The Alberta 2013 floods inflicted considerable damage to the province’s cultural infrastructure. Art institutions, individual artists and collectors all sustained lamentable losses, particularly in Calgary, Canmore and High River. It will be years before we realize the full extent of what was swept away; cultural groups are going to be reeling long after recovery and clean-up operations are complete. Most neighbourhoods lost something significant; the total bill will be astronomical.
Community priorities, by necessity, will have to shift. Western Canadians are a feisty lot, so it’s no surprise the stories of extraordinary generosity, volunteerism and selfless sacrifice are already legion. Corporations immediately adjusted and focused benevolence programs to reach those most affected by the flood. Fundraisers sprung up everywhere. It seems everyone knows someone deserving of special assistance, and we jumped into action to raise relief funds for numerous individuals and agencies. For this, we should be justifiably proud, our spirits buoyed by such graciousness.
The problem is that almost everyone seemed to have the same idea: ask artists to donate work and hold a benefit auction. I can’t keep track of the calls I receive to attend, contribute or support such functions. The demand seems insatiable. Without question, the cultural sector is suffering serious donor fatigue. This is where we might all hit the wall. Arts organizations rely upon fundraising to supplement their annual program budgets. In this post-flood environment, good luck trying to raise money for a discretionary exhibition catalogue or special public program; welcome to the back of the bus. Perhaps my hand wringing will be proven to be entirely wrong, but I’m predicting cultural agencies will be feeling the pinch this year.
Complicating the prognosis is the fact that we seem to be fresh out of new ideas. Whenever arts groups need cash infusions they turn to artists for donations. Invariably, this astonishingly munificent and community-spirited group says yes. Without these donations, agencies would be in a financial quandary. How did this happen? It may be true that tennis players love tennis and so, axiomatically, support tennis clubs, as golfers do golf clubs. However, it does not necessarily follow that artists should be relied upon to support public art museums. At least, not to the extent and not in the manner they do now.
These organizations were established, in part, to support artists. They’re our way of channelling collective affection (and public funding through exhibition fees) to artists. Have the tables turned? Do we now need to rely on artists to fund the public’s contact with art? When artists receive monthly requests to contribute work to support various arts agencies, something has to give. After all, selling contemporary art is not a completely buoyant line of work, whether for those who create it, or the brave souls who open galleries to sell it. This is a fragile sector. Artists are consistently at the bottom of the economic ladder; I dare say, a number of gallerists must sometimes feel the same. Occasional gifts to fundraisers don’t threaten the balance; however, systemic abuse is on the rise.
My experience in American museums was decidedly different. There, patrons give excessively and generously. Donated art customarily sells for more than its retail value. It’s seen as a way for individuals to help beloved institutions. In Canada, art at charity auctions tends to sell for cents on the dollar. Great news for the professional class that always coveted work by an artist they admire but never felt inclined to pay the full tariff. Once in a while is okay, but cumulatively this practice can have a chilling effect on the ability of gallerists and artists to earn a reasonable living. Why pay retail when you can pick up bargains at an auction and feel like a hero in the process?
Fortunately, some agencies have instituted fair-practice policies that set minimum bids at half the retail value and offer artists half the proceeds if their work sells. It’s a commendable start. But cultural agencies are often poorly equipped for sophisticated marketing. In far too many instances, art auctions are still bash sales, with recipient agencies pocketing whatever shekels are gathered. Artists get receipts that are not useful in offsetting their tax indebtedness; at best, they are near neutral in effect. Gala committees strive to find art for the event, but who is assigned to locate, develop and nurture prospective buyers?
Despite negligible financial benefits to themselves, artists remain a backbone for charity events; their magnanimity is inspiring. Would we ask the doctors, lawyers, dentists, designers and financial planners on our boards – along with their extended family of friends – to donate their professional services at public auction? How much should braces for the kids really be worth? Let’s test this soon at a charity auction.
Hopefully, winter 2013-2014 kisses us gently.
Jeffrey Spalding, artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary, is an artist, a curator and a member of the Order of Canada. He has worked as a museum director and is past-president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.