CANADIAN MUSEUM OF HISTORY, ©CANADIAN MUSEUM OF HISTORY, IMG2013-0173-0014-DM
Alex Janvier, "Morning Star"
Alberta artist Alex Janvier’s mural, "Morning Star", adorns the dome of the River Salon in the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., near Ottawa. Janvier spent three months in 1993 painting the mural with help from his son, Dean. It illustrates the history of the land from Janvier’s Dene Suline perspective and expresses hope for mutual respect.
Several months ago, Clint Neufeld was surprised to learn his ceramic sculpture, Slightly Purple Transmission, had travelled across the Atlantic to be shown, perhaps permanently, at Canada’s much refurbished, art-friendly high commission in London. Canada House, as the diplomatic mission is known, was reopened last February by the Queen, who had the opportunity to view Neufeld’s gender-confused clone of an auto transmission, along with 280 other artworks from across Canada.
The piece’s prestigious new home is a long way from Neufeld’s studio at Osler, just north of Saskatoon. Its remarkable odyssey began three years ago when Neufeld attended the Toronto Art Fair and met Daniel Sharp, who manages the art collection owned by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. Sharp wanted more work by Saskatchewan artists and asked Neufeld to recommend a few artists and forward images. Neufeld’s initial list did not include any of his own creations, but he amended that at Sharp’s request. The result: Foreign Affairs purchased a few of Neufeld’s suggestions, including Slightly Purple Transmission.
As far as Neufeld knew, the sculpture had disappeared into a government vault. But then, several weeks after the Canada House unveiling, he bumped into a friend in Winnipeg who had seen photos of the event. “Congratulations on your work in Canada House,” the friend said. Neufeld replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Where’s Canada House?”
The federal government’s efforts to showcase Canadian art in Britain is just one piece in a complicated puzzle involving millions of dollars in annual assistance to the visual arts. Some is funnelled through individual departments – Foreign Affairs and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development are two major players – but much also goes to the Canada Council for the Arts and the Canada Council Art Bank, as well as national museums and galleries. These institutions support artists in a variety of ways. They may buy work, provide grants to support the creation of new work, or pay artists for exhibiting in spaces where their work is not sold. Such measures give artists greater credibility in the art world and, indirectly, can help increase the value of their work.
Courtesy Canadian High Commission/Photo: Randy Quan
The Queen meets Vancouver artist Gordon Smith
The Queen meets Vancouver artist Gordon Smith at Canada House in London last February. Smith, 96, sitting in front of his oil painting, Reflections, completed the work after touring Canada House the previous summer.
While Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have faced plenty of criticism from the arts community, the complexity of various budgetary regimes can make it difficult to draw precise conclusions about overall trends in arts funding. But one thing is clear: The level of support individual institutions offer artists tends to rise and fall with the health of the economy and the whims of the government of the day.
For instance, the Conservatives like the Canada Council, which spends $18 million a year on visual arts, including $6 million in direct grants to artists, and has relatively low administrative costs. The council’s parliamentary appropriation has increased or remained stable in each annual budget since the Conservatives came to power in 2006, reaching a high of $182 million last year.
But, at the same time, federal budgets have chopped funds from other art-oriented institutions, such as Library and Archives Canada, which preserves a vast collection of historical paintings and photographs, and used to organize shows at its downtown Ottawa location. It owns the entire collection of the Portrait Gallery of Canada, which exists in name only. That’s due to a Conservative decision in 2008 to cancel plans announced by the previous Liberal administration to house the gallery in its own building. The gallery now exists merely as a program of Library and Archives Canada, and circulates occasional exhibitions of mainly historical art around the country.
Meanwhile, the National Gallery of Canada’s budget has been hit hard. Its annual parliamentary appropriation has fallen from about $51 million in the 2007-2008 fiscal year to just over $41 million in 2013-2014. (Those figures do not include an annual grant of $8 million for buying art, which has remained unchanged.)
The most recent federal budget, the last before this fall’s election, left funding for major art institutions relatively intact. (Perhaps Harper took note that his $45-million cuts to arts programs in 2008 were unpopular with voters, at least in Quebec.) Still, the Canadian Arts Coalition, a national organization of cultural workers, businesses and volunteers, reacted by focusing on the Canada Council, noting its funding “unfortunately” was “unchanged.” With inflation, of course, no change is effectively a cut. But, in this era of deficit trimming, the Canada Council might just as easily consider itself fortunate.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development
The department’s art branch has an annual budget of $300,000, including $105,000 to buy art and maintain the collection. The acquisition budget is unchanged since 1990.
