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, 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.” –

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.” –

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?

Or even, how about 12 days out of doors!?

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.


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.


Concrete Contemporary art auction promises excitement

Michael Snow, Carla Bley, photo litho, 16 of 100

Judging from the preview last night, Steve Ranger has shaped Waddington’s Concrete Contemporary art auction to be an exciting event, filled with surprises.

Everything is priced to sell, with minimum bids verging on on the ridiculous: a Michael Snow for $1500? A lovely Joanne Tod fashion drawing for $2000?

There are the usual suspects, priced in the low five figures and a nice mix of artists you might not necessarily know, reasonably priced, for example this pair of collages by Andrew Owen or a 1980 Charles Ringness with it’s elegant, self-conscious primitiveness.

Andrew Owen, Lilies and Bamboo Excavation. Lot 38. Estimate $4-5000.


Steve Ranger has put extra attention into the auction catalogue, which is beautifully designed with substantial texts about each work and artist.

Concrete Contemporary is a thoughtful  sampling of contemporary Canadian art, showing both its depth and variety.

Will tonight’s event build momentum in the marketplace? By all rights, it should.



Joanne Tod, Pansies. Estimate $2-3000.










Richard Roblin, 2012. Estimate $12-15,000. (Thank you to Senaca College acquisition committee member and painter Paul Woolf for posing for scale.)

Reading art – the meme

Is the idea of reading art becoming a meme? Consider the use of the term “reading” in the titles of these two recent publications:

Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Collection, the title of the inaugural exhibition at the new Ryerson Image Centre.


Clint Burnham’s book The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading The Kootenay School of Writing published by Arsenal Pulp Press late last year.

It’s great whenever the act of interpretation is acknowledged to be an important part of how we live with art. Still, most links you’ll find for “reading art” will be to Reading, the places in Massachusetts or in the UK, or the university, including its art department:


The new art economy

I’m grateful to James Fowler (@jamesfowler), Social Media Director at, for tweeting to ask what the term “new art economy”means. It prompted me to start writing things down that have been swirling around for quite some time now. Here’s what I think the new art economy is and why it has to, and is, coming.

Balancing the red and the black (ink). (apologies to Clyfford Still and the Denver Art Museum)

What is the new art economy?

The new art economy is an open, transparent marketplace in which artists and others working in the arts are recognized and rewarded for their work in ways and proportions that are comparable to other fields. In the new art economy, art circulates freely at all levels of society, is well understood and appreciated, abundantly created and collected, and as a result everyone working in the arts makes a decent living.

Why is this new?

In the “old” art economy, there is room for only a precious few artists to “make it” through to cultural recognition and economic self-sufficiency. They stand at the pinnacle of an edifice shored up by the vast majority of artists, who subsidize their work in myriad ways. This chronic subsidization has adverse consequences: the art world is generally impoverished, artists are chronically poor, but as importantly, tens of thousands of artworks never get to the public for whom they are created. While many people complain about this “system,” about its arbitrariness, hardship and also how opaque it is to real understanding, it is nevertheless widely believed to be inevitable (things must be as they always have been) or, worse, working as it should (true excellence is exceedingly rare, and the sieve must therefore be extremely fine to ensure only the best seeps through).

If the old art economy works so poorly, why do we hang on to it?

This is a good question but one that can divert attention away from finding solutions. Historically and ideologically, there are arguments for and against the status quo in any discipline. As fascinating as such arguments may be, if artists are poor, and it is generally felt that this poverty is a bad thing, then things should change. If analysis and theory are to have a role, it must be to further understanding so things can be designed differently, not to justify and therefor preserve the status quo.

Roughly, my view is that the condition of scarcity – very few art works accessible to very few people – survives because we do not want to let go of antiquated notions of art’s limited availability and how art acquires significance. Historically, few artworks could be produced and access to them was very limited. Many people believe that is still true today when clearly it is not: people are well-educated generally and have access to resources and time. More people understand art better than at any other period in history and moreover have time and the technology to be creative themselves. The mechanics of access, or distribution, are also completely different today. Art is everywhere in public, in museums and private and public buildings of all kinds. Books, magazines and websites abound with information about art and artists.

