“Modern art was once deemed serious because it derived from an avant-garde, and what the garde was in avant of was the market.”
Searching for Jean- Michel, by Stephen Metcalfe, The Atlantic, July/August 2018

J-M Basquiat, “New”, 1983

The above quote is from an article in The Atlantic about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988). It’s a tender, heart felt search for the substance of genius and an answer to the artist’s premature death. Metcalfe turns up the usual suspects: poverty, abuse, mental illness, random circumstance that would drive the average person to despair, but against which talent and intelligence not only provide defence but turn desperation to advantage, only succumbing to the poison of excess.

A bunch of unconvincing cliches (who but a critic could say that Basquiat couldn’t draw or imagine that art derives its value from “deep study”?) riddle the piece but the history of Basquiat the person and artist developing in the midst of an art market catching fire is insightful and seems true to the times (that miserable decade, the 1980s).

By article’s end, you feel like you are standing before the paintings, stroking your chin and nodding beside Metcalfe: can’t explain it, the money is crazy, but that is truly something to behold.

Another most quotable quote, attributed to Picasso: “For paintings to be worth a lot of money, they must at some point have been sold cheaply.” But that is a topic for another day.

The unexceptional economy of design

The economy of the art world, or of the design world – how things are valued and how the money flows – is not so different than how money works within the production and distribution systems of consumer goods, say purses or fast food.

From Dwell magazine, May 2016
From Dwell magazine, May 2016

However, the art+design world holds itself apart, perhaps because the people who work in these fields are not like you and me; they are more driven by and drawn to emotion, and to truth perhaps. Living a life chasing insight is a peculiar vocation, one without the proverbial bottom line of cost effectiveness.

Or perhaps the art+design worlds hold themselves apart because they are, and want to be, more like luxury goods. In the book The $12 Million Dollar Shark – The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, York University business professor Don Thomson shows that “the art market, and contemporary art in particular, is as much brand-driven as any other high-end luxury market, through case studies (the dealers Larry Gagosian or Jay Joplin, the artists Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol, the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the collectors Charles Saatchi or Ronald Lauder…) and broader considerations on the overall economics of art. (Reader review on Amazon.com, link above)

Another popular conception of the difference between the art+design fields and other “normal” economic activities holds that artists, and creative types generally, are “not good with money.” How many artists and designers hesitate to talk about money matters with their clients, galleries and dealers? And end up suffering, underpaid or unpaid altogether?

Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer
Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer

In this regard, this letter, from the office of architect Marcel Breuer (best known for his elegant tubular steel and leather chairs) to a prospective client, is refreshingly forthright about what it costs to hire the firm. Kudos to Dwell magazine for reproducing it. Both consumers and producers of good design need to see how it’s done.

Change, period.

Art. Future. Change. Canada Council for the Arts report on the state of the visual arts in Canada, 2015The Canada Council for the Arts’ new report on the state of the visual arts in Canada could well have used the imperative tense in its title, just plain “Change.” It’s a road map for the visual arts.

Based on extensive consultations over the past three years, “Art. Future. Change.” reflects current economic and cultural shifts. It also introduces the term “ecology” as a way of looking at the arts, to gently promote holistic and adaptive thinking.

Below are some highlights from the report, with added comments to bring out what I see to be the meanings between the lines:

“Pervasive in the consultations was a strong resistance to being viewed through business frameworks that are seen as insufficient representation of the arts sector. However, much can be learned from innovative strategies in start-up culture, social enterprise and experimental development; as well as emergent non-profit business models that are being explored across other sectors.”

The arts have for too long simultaneously spurned and feared business; mystification has kept both business and the arts from learning from each other. A business plan is neither sufficient nor insufficient, but a tool. Like a chisel or paintbrush, trowel or spade, the magic is in what you do with it.

The reference to social enterprise and startups is especially gratifying since we have been drawn into this sphere since 2012. What is a social enterprise? The most succinct definition I’ve found yet is: “a business that solves a social purpose,” which comes from this Reuter’s article about how Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is raising funds via a social impact bond.

Read more about that project in relation to public art museums, with other examples inspired by the report, on our other blog: Four innovative social enterprise concepts for art museums.

“Organizations are motivated to do too much.”

Capacity has been identified as a critical issue in the arts for well over a decade now, and still it’s not going away. Organizations over-reach because they have so few options. Scaling up appears to be the only way to attract more resources. And it’s true; the bigger you are, the more resources you can attract. But not everyone gets to be the AGO. Some end up like the ROM. Growth cannot be an end in itself. Thinking ecologically, growth results from favourable conditions and should naturally produce greater impact too (more fruit, more shade).

