Lynda Barry writing workshops

Tonight on Q, Gian Gomeshi’s show on CBC Radio, cartoonist Lynda Barry talked about the importance of play, creativity and art. I love it when artists spin their expertise off in practical ways. Barry does writing workshops.

Who would know more about the ins and outs of creativity than an artist? But still you have to wonder why it is that most creativity coaching type work isn’t done by artists and often doesn’t even engage serious creative people at all. Maybe it’s because artists aren’t really taught how to talk about their processes. Maybe we’re too busy juggling five jobs. But really I think it’s because no one thinks to ask artists. So we have “creativity gurus” like Daniel Pink and Richard Florida championing the importance of creativity without actually having any substantial idea of what it actually is. They should ask.

cover of Linda Barry's What It IsBarry can tell them what it is. In fact, that’s the name of her new book, which she is on the talk show circuit promoting. What It Is is all about creativity. It’s published by Drawn and Quarterly (15% discount if you order from their site).

Best observation from the interview: Anxiety is an important facet of the art-making experience. Best tip for authors: After writing, don’t look it over for at least a week. If you have an experience while writing and you read it right away, you are going to be in hyper-critical mode.

And she is crazy about Canada eh.

Read more about the book on the NPR website.

What is a book? Open Engagement conference papers; European Cultural Policies 2015

I just received the conference papers for Open Engagement, a conference/art event that happened last fall. Having not been able to attend, I’m grateful that the organizer, Jen Delos Reyes, thought to send me a copy. It’s interesting to see all the various projects for sure, but what really captured my attention was the presentation.

Open Engagement Conference Papers

It came in a clear cellophane package, about 30 sheets on different colored paper with a card stock cover and backing sheet. No binding, photocopied most likely. Familiar and friendly. As good as any book.

Another “book” I came across this past week is called European Cultural Policies 2015: A report with Scenarios on the Future of Public Funding for Contemporary Art in Europe. Sound dull? Perhaps. But again the presentation and how I came across this book are interesting.

I learned about the book during a documentary film called A Crime Against Art, in which artist Anton Vidokle and curator Tirdad Zolghadr put themselves on trial, inviting various curators and other art experts to prosecute them. One of the “expert witnessess,” Maria Lund, held up the 2015 book (which she co-edited with Raimund Minichbauer) and proceeded to discuss the “crimes” of art having become completely instrumentalized, so that there is today no outside from which artists may take a critical perspective.

2015 book PDF printout

I obtained a copy of the book for free online in PDF format and printed out a copy. PDFs are not as readable as books, nor as easily stored/displayed, or lent and borrowed but imho they are eminently serviceable for research and personal use. (2015 is also available online in HTML format here.) The cover of the book is also interesting for including the book’s budget. The editors further explain how the book was financed in their introduction, as an “art project” at the Frieze artfair, where 10,000 copies were given away.

Not many publishers can afford to give away their books. Book financing is challenging and will be the subject other posts (no doubt many), but for the time being suffice it to say that there were many kinds of subsidization supporting the 2015 book.

If you see the movie, you can judge for yourself whether or not Vidokle and Zolghadr, or director Hila Peleg, are guilty as charged or merely guilty of making bad art. In any case I feel grateful again to have found out about a book and been able to get part of it’s message in such a unique way.

2015 book cover detail

Tanya Mars caught in the act!

Congratulations to our friend and colleague Tanya Mars on winning the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.

Tanya Mars as Queen Elizabeth I in her performance Pure Virtue

Within the artist-run milieu Tanya’s energy and wit as an artist helped to forge, and continues to shape, contemporary art practice in Canada. Of particular importance to us was her enormous, tireless work editing Parallelogramme, a journal that tied the trans-national network of artist-run centres together between 1976 and 1989.

Congratulations Tanya.

Caught in the Act - Mars/Householder-2005

Mars, with her colleague, performance artist Johanna Householder, edited Caught in the Act – An anthology of performance art by Canadian women, published by YYZBOOKS in 2005.

Canada Council’s announcement of the GG award winners

Peter Goddard in the Toronto Star on the 2008 Visual and Media Arts awards

Tanya’s profile at the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art (

More about the book Caught in the Act on BlogTO

More about Tanya’s work on FADO

Coming from a good place – the book you walk into – Toronto collage party

Collage party at JMB Gallery, TorontoI was fortunate enough to be able to participate for a few hours this past week in a collage party at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto (March 9 – 12, 2008).

The primary thing about this collage party is that it comes from a good place, a giving, non-judgmental place.

