The job description of an artist exists in a hinterland between being an employee, an entrepreneur, a sole-owner of a business, a research and development lab, a self-employed worker, and a volunteer. The difficulty of defining the artist’s work is evidenced by the fact that, other than art agencies, government and insurance agencies have no categories that accurately define particular artistic professions. “I don’t think the work we do is on the radar for government agencies,” says David McIntyre. David Freeman, who must have insurance coverage for people in his workshop, notes, “There is no category for luthiery at the Workmen’s Compensation Board.”

The value of creative work is often undermined by the common perception that art is a hobby. It can be, but in Canada there are thousands of professional artists – among the 578,000 cultural workers recorded by Statistics Canada in 2001 – who rely on their art to make a living. Because that living can be meager, even when a full-time attempt is made, most artists must also take unrelated employment – as teachers, taxi-drivers, construction workers or administrators – to put food on the table and pay the rent. This takes valuable, often unrecouped, time away from their art-making,

It is the aim of the Status of the Artist legislation to address such issues. Among its recommendations are: a) recognition of the nature of the artists work; b) refining of unemployment insurance rules to allow coverage for some artists; c) inclusion of artists in Workers Compensation and Occupational Health and Safety coverage; d) enhanced professional development opportunities; e) income averaging or stabilization for artists; f) federal and municipal tax reform for artists and art products; g) the right to collective bargaining; h) improvements in grants, copyright and dependent care; i) improved access to arts for audiences.

Some people question the value of the artist in society, and the rationale for special considerations for people who work at making art. It is an interesting experiment – rather than countering every point of attack – to imagine the extreme: a world without music, movies, dance, books, plays, images, fine buildings, rock music, critical thinking, and even television. A bleak world indeed. Yet right in our communities there are people creating such work and warding off bleakness. An intelligent society must value and maintain a milieu in which artistic work can be done and which allows citizens access to creative works and activities.

David Freeman, whose guitars, dulcimers and mandolins sell for between $1000 and $12,000, has travelled as far as New Zealand to teach instrument making. And students have come to Tugaske, to his ‘Timeless Instruments’ workshop (www.timelessinstruments.com/classes.html), from Malaysia, Sweden, Argentina and almost every country on the globe. He says, “I want to make the best acoustic guitars possible so musicians can make the best music there is.” And he believes in something more. “There is something spiritual about luthiery, about working with wood. I see it here. People come here to learn to make guitars, but they learn about themselves – it’s introspective work, it’s a spiritual journey.”

Catherine Macaulay says, “The way I see the physical, the natural world, invites people to look at things intensely and study them. My way of seeing nature, my perspective, is an example of a particular, perhaps different way of looking, and it encourages people to examine how they observe. Our art shows that there are new ways, many ways of looking at a subject, at an issue. This is a gift that artists can give to rest of the world.”

David McIntyre is juggling at his composing desk in Regina these days. He’s creating a piece for pipe organ for Elaine Hanson’s youth ballet; he’s writing a commissioned piece for Jo Boatright, a pianist from Texas; he’s composing a trio piece for the Regina ensemble “Contrast”; he’s writing eight songs in a larger project for the Prairie Pride singers. All these pieces will receive public performance in the near future, to the delight of particular audiences. Despite being so busy, McIntyre earns a “frugal living”. He rarely has months where he earns as much as he did when he was teaching at the Regina Bible College. Yet people are often surprised that a composer makes any money at all.

While McIntyre searches for the right note or chord progression, he is also searching for something more: “Music must move people, it must spring from the human experience, from the human heart. I’m trying to go deep into my own experience to see how something connects with my spirit and how I can render that in music.”

Not all artists look for such a connection, but the creative/spiritual vortex is very often recognized by artists, perhaps because of the solitary and meditative aspect of the work at the core of almost every art. But art also looks outward. Looking that way, David McIntyre sees something positive: “Canadians are becoming aware that cultural expression defines their country in a long-lasting, enduring way. And that cultural expression is the result of the work of creative people.”

There are compelling priorities for Saskatchewan’s and Canada’s citizens these days, from international epidemics to war, to deteriorating environments, to the search for politicians with integrity and vision. But working hard, and often quietly, in our own communities all over Saskatchewan are creative artists, defining the true meaning of Canadian culture, seeking to make something of value that will give pleasure, provoke thought, and endure. Such activity and its result deserve our attention and regard.


Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

© For permission to reprint this article please contact the SAA info@artsalliance.sk.ca