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The socio-economic status of artists

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Photos by Kyle West

By: Drew Simpson

The Division of Labour exhibit portrays sustainable ways of creating art while also looking at the difficulties of creating a sustainable art career. Housed in the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre’s main gallery space until April 20 and accompanied by a panel discussion, Division of Labour warns of the scarcity of resources, labour rights and living wages of artists.

Division of Labour also serves as an educational tool to communicate and start discourse around the issues regarding sustainability. The Socio-Economic Status of Artists in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area discussion, which was facilitated by Divisions of Labour curator, Suzanne Carte, and included panelists Sally Lee, Michael Maranda and Angela Orasch, encouraged artists to be vocal and seek action.

“People want to be around artists, but they really don’t. If they were living in the reality that a lot of artists are living in, it would not be favourable. What they want is the pseudo creative lifestyle. They want to be around beautiful things and smart people, but they don’t really want to be assisting with making sure artists are making a living wage and that artists are being supported financially,” explained Carte.

For emerging artists, this exhibits presents a valuable learning experience as it informs them of community issues. This topic is particularly important since emerging artists are often asked to work for free, often under a pretense that the work will add to their portfolios or lead to exposure. However, Carte argues that asking artists to work for free devalues the work they do.  

“Because you are emerging, and because you’re new to the practice does not mean that any institution, organization or individual business, whatever it might be, can take advantage of you and use it as exposure… it’s not about gaining experience — I can gain experience on the job. I can gain experience while being compensated for what I do,” explained Carte.

While Carte encourages individuals to stand up for themselves, she understands that many artists may not be in a position to be able to reject sparse opportunities. She, alongside the panelists at the discussions, further discussed ways emerging and established artists can fight for their rights.

Lee gave an overview of organizations and advocacy groups that focus on bettering labour and housing situations and are making communities aware of gentrification and the living experiences of artists in Hamilton and Toronto.

Maranda added that lobbying for bigger grants or funding is not enough. The community also needs to be advocating for the improvement of artists’ economic status through establishing a basic or minimum hourly wage, affordable rent and transportation.

Recently, Maranda was a quantitative researcher for the Waging Culture survey. The survey investigated home ownership in Hamilton compared to Toronto. Maranda concluded that Hamilton artists are less reliant on the private market and contribute more to the public art community.  

The survey also suggested an artist migration from Toronto to Hamilton due to Hamilton’s lower rent and higher artist home ownership. This leads to a domino effect as real estate agents and developers follow the migration and aid gentrification.

Orasch stated that real estate agents and developers have secretly attended similar panel discussions. The panelists speculated they do so to learn how to market housing to artists. However, the overall sentiment was that they crossed into an artist-designated space to further exploit artists.

“Developers are taking advantage of the language that we have been able to construct for ourselves, to be able to be attractive to other artists or other individuals who feel as though they want an “artsy” experience out of life,” explained Carte.

Lee emphasized how all these surveys and discussions need to reach key decision makers. The Division of Labour exhibit and the panelists at the discussion have repeatedly stressed that talk is merely educational, the true goal is action and change.  

 

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