“There is a strong fear of communicating failure.”

This is probably the most important insight of the report and also the most difficult. We don’t understand failure well, not just in the arts but everywhere. We avoid talking about it. (Why would we?) But this is changing: a fertile discourse is developing around what failure is and how important it is to success. The Harvard Business Review has embraced it. In Canada, there’s a brilliantly named project, Fail Forward, supported by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, that has this to say about failure:

“When everyone speaks openly about failures we can implicitly say ‘If you have no failure to discuss, you are not being honest, or you are not being innovative.’ It’s a paradigm shift. An acceptance of failure genuinely turns the concept of performance on its head: you aren’t under-performing if you fail; you’re under-performing if you don’t admit failure, because when we admit failure we all learn from it.”

“The sector has experienced a loss of long-term philanthropists.”

Baby boomers give differently than the industrialists of old. The generations coming after the baby boomers will give even more differently. It’s not that boomers don’t give, or that younger generations won’t when they get there, but attitudes to what is worthy of supporting are evolving. In the cultural ecosystem, institutional authority is decaying, fresh sprouts are springing up everywhere and those with means are noticing. Increasingly they want to see how their dollars are making a difference. The days of giving for the prestige of your name on a building or donor appreciation wall are numbered.

“There is a lack of evidence-based research on the arts.”

In the business world, a qualitative assumption about what should work will fail nine times out of ten. Nobody gets it right the first time, or forever. Entrepreneurs are people for whom the desire to succeed is greater than their attachment to a particular idea. They test, pivot, and test again. Artists do this in the studio every day, yet arts organizations find it difficult. This isn’t to say that there’s no a place for challenging, critical ideas, just that what is contrary can be self-serving; like advertising it often puts the impression ahead of the substance.

Evidence is about measurement. Measurement can’t tell you everything but everything can be measured. We learn by comparing things: measurement. But we also learn from the process itself. It is a mindset to focus on impact.

“Audiences are stressed and can’t afford to participate.”

This is a refreshingly frank acknowledgement that the arts aren’t just an ecology but also an economy, and part of the larger one. “Afford” is an interesting term for the report to use. I don’t think it’s meant literally but refers to the fact that many, if not most, people feel that high culture doesn’t address their real lives and in any event isn’t meant for them. As Jason Luckerhoff found in a study called Visiting Art Museums published in Québec in 2009 that the typical public art museum visitor is not defined so much by how much money they have but by other kinds of “capital”; in terms developed by the sociologist Pierre Bordieu, they have enough cultural, social and symbolic capital to feel entitled to enter the museum and participate in the art world. To understand what is going on here will take many kinds of measuring: either the amount of “capital” needed to gain entry to the museum needs to be reduced, the type of capital needs to change or people need help to develop the necessary capital.

“The public wants “social experiences” and not necessarily “arts experiences.”

This observation is not that unique or particularly surprising except that it comes so late to the arts; retailers have been selling “experiences” for years now. The “science” is telling us that everything we do is, at least partly if not primarily, motivated socially. The point of highlighting it here is to show how the report is persistently pointing out a need to look at things differently.

“Peer assessment’s influence has led to safer choices.”

Back in the day, peer assessment – the process of gathering groups of artists together to make grant decisions about each other – was indisputably a brilliant and disruptive innovation. It allowed a new generation to supplant an older one with reasoned selflessness. The principle is sound: so long as artists are gathered to sit on juries based on nominations and experience, the art they decide to fund should theoretically continue to evolve. Alas, no system is infallible. Which is not to say that a lot of brilliant art wasn’t supported thanks to the peer assessment process, only that limits were reached. There are a lot of ways to make grant decisions. How refreshing would it be for Council to itself innovate, trying out new grant assessment processes to capture the art that is truly outlying and deserving of support.

Some conclusions:
Canada Council’s budget has been frozen for years now. Calling for change feels something like a witch hunt: if she drowns, she’s innocent. But if anything can improve Council’s chances for increased funding, it is this report and the direction it stands for. It plainly states where change is needed. It acknowledges that culture looks different today than it did 50+ years ago. It suggests ways to address the differences: talking openly about failure, getting serious about measuring impacts, and trying out new things with the passion and agility of the entrepreneur.

Council isn’t just preaching. It’s setting an example by doing these things itself. More will be known this June, when Council intends to report details about how it is reshaping its programs.