There’s the generosity of the gallery, which allows itself to be taken over and transformed into a working, instead of spectator, space, which pays the artist to set it all up, and provides some supplies and advertising. There’s trust between the gallery director/curator (in this case, Barbara Fischer) and the artist (Paul Butler who has staged over 30 of these events) allowing him to invite whomever he chooses to participate, and between Paul and the artists he invites, that the time they spend working there will be pleasant, colleaguial, respectful, and, when the doors were opened on the weekend to the public, between the gallery, the artist and the public, that this was a truly open event where anyone can join in, make stuff and put it up on the walls along with everyone else’s. All of this is, as we used to make fun of Martha Stewart for saying, “a good thing.”

The work produced during a collage party canvasses the best of 20th C art and moves into the 21st.

Micah Lexier at JMB Gallery, TorontoThe amount of work produced during a collage party and its overall quality is overwhelming. A entire museum collection could be assembled by a prudent eye in less than a hour and for less than a thousand dollars, quite possibly for free as nobody, including the invited artists involved, is overly concerned about value, market, etc. The fact that this does not happen… nobody really notices or cares about art history here, let alone museum collections… reflects a larger trend I think, toward a new era in which art will be accessible and popular in ways we (at least those of us born before 1970) can hardly even imagine. Pic: Micah Lexier’s “black things” at Toronto collage party..

Walking into a collage party is like walking into a book.

works at collage party at JMB Gallery, TorontoThere are works of art everywhere, unfolding in time as you move through the space, not unlike turning the pages of a book. You flip fluidly between modernist and post-modernist modes, where modernism is about combining fragments into a new kind of coherent totality equal to “the modern experience,” and post-modernism admits to the impossibility of creating an adequate simulacrum (or, arguably, resists the authority embedded in both the notion and the effort). [ ref ]

But in some ways the event itself supersedes the art. It comes, as I said, from a good place of trust, faith, openness. It’s naive and charming, not terribly self-conscious and optimistic. It’s a social space as well as a work space. It’s indeterminate, depending entirely (if not altogether unpredictably) on whether anyone shows up and does anything. The collage party event is a form of social practice, not unlike Harrel Fletcher’s work. It’s more Darren O’Donnell than Royal Art Lodge.

Zin Taylor at collage party, TorontoCollage is uniquely accessible among art media because pretty well everybody understand it whether they know anything about art or not. They know where the stuff (imagery, materials) comes from, how to put disparate things/images together and how juxtaposed images are to be read. People just “know” this. The conversion of the gallery into a working space with paper covered tables and scissors, paste, etc. available, and no inhibitions on littering the floors further robs the space, and the work being done/displayed, of formality and pretense. Pic: Zin Taylor’s eyeglasses at Toronto collage party.

I’ve spoken with Paul a couple of times now about the collage party and he said a couple of other things that seem important to mention.

works at collage party at JMB Gallery, TorontoPaul says a collage party is like art school, a group of people working away, side by side. It’s social, but not. You chat or you work on your own or sometimes you collaborate. There are no rules, no rights, no wrongs. It’s just time to create in a studio setting. That is a very hard thing to recreate outside of art school. Most artists will attest to that. Some are able to establish a studio practice outside of art school, working alone, making connections, etc. But many, most, have trouble with those things. For them (us I should say because I’d consider myself one of them) there should be a permanent situation of ‘art school’, a supportive, paid-for, critical environment. Pic: Paul Butler’s ‘Everybody” at the Toronto collage party.

Paul says he does collage parties so he can get his work done. He feels the same things I’d wager all the artists who participated felt before they arrived, anxiety, competitiveness, wariness, and during and after the event, shyness, apprehension, envy at all the incredible work other’s are producing, but then the event happens and the trust experience makes it possible to work, to play, to be an artist and not be Van Gogh lonely, and for that we are truly grateful.

Robert Labossiere at collage party, Toronto - You are what you seeCollage parties involve trust. Paul invited me and I went and I had a good experience, a great experience in fact. The collage party is honest work, not “work” as in “art work” because the event itself belongs in some in-between space of social practice, like Fletcher or O’Donnell, it is no longer “art” as we knew it, it is “art” in a new, broader way, familiar, engaged, interactive, cultural. Pic: My own “You are what you see” with John Bowley’s “Can you figure this out?” collage puzzle in the background at the Toronto collage party .

Collage Party catalogue - Paul Butler

Now there’s an art catalogue about Collage Party, launched at Printed Matter in NY, announced on Hustler of Culture, introductory essay by Wayne Baerwaldt, co-published by Illingworth Kerr Gallery & Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.

You can buy it from Printed Matter.

Listening to readers – Ram Charan

Ram Charan on listening to your audience

Executive management consultant/guru Ram Charan in his new book What the Customer Wants You to Know says low price is not it… what customers actually want you to know is that they value a product if it helps them to do what they do, and will pay appropriately for it. It’s about putting the customer first.

Applying Charan’s thinking to publishing, I’d say this means putting your readers expectations and needs ahead what you think you need to do: publish so many titles a year at such and such a production cost. It means looking hard at what you are doing, doing fewer books, doing a better job of the books you do choose to do, and charging a price that reflects your efforts… not what you think the customer will pay.