The artificial condition of scarcity also obviously reinforces historical economic and political divisions by making the control of wealth and power appear legitimate, even necessary. A perhaps clumsy analysis might argue that the patronage of, and association with, art is instrumental, helping elites appear both better educated and more culturally sensitive than the rest, therefor justifying their authority and status. However, the question who should be responsible for identifying and preserving the finest creations of society is complex. It involves layers of expertise and institutions developed over centuries. And there is no question that encapsulating art within the hard shells that money and power can afford to build protects it while promoting its importance to future generations. Still, for publics that are generally more literate and economically more secure than ever before in history, the idea of exclusivity, afforded by the few for the benefit of all, increasingly rings hollow.

Surely somebody is working on this already.

Yes they are. Many people want to see the arts work better economically. However, somewhat too often, since 2008, this conversation pivots on the idea of art’s survival in the “new economy.” Economic survival is taken to mean injecting more money into the existing art world system in the belief that more dollars will mean that artists (and the institutions that support and surround them) will not be poor, or at least poorer than they already are. But analysis shows this is not what happens. More dollars attract more competition and the pie gets split into smaller and smaller pieces.

New art economy, diagram by Abigail Satinsky 2011

More interestingly, many people, artists in particular, are interested in, and discussing, alternatives. For example, this series of discussions The New Economy of Art organized by Artquest, the Contemporary Art Society and DACS in the UK: “Many artist projects and collaborations not only question the ability of established organisations to provide the systems they require; they seek to prototype alternatives to take power back from the perceived gatekeepers of the art world.”

Artists’ efforts on this front are to be lauded but creativity alone will not solve a systemic problem. Everyone with a stake in the game needs to be at the table engaging in open and frank discussion. Profound change won’t be possible until there is a clear understanding, shared throughout the visual arts, of how things are working (and not working) now.

So how do we get from the old art economy to the new one?

The new art economy is not a thing, a pre-imagined solution, but a goal and perhaps a process. The movement from “old” to “new” begins with conversation. All we know so far is that the old art economy isn’t working. We also know it is run by a series of gates, with gatekeepers minding each; passage through the art world is controlled by limited information about, and access to, art, artists, galleries, museums, etc. To cite only two examples: esoteric [unreadable] texts that say more about who will not be allowed to understand art than who can or should; or dealers who will only sell to the most prestigious collectors in order to create economic bubbles that inflate prices.  When a conversation happens that is not about the art, its merit or who owns it, but about the gates, they begin to become transparent, allowing us to see through to other, hitherto secret sides. In time, once everything can been seen, the gates will become obsolete.


About the term “new art economy”

The idea of a different art economy has been percolating for many years here. The idea that there is a distinct economy, an economy unique to the arts, was uncovered around 2004 through a book by Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor, reviewed here. Interest in looking at the arts through the lens of economics grew through the editing of the book Decentre: Concerning artist-run culture, available from YYZBOOKS, in 2008. But the heat was really turned up over the past 14 months or so through many  conversations with artists and dealers, art museums curators and directors, arts councils and foundations, as well as friends, family or just about anyone who’ll stop to listen. Everyone is fascinated to hear about the esoteric but troubled economic conditions within the visual arts, and intrigued and excited (and perhaps a bit relieved) at the idea that things could be different, better.

Most recently, two things led to the crystalization of the actual term “new art economy.” The first was the idea of “living out loud,” which I discovered thanks to a tweet by Geoffrey MacDougall about a pending deadline for applications to the Shuttleworth Foundation. Their use of the term living out loud led me to ask myself whether I am truly living my ideas out loud. I resolved to try, or try harder.

Then, living out loud as it were, with my friend and colleague, artist Jack Butler, he asked, in response to a rather rambling explanation of my preoccupation with how the money works in the art world, “So what is it exactly that you are working on?” It needed a few words, a single phrase, and the title of the elevator pitch was born: “It’s the new art economy Jack.”

p.s. some future posts we are contemplating, about the gates:

The book of the future is not a book.

The university of the future is not a university.

The museum of the future is not a museum.


Is this site being inadvertently mothballed?

I can’t seem to bring myself to report about the CAMDO-Pages “pop-up bookstore” at Art Toronto 2011. All that effort is going to other places on the web, Facebook, etc. I feel like this site is getting fossilized, not unlike this artwork by Jaqueline Rush Lee.

Found here:

cites Center for Book Arts in New York:

Petrified Book, by Jaqueline Rush Lee
Petrified Book, by Jaqueline Rush Lee