The elephant in the art museum

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy, from Wikimedia
The Elephant in the Room, Banksy exhibition, 2006 Barely Legal show, Los Angeles

If the white boxes within art museums have grown larger and larger over the years, is it perhaps to accommodate the increasing girth of the elephants that museum communities would rather not discuss?

One of the largest of the herd is the question of de-accessioning, an elephant that became starkly visible on or about May 24th, 2014 at the Detroit Art Museum, before being quickly re-cloaked by a unanimous Michigan State Senate Committee.

It is taboo for museums to ever consider selling art from their collections in order to meet expenses. But it is generally considered okay to sell something if the money is used to acquire other art, e.g., to better focus a collection.

There are good reasons for this taboo. Public galleries are very literally not-for-profit. If a practice of selling works from collections was condoned, galleries might quickly drift toward profit-centred acquisitioning, as in “I wonder how much we could get for that 10 years from now?” That kind of market play should be left in the hands of dealers and collectors who are better equipped to speculate and suffer the consequences.

The mission behind museum collections is to preserve great art and give the public access to it, neither of which can be done as effectively in private hands. Selling work has nothing to do with either.

On the other hand, it has been said that too much art is now trapped in museums. Once all the Van Goghs or Tom Thomsons are in public hands, the intrigues and competition of the private market aren’t there to stimulate interest.

Are there other constructive ways of thinking about collections that are still consistent with their purpose? How about a cycle of “catch and release,” taking work into public collections, divesting it after a time (such as 50 or 100 years) so the museum can financially benefit from the phenomenon of market inflation and the work can be coveted and fought over and celebrated in the marketplace once more, eventually to be donated again to another museum, creating both new tax benefits for the philanthropist and new thrills in the museum world?

Closing the book on Inspire! The Toronto International Book Fair

Here’s a great way to show a panel of authors, adjacent their books.

If this particular panel isn’t looking too cheery it could be because their host, the Toronto International Book Fair, held for the first time last fall, was in the process of imploding around them. Now it has been announced that it won’t be back.

“The big players should have jumped on board,” said Sandra Kasturi,  participating poet and co-publisher of fantasy and genre fiction ChiZine Publications, “I feel like the publishing industry is frequently hide bound and reluctant to embrace anything new, especially if it’s not an instant million-dollar success.” – http://metronews.ca/news/toronto/1283828/toronto-international-book-fair-closes-after-one-year/

Here’s what another commentator had to say:

“A larger expansion of the vendors and publishers on offer will be needed in order to sustain interest. Organizers intend to focus more on the international element of the fair next year as well.

“The downside to attending the event for multiple days is that after touring the show floor to see all the publishers and exhibitors, there isn’t much else to look at. There needs to be a larger amount of exhibits or activities to see and do to engage visitors. In addition, the set up of the various stages needs to be re-examined, as often throughout the day activities from one stage interfered with interviews and readings on others. Given that the Convention Centre is a large, open space, the sounds echoed and traveled across the show floor disturbing audiences and authors. All elements will likely be improved for next year. Organizers may also want to consider moving it to a different time of the year where the event calendar is not already so crowded.” – http://theroaminglife.com/inspire-toronto-international-book-fair-2014-day-2/

It was a big ambition, the kind of thing we need in today’s lachrymose economy.

But the plug has been pulled. Which means no opportunity to fix and grow. Too bad:

Where was the art community? What about hooking it up with the also struggling Art Toronto fair, already gearing up for 2015, or the thriving NY Art Book Fair, embraced by the likes of The New Yorker?

Or the critical-alt communities? http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/10/24/elaine-henry-edinburgh-independent-radical-book-fair/

Or even, how about 12 days out of doors!? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolkata_Book_Fair

Inspire! Book Fair by the numbers (info from Metronews, link above)

  • 400 authors, including big names such as as Margaret Atwood
  • 200 exhibitors
  • 3 day event
  • $1 million reported original budget
  • 50,000 original attendance goal
  • 20,000-25,000 actual attendance

The brief obit in Publisher’s Weekly.


Bookmobile book

The book was all about mobility. Bringing knowledge to the people. Today books are available everywhere, yet there remain challenges; not all books are equally popular and some audiences remain stubbornly out of reach.

Enter the Bookmobile.

Projet MOBILIVRE BOOKMOBILE project was a touring exhibition of artists books and zines, housed in a 1959 Airstream trailer, that traveled across the US and Canada from 2001-2005.