Books are, imho, way under-priced. The average book should cost and is worth about double what publishers currently think they can charge. Blame globalization, mass market books that are pretty to look and of not much value to anyone but are so cheaply priced they become, mass-market-wise, almost irresistable. Publishers, especially the small presses have to stop trying to compete with books that sell in the hundreds of thousands through the big box and online mega-stores.

There’s no shame in small press runs of specialized books; such books are extremely important to the people they are addressed to and they should be priced accordingly.

More about Ram Charan.

Buy Charan’s book from your local bookstore, or (if you must) in the online jungle.

Btw, Charan’s book has brilliant cover design with a familiar flavour:)

Ram Charan book cover Campbell's Tomato Soup

Thanks to Harvey Schachter for his consistently good reviews of management books in the Globe and Mail.

Jack’s Publishing – how publishing is depicted in movies

The Shoe Fairy (2006) directed by Robin Lee

Publishers are represented in movies as much as anyone I suppose. In The Shoe Fairy (2006) directed by Robin Lee, the protagonist, a girl named Dodo, works for Jack, a publisher of children’s and pop-up books, who is always folding origami. Dodo does all the menial jobs in the office from cleaning toilets to picking up drawings from the reclusive illustrator Big Cat. There are two others in the office who never look up from their computer screens. As publishing goes, sounds about right.

The Shoe Fairie is a lovely movie, imaginative and touching and totally beautiful to look at. It’s in Chinese with English subtitles.

Read a review.

View trailer.

Oscar Song “Falling Slowly” demonstrates why artists are poor

Artists buy into the idea that great risks earn great rewards and consequently give up their common sense judgment about real career prospects. So Hans Abbing argues in his book Why Are Artists Poor?. Art awards, Abbing says, promote the idea that success is a real possibility when it is clearly not for the vast majority. And the fact that a handful of artists have risen in recent years to rock star-like celebrity further fuels the magical thinking of thousands of artists, encouraging them to not merely endure but enthusiastically embrace low wages and dismal financial insecurity in exchange for the slimmest chance at “fame.”

“The fact that we’re standing here tonight, the fact that we’re able to hold this, it’s just proof that no matter how far out your dreams are, it’s possible,” Marketa Irglova said at the Oscars after she and partner Glen Hansard won Best Song for their tune “Falling Slowly.”

So ripe was this moment with art ideology that Oscar producer Gil Cates asked Marketa to come back onto the Oscar stage after she had been “accidentally” played off after Hansard said his thank yous. As if Hansard’s “This is amazing. Make art. Make art.” had not already done enough damage. [as reported by AP]

As I’ve said before, I don’t entirely buy Abbing’s arguments. While there is no question that the vast majority of artists embrace poverty, I doubt they do so blindly or because they are misinformed about the odds of success.

Everyone knows the Oscars are an extreme, none better than people like Martin Scorsese who went for years without that high honour. Bob Hope and many others used to joke about it. Not so much lately. Is that because the industry has become so bloated that most actors really don’t care so much because the pay is just so much better now?

Someone might argue that awards fanfare actually increases interest in the arts, encouraging the flow of money and that more artists will do better than before but that someone isn’t me, yet.

Why Are Artists Poor? 2

Hans Abbing, book cover, Why Are Artists Poor?
Are the arts really so exceptional or does everyone hate to talk about money?

Hans Abbing’s book Why Are Artists Poor? should be assigned reading for every art student because it talks about the place of art and the artist in society in practical ways, from the viewpoint of the economist, i.e. more objectively, from ten stories up as Abbing puts it.

Abbing, who is both a visual artist and an economist, gives us a view we in the arts rarely see; that in fact we are reluctant to see. It is almost antithetical to the arts to distance ourselves that much, our discipline being so much about focus and imagination and detail. True creativity, we believe, requires immersion, not distance. In effect, the avant gardist posture might be stated something like this, “You can’t think “outside the box” without being deep inside the box.”

What Abbing sees from his vantage point “10 stories up” is not pretty: The vast majority of artists are poor, very poor compared to the general population. Yet despite their poor earnings and meager possibilities, artists hang tenaciously onto their chosen role and ever more young people flock to the arts.

Abbing looks for explanations for this uncommon and seemingly irrational behavior and finds the arts to be submerged in a magma of inaccurate and inadequate information, mythology, and misunderstood and hidden motivations, all of which he sums up as being “exceptional” (the subtitle of the book is The Exceptional Economy of the Arts).

Abbing’s use of the word “exceptional” is carefully chosen, for it simultaneously means both “deviation from a norm” and “special.” It  thereby captures how artists identify themselves simultaneously as both marginal and progressive, disdained and privileged, suffering and ecstatic. In no other field, Abbing postulates, do we find such glaring contradictions.

