Art on Consignment

Imagine you were planning a party.  Imagine you rented a hall for your party, paying the landlord the going rate for renting a hall of that size.  Imagine you then sent letters to every caterer in town, inviting them to send “submissions” for the meal, which read like this:

Please provide a list of menu items, with pictures in jpeg format, a list of ingredients for each item, and a brief chef’s statement about your work and a bio with relevant training and previous catered events listed.

And then imagine that you selected the menu items you thought might appeal to your guests and sent an acceptance to the successful caterers along with a contract like this:

You will deliver the menu items selected on the date of the party, ready to be served by 5:30 pm.  You will be responsible for all costs of transport and preparation of your menu item(s) and insurance if you choose to insure your utensils, etc.  You will be responsible to provide all serving dishes, trays, utensils as well as dishes, cutlery and tableclothes. I will provide tables (rented from a supplier of my choice).

If my guests choose to eat your menu item(s), I will receive payment from my guest(s) for the item(s) consumed.  All unconsumed menu items and all dishes, trays, etc. must be removed by midnight at your expense. Any food or equipment not removed by the deadline will be charged a daily storage fee.  Thirty (30) days after the party, I will issue you a cheque for 50% of the sale price of your menu item(s), retaining 50% as my commission on the sale.

Thank you for being a part of my party and it is such a pleasure to support the wonderful catering industry in our city!

I think we would all agree that no caterer would submit to such an arrangement.  It simply seems absurd to offer the product of your labour and training, the investment of your capital, on consignment.

And yet, this is the standard business model in the visual arts industry in most of the world.  A private gallery, a not-for-profit arts group or festival, a public gallery will host a show.  They will pay their directors or shareholders a salary or dividends or both. The will pay the caterer and the string quartet or guitarist for the opening reception. They will pay hall rental. They will pay the printer who prints posters and invitations.  But in almost every case, the artists whose works are on the walls and plinths, the producers of the products which are said to be at the heart of the whole event, will never see a penny unless their piece sells, and then they see 50% of the purchase price, if they’re lucky.

“But you benefit from the exposure.” I hear someone call from the back. Why don’t your directors, or the caterer, accept payment with exposure?

“Support” for the arts often is just treating art like an old frock on a rack in a consignment store

This business model is nothing other than exploitation.  No other industry today would tolerate such harsh exploitations of the producers of that industry’s product.  Recording artists get a royalty every time their song is played on the radio.  There are Equity pay scales in live theatre.  The only other industry I can think of which functions on the same model is the consignment used clothing store.  I don’t think a piece of art, the newly manufactured product of years of training and hard work, is equivalent to an old frock, no matter how gently used!  Even second-hand book shops don’t do consignment!

Thankfully, there is a campaign in Canada, led by Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadians(CARFAC) (Visual Arts Alberta/CARFAC[VAA] in Alberta) to standardize and press for artists’ fees to be paid for all exhibitions.  It is a difficult hill to climb.  VAA sets an example by putting the Association’s money were its collective mouth is, paying artists’ fees even for its fund-raising members’ exhibitions.  I must also mention Edmonton sculptor and art show organizer Pat Jacob, who made a point of purchasing outright some paintings from me for his gallery in Eastend, Saskatchewan.  Imagine that!  Buying a product wholesale and then selling it retail at an appropriate mark-up.  What a revolutionary business model!

I expect many working artists, particularly the young ones, don’t want to rock the boat: as well as their passion, their art is, to varying extents, their livelihood.  Rebelling against the status quo could well end their chances of being exhibited in some places.

But I’m an old guy.  I’ll survive even if I offend gallery owners and festival organizers and curators by asking  again:

You pay the caterer for stuff you give away! Why don’t you pay the artist something for the stuff you’re trying to sell, for the products that actually bring the customers into your place?

CARFAC phrases the question more simply:

“Has the artist been paid?”

Sadly, far more often than not, the caterer has been paid, paid even for the uneaten food in the bin out back of the gallery, but the artists get nothing except a brusque order to get their stuff off the walls and out the door. It’s closing time!

An Afterthought:

“But artists get government grants.” Someone else shouts out.

Yes, some artists get grants sometimes. Many never get a grant. Many never apply for one. Those artists who receive grants are, while the grant lasts, effectively government employees — civil servants. When grant-funded art goes into a gallery without an artist’s fee being paid, it’s a government subsidy of the gallery.

Update, August 29, 2014:  Today, Paddy Lamb, Alberta Representative on the Board of CARFAC posted  a positive and encouraging clarification to my Facebook page and he has agreed to it being reposted here.