That’s certainly the attitude at Aboriginal Affairs, which maintains a growing collection of 4,000 works by indigenous artists. It runs a small gallery, usually offering three shows a year in the department’s towering headquarters in Gatineau, Que., near Ottawa. The total annual budget for the department’s art branch is $300,000, including $105,000 to buy art and maintain the collection. That acquisition figure is unchanged since 1990. “We’re just happy it hasn’t been cut,” says Linda Grussani, director of the art program. The department’s goal is to spend 60 per cent of its acquisition funds on emerging and mid-career artists and 40 per cent on established, more expensive artists. Artists in the collection include such prominent Western Canadians as Alex Janvier, Jane Ash Poitras, Robert Davidson and Faye HeavyShield. Up to a quarter of the collection is on loan at any given time. “We are a very happy lender,” says Grussani.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada /Photo: Lawrence Cook
View of "Beyond Recognition: Aboriginal Abstractions"
View of "Beyond Recognition: Aboriginal Abstractions", a group show last year in the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Art Gallery in Gatineau, Que.
Extensive indigenous collections were amassed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, also in Gatineau, and it once organized regular shows of contemporary aboriginal art. But the aboriginal arts community is worried about the Conservative-driven retooling of the institution, which restyled it as the Canadian Museum of History in late 2013. Two key curators – Lee-Ann Martin, who oversaw contemporary aboriginal art (and was formerly chief curator of the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina) and Norman Vorano, the curator of Inuit art – left around that same time. Their two jobs are to become one, and while a hiring process was underway, that new position was unfilled well into 2015.
Museum of History
The museum holds some 17,500 indigenous works. But the aboriginal arts community is worried about the 2013 Conservative-driven retooling of the institution, formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and the departure of two key curators.
The museum says it remains dedicated to acquiring and exhibiting aboriginal art. But there have been no aboriginal art exhibitions (aside from displays of ancient artifacts) since Martin and Vorano left. Even an exhibition about Japanese influences in Inuit prints, organized in 2011 by what was then the civilization museum, ended its international tour last year not at the museum that created the show, as would normally be expected, but at the Carleton University Art Gallery across the Ottawa River.
And recent acquisitions? The museum has difficulty giving a clear answer. Its collection includes some 17,500 aboriginal works. Contemporary pieces number 3,000 from First Nations artists and 12,800 from Inuit artists. (The dividing line between contemporary and traditional is 1950 for Inuit art and the 1960s for First Nations.) But as there’s no separate budget for art acquisitions, year-to-year comparisons are difficult. Still, the collection has some gems. Permanent displays include a plaster version of Bill Reid’s signature sculpture, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii; Alex Janvier’s Morning Star, an abstract dome painting 62 feet in diameter; and Daphne Odjig’s monumental painting, The Indian in Transition.
Canadian Museum of History, IMG2008-0624-0001-Dp1
Daphne Odjig, "The Indian in Transition", 1978
"The Indian in Transition" is one of Ontario-born Daphne Odjig’s most important works. Finished in 1978, it’s an acrylic painting on canvas that measures eight feet by 26 feet and symbolizes political and cultural revitalization. It can be seen at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. Odjig is of Odawa, Potawatomi and English heritage.
In recent years, the museum has discussed transferring at least part of its aboriginal collection to the National Gallery, which has increasingly incorporated indigenous art into its permanent displays of Canadian art. But the gallery, already short of storage space and maintenance funds, seems reluctant to take on vast new collections of anything.
National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery owns some 64,650 domestic and foreign works, including 3,750 contemporary pieces, not counting photographs, produced in the last 25 years. Recent purchases include works by Howie Tsui and Mario Doucette.
The National Gallery does not maintain a separate budget for Canadian contemporary purchases. Instead, contemporary Canadian art is included with foreign imports in the overall contemporary envelope, which was $3.3 million in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, and the photography envelope, at $1.5 million. The total annual acquisition budget of $8 million is not always completely spent, in order to save money for expensive purchases down the road. A single Monet or Picasso, for instance, can cost many millions of dollars. The National Gallery Foundation sometimes helps out, raising substantial funds from private donors to purchase specific pieces.
The gallery’s biennial exhibitions of Canadian contemporary acquisitions, launched in 2010, usually include several dozen new works. The last round of purchases, for instance, featured pieces from Vancouver artists Geoffrey Farmer, Althea Thauberger and Howie Tsui.
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC.
Howie Tsui, "The Unfortunates of d’Arcy Island," 2013
Howie Tsui, "The Unfortunates of d’Arcy Island," 2013, Chinese paint pigments and gold calligraphy ink on mulberry paper, mounted on board, four panels; 36" x 24" x 1.7" each; 36" x 96" x 1.7" overall
Marc Mayer, the gallery’s director, says the only criteria for acquisition of contemporary Canadian work is “excellence.” Officially, the gallery does not aim for regional or ethnic equity. In practice, though, that may not be the case. The gallery has certainly been the target of political pressure – and not just for hanging the dress that Montreal artist Jana Sterbak made from 50 pounds of raw flank steak or dropping $1.8 million on American artist Barnett Newman’s three-stripe painting, Voice of Fire.
