Thursday, June 10, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Know Your Rights*

Recently, I attended my first National Conference for Visual Artists as organized by CARFAC, the Canadian Artists' Representation/le Front des artistes canadiens. Up until then, I (and apparently many others) had only ever referred to CARFAC for their exhibition fee schedule, which provided a guideline for artist fees according to the type of exhibition. Even a day into the conference, when somebody asked me what the CARFAC acronym stood for, I blankly blinked at them without a clue. As a 42-year-old organization whose first president was Edmonton's own Sylvian Voyer, how did CARFAC completely slip my field of consciousness? As a national organization that champions the rights of professional artists through proactive lobbying for better legislation and bringing to the table up-to-date issues such as implementing resale rights for Canadian artists, CARFAC—at least in Alberta—has simply not been a factor for emerging arts professionals, and this is a problem for us all.

Especially in a province where arts and culture are continually disrespected by the ruling government, artists need to stand up for their rights and acknowledge that they do have the power to change their condition.

Only, post-conference, I get the strong sense that artists in Alberta seem to be perfectly content to keep taking the blows—or more commonly, to move away to somewhere seemingly easier and better to be an artist.

While an Alberta CARFAC branch did once upon a time exist, the most recent chapter folded in 2005. Existing in limbo for several years, CARFAC was given a reprieve in 2008 under Visual Arts Alberta Association. While the spirit of professionalization and arts lobbying is less than vivid in Alberta compared to other regional Provincial Arts Service Organizations (PASO) across Canada, VAAA has resuscitated CARFAC in Alberta as a project run by mostly volunteer hours. And while resources are limited everywhere, it's disappointing to learn that the current membership for CARFAC Alberta sits at less than 100.

As an organization devoted to offering professional services from providing information and education on everything from copyright laws, gallery rights, contract samples, legal referrals, taxes, etc, CARFAC in Alberta exists more as an idea than an actual resource. Talking to a range of artists during the conference and afterwards back in Edmonton, it was clear the majority of emerging and mid-level visual artists either did not know what CARFAC could do for them, or simply did not feel it was important enough to look into.

Chalk it up to the prevalent Alberta arts apathy, but the lack of attention paid by Alberta artists to their own rights is truly dismaying. Continuing bending over backwards to only give away our work and time for free, or worse, for exposure, while lamenting how all the power is with the institutions, funding bodies, developers, etc, you would think artists in this province were all living under an oppressive dictatorship that deprived them of the ability for action and education.

Speaking informally to Margaret Witschl, the Alberta CARFAC representative and former President of VAAA, and an active artist in her own right, I expressed my post-conference concerns, concerns that touched upon the void of professional artists (in comparison to a largely amateur crowd), the gaping lack of succession planning and the overall lack of presence CARFAC has within Alberta's visual arts scene. As one of the first graduates of the University's fine arts program, Witschl has seen the ebbs and flows of the arts scene for over three decades, and she is still doing her part. It's time for a next generation of arts professionals to step up, and lend our voice and energy towards strengthening an arts culture in Alberta.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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