Now the founders have regrouped to make a BOOK about the project in true D.I.Y. fashion. They have launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to print it. Pre-purchase a copy of The Bookmobile Book for $35 until February 19th!

The Bookmobile Book is being designed by Cecilia Berkovic, edited by three of the project’s co-founders: Courtney Dailey, Onya Hogan-Finlay and Leila Pourtavaf.

I caught up with Onya Hogan-Finlay by Skype from LA and asked her a few questions about the project.

RL: The Bookmobile was a very successful project. What do you hope to accomplish that the original project didn’t already?

OH-F: The motivation behind the Bookmobile was to share the experience of having a real book so it felt consistent now to want to produce a real book. We met people who had been involved in the original project during the art book fair in L.A. and that just re-ignited the passion we felt at the beginning.

RL: Art books struggle in the marketplace, or perhaps it’s better to say that the market is small though dedicated. Won’t the Bookmobile Book be speaking only to this relatively closed art world audience?

OH-F: Sure the art community is insular but the original project broke through a lot of barriers and we are in the process of getting back in touch with schools, community centres, artist-run centres as well as public galleries and museums that the Bookmobile visited in both Canada and the US and the response has been fantastic. A lot of those places were off the beaten track. There’s a lot of excitement. Donations have been wonderful, particularly in the States where people seem to understand better that cultural projects can’t happen without their individual support.

RL: Do you have any thoughts about reviving the Bookmobile?

OH-F: No, it was a moment and the relevance isn’t there now. People access books very differently today.

RL: What about other publishing projects?

OH-F: Today publishing online, for example through blogs, has more currency. My art practice is socially oriented and for a living I am teaching.

The Bookmobile Book will feature essays by Jon Davies, Andy Cornell & Lauren Jade Martin, Isabelle St. Amand and John Hartmann with artwork by Ginger Brooks Takahashi (as seen in the Alien She exhibition). Nostalgic diary entries, hilarious comics and fantastic photographic contributions from the project’s Tour Guides will also be included along with images and selections of bookworks and zines from the BOOKMOBILE’s collections.



Using Kickstarter to fund a book is a brilliant idea: for years I have been saying that the best (increasingly only) way to publish books is to pre-sell them. If you know your audience and are able to reach them, then they should be willing to put up the money by pre-ordering.


The investment, and risk is all in the marketing work instead of in the creation and production work. Maybe that’s not where creators want to put their efforts, maybe the risk/reward equation doesn’t really work there.


What role is art playing in the hybridization/evolution of the book?

I’m very pleased to have been invited to be involved in the production of this new “literary” festival… described below in Quill & Quire magazine:

TINARS founder Marc Glassman to launch Toronto book fest in March

By Stuart Woods
January 6, 2014

Marc Glassman

What does the book launch of the future look like? Marc Glassman, artistic director of This Is Not a Reading Series, believes he has the answer. The former owner of Pages Books & Magazines (which closed in 2009) will present his vision with a series of events and readings to take place in Toronto this winter.

According to a press release, the Pages Festival + Conference, scheduled for March 13 to 15, will comprise “mainstage events,” in which authors will present their work to the public with multimedia support, and a series of daytime seminars, workshops, and panels touching on diverse topics, from “the impact of new technologies on literature to the maintenance of copyright and the shifting role of illustration in ebooks.” Events will take place at the Randolph Academy Theatre and the Tranzac Club, with programming details being announced over the next five weeks.

“As with TINARS, the onstage events will revolve around a creative collaboration between the Pages festival and writers,” Glassman tells Q&Q in an email. “We suspect that book tours in the future will look like our events. Headlining writers will inevitably work with musicians, video artists, dancers, actors, comedians, and installation artists to create grand spectacles that the public will embrace.”

Pages Beyond Bricks & Mortar, the pop-up version of the former Queen Street bookstore, will sell books at all festival events. Glassman adds that he will be reaching out to publishing colleagues in the coming weeks, though he has already assembled a board that includes Robert Logan, chief scientist at OCAD’s strategic innovation lab and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto; Doina Popescu, founding director of the Ryerson Image Centre; Xenophile Media founder Patrick Crowe; PEN Canada executive director Tasleem Thawar; Point of View magazine publisher Judy Wolfe; and digital publishing veteran Robert Kasher.

TINARS will continue its regular programming throughout the winter. Two events scheduled this month feature poet and critic Jason Guriel (The Pig Headed Soul, Jan. 8) and novelist Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (All the Broken Things, Jan. 20).