According to news reports, former New Brunswick premier David Alward complained to the Harper government in 2011 about the gallery’s seeming indifference to New Brunswick artists. Since then, the gallery has found more “excellence” in New Brunswick, notably 14 works by Mario Doucette, a high-profile Acadian artist from Moncton.
Mario Doucette, "The Acadian Deportation (after Sir Francis Dicksee)", study, 2012
Mario Doucette, "The Acadian Deportation (after Sir Francis Dicksee)", study, 2012, electrostatic print with coloured pencil on white wove paper, 11” x 17”
Saskatchewan artist David Garneau is skeptical about the gallery’s supposed reliance solely on excellence in its support for artists. Garneau, head of the visual arts department at the University of Regina, believes regional representation also comes into play. “There’s no one way of defining what art is – there’s no agreed upon definition – so try and find a definition for excellence,” says Garneau. “It’s equally difficult.”
“Excellence” is also a criterion used by Foreign Affairs when it acquires art. Department spokesman Nicolas Doire says other factors are a desire to promote Canadian artists, decorate Canadian missions abroad, and “communicate an image of Canada.” The department has a collection of about 6,000 works that are displayed at its Ottawa headquarters and abroad in embassies and diplomatic residences.
The art acquisition budget is about $300,000 a year. The department cancelled plans in 2012 to sell some of its most valuable paintings, works by the likes of William Kurelek, Jean-Paul Lemieux and Paul-Emile Borduas, after news stories surfaced about the impending loss of national treasures.
The department’s annual acquisition budget is approximately $300,000, but that can vary depending what projects are underway, says Doire. The program also has an annual operating budget of about $300,000 for expenses such as shipping, framing and conservation.
Four embassies – London, Paris, Tokyo and Washington – have their own budgets to maintain galleries that exhibit Canadian art. These shows can be costly for artists, who are responsible for their own transportation, shipping and living expenses while abroad to install their work and attend openings. The exhibitions are usually framed as federal assistance to artists. But Garneau takes a different view. “I think the question is: How are artists helping Canada?” For instance, the first exhibition in the dedicated gallery at the refurbished Canada House was a series of large-format photographs by Vancouver’s Jeff Wall, who is well known internationally. Such an exhibition adds to Canada’s prestige abroad, according to Garneau’s line of thinking.
Garneau also questions why Foreign Affairs asked Neufeld to suggest worthy Saskatchewan artists. “Clint is not a curator,” says Garneau. “That’s lazy on the collector’s part.” Garneau says Foreign Affairs should send an ambassador of sorts to check out Saskatchewan’s art in person. Foreign Affairs actually does periodically hire curators in specific regions to recommend purchases, and after receiving Neufeld’s suggestions, Sharp did visit artists in Saskatchewan, including Neufeld. Some works were brought to Ottawa and shown to an advisory committee of outside curators before purchase.
Artists typically aren’t critical of Foreign Affairs, despite the costs they must bear for embassy exhibitions. In a competitive field, they tend to be grateful for whatever chances they get. And embassy shows look good on a resume. Winnipeg’s Diana Thorneycroft, for instance, has fond memories of her 2011 exhibition in Paris at the embassy’s Canadian Cultural Centre. She showed a series of photographs of dioramas she constructed to depict, with black humour, quintessentially Canadian scenes. “My Paris experience was pretty close to being perfect,” says Thorneycroft. “It was one of the best working holidays ever.” She gives credit to the embassy’s cultural officer, Catherine Bédard.
Artists are grateful for shows at Canada’s diplomatic missions in London, Paris, Tokyo and Washington, despite the out-of-pocket costs they often bear for travel and other expenses. Art is a competitive field, and such shows look good on an artist’s resume.
Meanwhile, Ottawa painter Natasha Mazurka gives the Tokyo embassy high marks after her solo show last year. Her work featured a series of recurring patterns that might have been lifted from wallpaper. “The staff was outstanding and provided everything needed to prepare for the project, mount the exhibition, and promote it through the media,” says Mazurka, who also has work at Canada House.