I’m really glad you’ve written this John and I agree that it’s often an exploitative business model. However, I’d like to clarify something. Thanks to the efforts of CARFAC, who helped establish and maintain an artists’ fee schedule, most public galleries and artist run centres do pay the exhibiting artist(s) an exhibition fee. I suspect the reason that some don’t is because they are inadequately funded. Your point about “benefiting from exposure” is well taken. I’ve noticed a lot of this lately – not least from charitable, non-profit and fundraising organizations who should know better. A lot of people remain unaware of the inequities and artists have to educate. One way to do this is to join CARFAC. Whatever the method, artists have to become more vocal and less acquiescent about the present state of affairs.


Yes, things are improving for artists, in large part due to the hard work of CARFAC. 

Remember, artists: Join CARFAC, for the Union makes us strong!

A few amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning

City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions.  Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce.

— Hugh Ferriss, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, p.142

There’s a thing going on in Edmonton about Infill.  Personally, I think infill of various types is vital to our city. Personally I think that increasing density through infill can build more vibrant communities and continue to make Edmonton the exciting, inspiring place to live that it has been as long as I can remember.  But I think there’s been some misleading rhetoric in the debate.

First, a definition

To me and, I expect, to many in Edmonton, a “neighbourhood” is a geographical entity with a name and probably a Community Hall and a Community League. Parkallen is a “neighbourhood”. The 100 block of Whyte avenue is a “block” not a “neighbourhood”.  A number of blocks is “a number of blocks” or an “area”, not a “neighbourhood”.

There’s been a line trotted around in various forms that no neighbourhood in Edmonton has a right to be exclusively single-family houses.

I agree. When I first heard this line I thought of the outlying suburbs where single-single family houses are the overwhelming majority of the residential dwellings.

But no neighbourhood in Edmonton, not even the most exclusive, is exclusively single-family houses.  Not a single one.

Sure, there are blocks, numbers of blocks and areas within neighbourhoods which are now exclusively single family houses.  My side of the street is exclusively single family houses. The other side of the street is a mix of duplexes, basement suites, single family houses. Across the alley from them it’s all walk-up apartments. And across that street is commercial. This area is a vibrant community within the perhaps equally vibrant neighbourhood called Strathcona.  It is decidedly not exclusively single-family houses, but areas of the neighbourhood decidedly are. This patchwork, this mosaic of areas is, I think, part of what makes and maintain the vibrancy and liveability of our neighbourhood.

Edmonton does not need a residential infill development free-for-all. Edmonton needs incentive to increase density through infill guided by conscientious zoning of all  residential types, including single-family houses to create a mosaic of blocks, groups of blocks and areas within a neighbourhood – within a community.

Take a walk through Parkallen

Take a walk, a ride or a drive through Parkallen sometime and you’ll see what I think is a terrific neighbourhood made up of zoned residential types. If Parkallen’s areas of RF1 (single-family houses) were simply removed, the neighbourhood would be quite simply destroyed by chaotic redevelopment.

Density could be easily increased through a judicious use of rezoning, juggling the mix, decreasing the total area zoned RF1 so that the transition is orderly, organic, and retains the essential overarching character of the neighbourhood.  This course would be planning. Simply eliminating RF1 would be the abdication by the City of the responsibility for planning and, indeed, the ability to plan.  Neighbourhoods would, in the end, become more dense, but homogeneous and chaotic, grey and unpleasant.

I must thank my good neighbour and good friend Charlie for the conversation this afternoon which really focused my thoughts on this subject.

Please also see A few more amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning.

Update, August 22, 2014:

First I want to thank Councillor Walters for engaging in conversation both here in the comments below and also on Twitter. And thanks to Paul, as well.  It’s a fine thing to live in a community in which elected officials are so accessible. As a matter of fact, yesterday, as well as the online conversation with Councillor Walters, I was fortunate to have pleasant face-to-face conversations with Councillor Michael Oshry and Alberta Cabinet Minister Heather Klimchuk. It’s so encouraging to be able to simply chat with our elected officials.

Second, in the interest of transparency, I must mention that I don’t have a personal neighbourhood dog in this fight. Strathcona, the happy neighbourhood in which I live, is considered “Central Core” and so is not the subject of the “Infill Roadmap”.  The Roadmap is directed at Edmonton’s “Mature” and “Established” neighbourhoods, one of which is Parkallen, which I use above as an example of a very liveable neighbourhood which could be destroyed by injudicious, sweeping zoning changes.

Third, Edmonton seems to like to have pilot projects. There’s one happening right now about backyard beekeeping. There’s one coming up about backyard chickens. I wish our City’s Administration, instead of conducting studies and then implementing the infill plans, would consider a pilot rezoning project.  Why not rezone a single street or the end of a block within a neighbourhood and see what happens?  We do pilot projects about relatively small issues. Why not do one or two to investigate this major change in our urban landscape?

