Tuesday, August 18, 2009


"Independent" Visual Artists
Wow! I know its an incredibly big subject because there's probably as many types of careers as there are independent visual artists. Firstly, let me clarify the arguable concept of "independent visual artist" or art practice. "Independent visual artist" in my view refers to an artist who creates on their own terms from a place of personal authenticity, without regard for market demand. An independent artist, and/or their agent, may after-the-fact assess and target the best market location for their particular aesthetic. Depending on their aesthetic, medium and content, they may target the edgier non profit galleries; or, the usually not too controversial public galleries funded by tax payers; or the wide range of ultimately profit driven commercial galleries. Of course, as in art history, there is overlap. Some artists are able to show their art across sectors, especially if their aesthetic blurs the lines of perception of what is edgy and what is established.

Who decides what is art?
Players such as the art critic/writer and academic theoreticians with massive amounts of formal education have been taught how to draw theoretical lines of categories for analyzing and creating the formal discussions of "contemporary art discourse". Art historians are said by many to arguably "know" what art is today based upon art that was formally and publicly documented as art. However, members of most art juries in Canada that review exhibition and funding proposals are not so rigidly trained, thank goodness. While they may be interested in the accompanying proposal text, ultimately their decisions will be based upon whether they like the visual supports, and relative to that organization's mandate. In the case of commercial art galleries, their concerns relate to whether they have the purchasing clients for that type of work. Acceptance in all situations is not whether its "good" or "bad" but whether it competes relatively well within the contextual mandate in which it is shown.

Academia as player in the visual arts industry
Visual arts industry players include those involved with higher education institution programs such as an undergraduate or masters level degree program. Its understandable that artists, academics, arts administrators and government funding agencies with high economic and lifetime investment in, say a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA), will more quickly sanction art by an artist with these credentials after their name. On the other hand, artists with no formal art training will proudly state this, and many people view their work as therefore being more authentic, free from theoretical influences, more "independent".
People in any society, but particularly in the visually driven contemporary technology world, are taught how to see through osmosis. Its normal not to be conscious of this, and in my view one of the roles of the contemporary artist is to raise this consciousness, leading to greater independent thinking and decision making by us all.
The value of the experience of a university research environment, or of the experience of an artist residency, in my experience, is that it allows the artist to step back, outside of the established market driven visual pressures on how we should see. Space is created to become aware of our aesthetic prejudices, to question and challenge our presumptions, and to experiment outside the norms of accepted aesthetics.

Balancing the budget while retaining aesthetic integrity
While we may begin by blithely creating without regard for the market place, the "independent" artist has to balance the budget. Their business of art expenses such as maintaining a studio, and everyday subsistence including feeding a family, require an income source. Internationally, a society that encourages and supports the forward vision of their independent artist through public funding and acquisitions is viewed as evolved, secure and powerful. I'm not going to get into how Canada measures up to other countries at this time.
Not to jump around too much... The challenges are maintaining our aesthetic integrity while also being able to put food on the table. Danger for the "grateful" artist includes believing that their aesthetic integrity has not be jeopardize when the commissioned public art sculpture they created is changed to appease public reaction. Sure, CARFAC might come to the rescue on the grounds of copyright infringement, but will you ever get another public art commission? We need the money but let's be conscious of where and when we are selling-out.
The resum├ęs and biographies of nationally and internationally recognized artists are sometimes revealing and inspirational. Some have taken aspects of their paying "day-job" and incorporated them into their aesthetic discussion, revealing to us the taken-for-granted everyday. Typically, income from one's art practice can come from sales (private or corporate collections), copyright fees (exhibitions, transmissions, publications), pubic grants and awards, private foundations and competitions. Commissions are commercial business where you are hired to create upon request, and this is valid but not really part of an "independent practice". Maybe part of an overall "creative practice"?

What are the income statistics?
In Canada and around the world visual artists for the most part must supplement their independent art practice income by doing something that the market place pays us to do for them, like on commission. Hills statistics reports visual artists on average earned $13,976 from their art in 2005, $6,824 less than the low-income cut-off. Half of these earned only $8,000 per year from their art. Even Governor General Visual Arts award winners find it hard to survive on just their art, and most are affiliated with a university.
However, when we include income from all sources in 2007, the annual income is $20,000, still $7,000 below the national median income. After art expenses to create and exhibit, only 43% of visual artists made any money with the median loss being $556. Yet, there are between 22,000 and 28,000 professional visual artists reported in Canada. Interestingly, the primary source of income from the artist’s studio practice is from sales (54%), not from grants (34%) or artist fees (12%). (michael maranda, assistant curator, art gallery of york u. The globe and mail, march 31, 2009.

Legacy-profit motivational constructs
Overall career types for visual artists can be broken down into 2 motivational constructs, "legacy" and "profit". Many will reason that the two go hand-in-hand in the long term. I could certainly make more money if I stood on the corner painting people as they walked by than I do creating and exhibiting my multi media installation, video and performance art. Unless, unless....and there is the conundrum. How far to go.
Art history reports that Michelangelo had to be half-forced, half-cajoled by the pope to reluctanty paint frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceilings at the Vatican Palace. For Michelangelo, his independent authentic passion was sculpting the human form in white marble which he had been happily doing for the Tomb of Julius II when he was interrupted by the pope's insistence.
As with Michelangelo, perhaps shifting to another medium will lend insight to the one that is our passion. As mentioned above, there are contemporary artists with simultaneous or previous non art related careers who translate an aspect of their work into the aesthetic concerns of their independent art practice. Most of us have experienced the challenge of being employed in regular 9 - 5 jobs that drain our physical and psychic energy leaving little left for our art. It takes tremendous discipline and commitment but it is done by the successful. Often jobs with irregular hours and days of the week are attractive to the artist, who can dip in and out of their source of income to fit their creative practice demands. Other suggestions are the more flexible scheduling of free-lance teaching, writing, web design, etc., ideally where there is a symbiotic back-and-forth learning.


  1. thanks for inviting me to read your blog. it is most interesting. it raises many issues the artist must address to survive. Lesley

  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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