Courtesy of Patrick Mikhail Gallery
Natasha Mazurka, "Recombinant", 2014
Natasha Mazurka, "Recombinant", 2014, cut acrylic vinyl, installation view at Prince Takamado Gallery, Japan
The embassy’s Prince Takamado Gallery has also shown Narrative Quest, an exhibition organized by the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to raise awareness of 12 Alberta aboriginal artists. The show, which closed in February, included work by Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Terrance Houle, Alex Janvier and Jane Ash Poitras. “Embassy staff were pleasant and excited about the exhibition throughout the entire process,” says Erin McDonald, manager of art collections with Alberta Culture. “Our experience with them was incredibly positive and professional.”
Narrative Quest was unusual in that most shows at the gallery are initiated by artists. “We assess each proposal against criteria to determine the suitability,” says Laurie Peters, head of public affairs for the Tokyo embassy. “While we provide the installation/dismantling services as well as promotion, it is up to the artist to seek out funding for their travel and transportation of their works. Most of the artists rely on Canada Council or provincial government funding and some have sponsors.”
The placement of 281 works in Canada House last winter seems like a triumph for Canadian artists. But there’s more to the Foreign Affairs story than embassy exhibitions. Along with Conservative cuts to programs that help artists promote their work abroad, the move that caused such a stir in the 2008 federal election, the department was planning in 2012 to sell some of its most valuable paintings, works by the likes of William Kurelek, Jean-Paul Lemieux and Paul-Emile Borduas. The sale, which was supposed to help reduce the federal deficit, was cancelled after embarrassing news stories surfaced about the impending loss of national treasures.
Canada Council Art Bank
Founded 43 years ago, the Art Bank made purchases of $50,000 to $300,000 in the golden years up to 2011. Due to policy changes and the economic slowdown, no acquisitions have been made since then. The Art Bank’s deficit was $165,000 in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
Speaking of the deficit, consider the ailing Canada Council Art Bank, an agency that was founded 43 years ago and currently owns about 17,000 works. Initially, it was given an annual budget to buy art. Then, in 1999, under the Chrétien Liberals, its mandate was changed so it could purchase art only from the profits of art rentals to clients in the private and public sector. Peer juries pick the acquisitions, but the purchase of so-called unrentables – nudes and large installations – is not encouraged.
The new system initially worked. Annual purchases of between $50,000 and $300,000 were made in the golden years up to 2011. Then, as corporate and government clients tightened their belts amid a stagnant economy, the Art Bank started running annual deficits. No acquisitions have been made since then. The deficit reached $165,000 by the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
Storage racks at the Canada Council Art Bank
Storage racks at the Canada Council Art Bank help preserve the country’s visual culture while offering easy access when works are lent to corporate and government clients. Much of the collection of 17,000 works is in storage at any given time.
The Art Bank, which operates semi-autonomously from the Canada Council, has the feel of a high-end gallery, despite its headquarters in an industrial area in Ottawa. Amy Jenkins, the lead art consultant, offers a tour. We stop to admire: A blue-and-white ceramic vase sprouting an artichoke by Vancouver’s Brendan Lee Satish Tang; a large-format photograph by Diana Thorneycroft of a miniature diorama showing Louis Riel at the gallows; a painting of a sparkling blue house by Saskatchewan artist David Thauberger. Works like these can end up in themed shows the Art Bank curates from its collection for a spiffy new gallery called Âjagemô, an Algonquin word meaning crossroads, in the ground-floor foyer of the downtown office building that houses the Canada Council and other tenants.
Diana Thorneycroft, "A People’s History (Louis Riel)", 2010
Diana Thorneycroft, "A People’s History (Louis Riel)", 2010, digital photograph, 38” x 50”
Back in Osler, Sask., Clint Neufeld says he once tried to interest the Art Bank in his work. He failed. Could it be the Art Bank jury felt deputy ministers and bank presidents wouldn’t be interested in renting one of his pastel-coloured, ceramic auto transmissions or engines? Neufeld has no idea.
Despite that rejection, he is not complaining. The Canada Council has given him three project grants, totalling $58,000, since 2008. Most project grants these days are $20,000, although that could change as the Canada Council overhauls its programs to simplify the application process. Some artists feel the current system rewards grant writing rather than artistic talent. But Neufeld, who has sat on a Canada Council jury, thinks the process is fair. “I was really impressed with the system that they had set up to dish out the money.”
Like purchases by institutions, grants from the Canada Council and provincial arts boards are important to artists. “You’re not getting rich off it,” says Neufeld. “But it allows you to spend serious studio time and you don’t have to worry about working some crap job so you can pay the rent on your studio and buy materials you need.”
Ultimately, the Canada Council subsidized the creation of Neufeld’s Slightly Purple Transmission. Then Foreign Affairs bought it. And finally, it was exhibited in the Saskatchewan Room at Canada House. Says Neufeld: “Hopefully, some day I’ll get there to have a look at it.”
By Paul Gessell