Update, December 7, 2014: In the comments below there has been mention of the house in my neighbourhood which has unfortunately been given a “tear down order” due to a number of violations, not least construction without permits.  The neighbourhood came together quite strongly to ensure that the planning authorities took notice and action.  As a tonic to any suspicion that our neighbourhood is filled with anti-infill NIMBism, here’s a story about the infill house underconstruction kitty-corner from the unfortunate tear down house.  From the beginning, the owners of the property, a husband and wife, have been visiting neighbours to discuss what they plan for their house and have listened to concerns expressed. The contractor has posted on the property a large “artists conception” of the finished house.  The construction has proceeded smoothly and with little disruption.  Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, the ATCO excavation for the new gas line for the new home ran into some trouble and ATCO has closed one end of our back alley.  This is a bit of an inconvenience, particularly after the big snowfall.  Last night, one of the neighbours engaged the contractor on Twitter:

urbanage1 urbanage2


It’s tremendous to see this sort of engagement and neighbourliness from infill contractors and from the established community.  About twenty years ago a contractor knocked on my door to show me the plans he had for the vacant lot next door.  He pointed out details like his window placements which were carefully arranged to be out of alignment with the windows on my house thereby maximizing privacy for both of us.  That contractor (shout out to Centennial Homes), now my friend and neighbour, has since built two other immediately neighbouring infill homes as well as my new garage. He and his family are now well-established members of our neighbourhood community.  Our community has embraced infill development.  The last thing we want is for residential infill to get a bad reputation because of the unfortunate actions of a few unneighbourly contractors.

Update October 14, 2015:  Last week I got a message on Facebook from Chris Hutton about trouble residents are having in Westbrook Estates and Aspen Gardens with what seems to amount to blanket zoning in their neighbourhoods which now freely allows redevelopment of properties in ways that would have been disallowed just a year ago because they’d be “not consistent with the rest of the neighbourhood“.  As Chris puts it, “All city planning is now in the hands of the free market.”  Concerned residents of the neighbourhoods are getting organized and have created a web page titled Edmonton Lot Subdivision.  Definitely worth a visit for homeowners, developers, planners and City Councilors in Edmonton.

On Viewing the International Space Station

When I was about ten years old I climbed with my family to the roof of our house in Windsor Ontario one summer evening to watch the little light called Skylab sail silently across the dusky sky. Memory is a funny thing. I remember Skylab flying from East to West, but I know that its actual path was necessarily from West to East. However distorted, that childhood memory of Skylab’s passage has stayed with me these forty years. I had seen a space station!

Fifteen or twenty years ago, one early Edmonton morning I looked up and saw a dim light I knew to be one of the Space Shuttles pass overhead, just after re-entry. A few minutes later, I saw the same shuttle on live television landing in Florida. The memory of that strange moment, seeing on television as one of an audience of millions the science fiction machine to which I had just been solitary witness — that memory has also remained clear for me.

The other night at 10:17 my neighbour in his bathrobe came out to our back alley. I felt a bit of a Ford Prefect/Arthur Dent moment but resisted the urge to mention the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My neighbour brought two of his teenage children along and we watched with happy hoots as the International Space Station came into view in the West. It was brilliantly bright! After a moment, Céline yelled out “there’s the other one!” I had briefed the kids earlier in the day that the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vessel Georges Lemaître would be flying in formation with the Space Station, station-keeping before docking the next day. I hadn’t expected Georges Lemaître to be so far behind and so clearly visible. It was as though the ATV trailed on an invisible thread, like a space launch towed behind a sky-yacht or a crystalline caboose on a marvellous celestial train.

I saw Skylab as a boy because my father had noticed the time of its passage in a newspaper. I saw the shuttle because I knew it was returning to earth that morning and looked up hopefully and got lucky. Now, in the Future, once or twice a day my phone clangs with a notification from NASA telling me when the ISS will be visible from Edmonton, where on the horizon it will appear and disappear, how long it will be visible and how high in the sky it will be. On my phone!

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: whatever stupid, cruel, barbaric, inhuman evils or simply foibles we humans get up to, we live in a world where Science Fiction truly has become Science Fact. When I ride Edmonton’s LRT from the south toward Southgate Station, I see Hugh Ferriss’ heroic Architecture of Power in the Metropolis of Tomorrow, a Garden City in forest and parkland. When I look up at night I see the World’s shared Space Station chased by a friendly European robot. I look around on the street or the train and see people talking through colourful strings in their ears to friends half a world away. And each of us has all of human knowledge on little computers in our pockets.

” O brave new world,. That has such people in ‘t!”