Abbing asks hard questions: How important is art? Who decides how important it is? How do artists make a living? Do they even make a living? If art is so important, why is it so difficult, and rare, for artists to make a living? Is there a relationship between who decides which art is important and why it is so difficult for artists to make a living?

These are not questions we are comfortable asking in normal life let alone in the arts where money, and talk of money, are treated with suspicion and where relations of authority and power can be volatile but are rarely fundamentally questioned.

By all Abbing’s measures, the arts are indeed remarkable. Yet, I had a nagging feeling all through the book that somethings were not being fully discussed.

Every book has its Achilles heel, it’s vulnerable spot, and in Abbing’s book, the weak link is this: What if the economy of the arts is not so exceptional at all, but typical of the experience of many people no matter their profession or vocation. Take just one example: the belief that artists are bad with money and the related idea that commerce or economics should be distained by artists. Look around you. Everyone is bad with money, and nobody wants to talk about it.

But even if the art economy is not as exceptional as Abbing believes, it is still considerably less clear, understandable, and accessible than, say, manufacturing or banking. Abbing’s observations remain valid for what they are, probing reflections on his experience as an artist and economist, and useful for how they reveal something about the assumptions and mechanisms that underly the arts.

Perhaps Abbings most important contribution is to illustrate how little concrete knowledge we have about how money works in the arts. In the absence of fact, it’s hardly surprising that myth prevails.


Why Are Artists Poor? 1

Why Are Artists Poor? cover Hans Abbing’s book Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts is a book that every art student, artist, art educator, curator, critic and arts administer should read. That’s what it was designed for and its observations are exacting and uncompromising. I don’t agree with Abbing’s conclusions, but then that is what good books do, show us new ways of looking at things, which provokes debate.

I’m going to review the book here in stages, perhaps following the chapters.

My thesis, contra Abbing who sees the arts as an unsustainable economic backwater, is that we are on the cusp of a cultural turn that will see:

  • an artist in every household;
  • an artist-run centre on every corner;
  • an artist employed in every business.

I like to think I can prove this thesis using Abbing’s arguments as a starting point.

book summary on Abbing’s own site

look inside at Google Books

Visual Arts Summit – Conclusions

the path to the future

One becomes jaundiced as one grows old. It is hard to look with ‘fresh eyes.’ One sees everything filtered through experience. Not that you cling to the past exactly. You try not to, to let go. And this is the feeling that I took away with me, a certain openness…

That said, what is it exactly that we are ‘open’ to? What is being asked of us, in the global sense of a presumed-to-be-unified field called Visual Arts? That things have changed we can all agree. But a vision of the future is less clear.

For some, there was, I have no doubt, an appalling lack of depth to the presentations generally. Many presenters admitted (bless their souls) that they didn’t know why they had been invited, but nonetheless offered, generously, some not uncritical points of view.

Nevertheless, there was cohesiveness, for example on the dismal income levels of artists, which seemed to be mentioned at least once every hour. This strikes me as an achievement. 10 or 15 years ago, the majority of artists and others working in the field would not even consider discussing income as an issue to them personally or professionally, let alone collectively. I think this reflects a general concern about incomes. Artists are not so special in this, or in other matters in fact. The disenfranchised and exploited “knowledge worker” is becoming a commonplace, on a par with service industry workers, cleaners and fast-food franchise workers, who at least have nice uniforms and few illusions about opportunities for advancement.

On this one point, call it a pet project for me, much work needs to be done. And it will not be done, let it be clear, by way of diluted regurgitation of already weak Statistics Canada reports. It will take serious research, coordinated the best partners that can be mustered, to sort out how knowledge-based economies are working now and how they can be structured to work best for the greatest number of people.

We suffer the ‘gift economy‘ in the arts, what Hans Abbing calls an exceptional economy, not because it is exceptional in the sense of better, but in the sense of being an exception to the rule. Artists have enjoyed exceptional privilege economically, but also suffered when that privilege is withdrawn or denied or simply doesn’t materialize. No one “enjoys” privilege then. And the suffering is great.

It might be argued that the things that used to make the gift economy of the arts sustainable are disappearing or insufficient now: spouses with incomes that can support a whole family; inheritances sufficient to create annual returns enough to live on; alternate, parallel careers with security, health and disability insurance and retirement plans. None of these are practical prospects for artists under 30.

And in the absence of these invisible networks of support, we are forced to look straight at that other economy, the same economy of production, commodities, markets, etc. that drives every other aspect of our culture, and ask if and how it works for us.

My feeling, which will perhaps, hopefully, change as I think this through more, is that the ‘real’ economy will not work for the visual arts; it is too far away, driven by others and other concerns, which at the moment leads us back to square one… the tangled web of government subsidy, patronage and personal contribution.