The perfect Christmas book

ISBN-13: 9781603201742; Publisher: Time Home Entertainment, Inc; Publication date: 10/30/2012; Pages: 112; Sales rank: 122,161 (Dec. 26); Product dimensions: 8.70 (w) x 11.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

The publication this season of JESUS: Who Do You Say That I Am? could not have come at a more perfect time, coinciding with the unveiling (re-birth really) of a special stained glass window at my church, Emmanuel Howard Park United in Toronto. The window’s image, of Christ holding a lantern, is based on a painting entitled “The Light of the World” by the PreRaphaelite William Holman Hunt. So perfect was this painting that it was for a time the most reproduced image in the world. (At Emmanuel Howard Park United there are no less than three versions of it.)

This particular stained glass window has an exceptionally perfect story. Commissioned by the church janitor to commemorate the life of his son killed in WWI, it was the only window to survive a church fire in the 40s, but remained virtually unseen in a little used stairwell for over 70 years until this fall when it came to the attention of a few people at the church who worked through a labyrinth of unusual to say nothing of improbable circumstances until this December, when the window was cleared of obstructions and backlit. It is now a beacon of light that presents a welcoming message directly on to the main street of our bustling community.

The LIFE publication appeared on magazine racks by the cash registers at my local grocery store just at the same time as the Emmanuel Howard Park window was lit up. One can imagine the enormous number of people this little publication is reaching, putting it into that special category of (publishing) miracles.

JESUS, Who Do You Say That I Am? is a perfect publication is so many way. It fleshes out the details of Christ’s life with stories and pictures that bring the places, the geography and culture of the times alive. It lays out the story from the Bible with a mixture of interpretiion, theology and history so we can understand, without judging, what people believe and where there are doubts. It’s an exquisite balancing act.

The Light of the World, stained glass window after an original painting by William Holman Hunt

The final section, “He Is All Things to All Men,” shows how Christ figures into the work and lives of organizations and individuals around the world. But then, after consulting notable scholars, the Surgeon General of the U.S. and the Cardinal of New York City, LIFE settles on three of the unlikeliest of characters to draw the whole thing together.

They choose three artists, musicians Moby, Aaron Neville and Willy Nelson, to deliver personal accounts of how Christ figures into their lives.

Moby relates most to the glorious side of the Son of God. He believes in Jesus, he says, but isn’t going to make a big deal about it; he’s content with the idea that the universe is “an unknowable but fascinating and wonderful place.”

Neville relates most to the compassion of Christ, describing personal feelings of empathy for Christ’s suffering and joys, and recalling a moving prayer/story about footprints in sand.

Nelson takes things in completely different direction that for me cuts to the quick of thinking about Jesus. He begins by quoting Matthew 5:48: ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.’ then goes on to say, “The purpose of life is to reach perfection. The rose starts as a seed or cutting, then grows and prospers with the sunshine and the rain. After a period of time, the perfect rose blossoms. The human experience is much the same, except the time span is much greater because man, before he can reach this state of perfection, must return again and again through many incarnations in order to conquer all disease, greed, jealousy, anger, hatred and guilt. In order to achieve perfection man must use his imagination to create an image of himself in his mind as a happy, healthy person, perfect in every way. He must pattern himself after the master of perfection, such as the great master Jesus.”

In today’s world, so fraught with violence and misunderstanding, it’s odd to hear someone holding out for the possibility of perfection. Yet there is perfection in this little publication with the not so little circulation. And there is perfection in its timing, coinciding as it did with the most perfect resurrection of the heart of a modest downtown church in Toronto.

With the brilliance of perfection all around, the darkness of doubt is extinguished.


Mrs. Delany’s invention: collage, aging and the artist’s life

Mary Delany collage of a Magnolia grandiflora.
Mary Delany collage of a Magnolia grandiflora.

There are so many good reasons to buy this book, which came to us via Virginia Eichhorn of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery. (Thank you!) It is beautifully produced, on a fascinating if somewhat esoteric topic (collage), addresses in several ways the important role art plays in people’s lives (for artists but also  non-artists, the seasons of an artist’s career, art in relation to life-experience and aging) and is well-written despite being a bit quirky (speculative, almost fictional while also being a biography).

It is exactly the kind of book that can change how you think and inspire new directions.



An Artist (Begins Her Life’s Work) at 72

By Molly Peacock,

Illustrated. 397 pp. Bloomsbury. 2011 $30.

reviewed in the New York Times

reviewed in the Globe and Mail

[buy it in the Amazon]