Point of View

POINT OF VIEW: Who makes up the 1%? In the arts, it's the bureaucrats

The economic disconnect between artists and culture-crats is so profound now that we can only talk about the two groups as living a class apart.

Artists are increasingly uneasy about income gap versus arts administrators

Performing arts professionals demonstrate in front of the Culture ministry, on December 20, 2012 in Paris, to protest against austerity. Artists are speaking out against the widening gap between creators and arts administrators' salaries. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

Four true stories:

  • A painter bicycles to her studio five days a week, rain or shine. She waited years to get the studio, which is publically subsidized. The executive director who runs the building arrives every morning in a vintage Jaguar.

  • A performance artist is hired to "activate" a fundraiser for a festival. He is on stage for hours but is only paid two drink tickets. The festival's artistic director's travel budget is three times his annual income.

  • A writer is asked to create a catalogue essay for an international arts festival. The writer is told there is no money in the budget to pay for his work. The executive director of the festival is paid $400,000 a year. 

  • High-ranking arts bureaucrats and Conservative politicians concoct the Canada Prizes for the Arts in 2008. The politicians endow the Prize with $25-million for its operation and staff. According to a recent article in Macleans, the Prize has yet to be given out.

If you are an artist in Canada, all of the above will be very familiar to you.

While the cost of living in any city blessed with a critical mass of the "creative class" rises, to the point where artists are often priced out of the neighbourhoods they helped revive, actual cash-in-hand funding for working artists has stagnated.

Meanwhile, salaries for executive directors, information officers, program co-ordinators — all the next-to-the-creative class people who fill the offices of arts boards, funding agencies, festivals and spectacles — continue to rise. Arts administrators, as civil servants or workers paid by public funds, are, like all such governmental workers, granted regular bonuses, benefits and indexed-to-inflation salary increases — workers' rights and expectations that are never allotted to the people who actually make the art the administrators exist to manage.

The economic disconnect between artists and culture-crats is so profound now that we can only talk about the two groups as living a class apart.

If your shoes cost more than the monthly rent of the people you represent, I don't want you making decisions about their art.- Billeh Nickerson , Vancouver poet and editor

Don't shoot the messenger here, I'm only reporting from the ground. For instance, when the federal government recently announced increased funding for the arts, almost every artist I follow on social media responded with the same resigned comment: most of that budget increase will go into the arts bureaucracy, not to working artists. A cynical response, but one that comes from years of watching culture-crat incomes grow while direct grants to artists have become not only frozen (and thus, in real money terms, smaller) but also much, much harder to get.

Let's be clear: the complaint is not one driven by simple cash-envy or me too-ism. There will never be enough money for the arts. Every artist knows that.

Canada's Heritage Minister Melanie Joly in Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2015. Some artists on social media derided the government's pledge for more arts funding as a giveaway to arts administrators, not artists. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

What artists are worried about, after the initial income shock that occurs when they compare their wages to those of their minders, is that the increasingly wide gulf between the two groups is creating a climate wherein the works that do get funded and supported now reflect the middle (and upper) class values of a self-protecting and self-generating profession and not the values, particularly the desire to experiment and indeed to fail in order to learn, held dear by actual artists. How do you explain experimentation to someone whose job is to maintain the status quo, to keep the money safely flowing into their office?

The 23rd European Network on Culture Management and Policy's international conference The Ecology of Culture, held in October, 2015, included this gem in its summary report: "Few artist and cultural entrepreneurs [were] present. [We must] encourage them to get more involved, rather than staying the passive object of research."

The key word there is "passive." All of the artists I talked to want very much to change the dynamic between artists and administrators, but most of them admit that they feel powerless. The bureaucracies are simply too large and too powerful, according to artists.

Victoria Ward, a painter and writer, put it this way: "This imbalance has been further impacted by the fact that almost all art institutions in this country believe in using the business model for their administrative and funding structures. Culture is an ecosystem, not a business. Every activity that creates culture has a value and everything is needed whether it makes money or not or whether people see it or not."

"Anyone who works for themselves will find that people on a salary are completely ignorant of the freelancer's day to day life. But it's worse for artists because there is an added expectation in the creative world that what you make should be made for free because it is your vocation. This expectation is exploited at all levels."

I canvassed a number of artists and arts administrators for this article, some of them friends of mine, some of them strangers. I put the question to them in a neutral fashion: does the discrepancy between what artists are paid and what arts administrators are paid create a disconnect that has an impact on what work receives support?

Ward says, "I don't see this [funding reflecting the values of arts administrators] across the board, however I do believe that work that is message driven, as in having a moral cause, is always better received and not questioned. The idea of an artist just making art for art's sake is considered inappropriate, not trustworthy and 'part of everything that is wrong with Western society.' So, I find that money flows toward people who are dedicated to social programming, not art."

Keith Cole, a performance artist and filmmaker, is a famously blunt artist. He remains so here. "I do believe that arts admin people are overpaid and make the bulk of the art cash that is available. Two days ago I was looking at the Ontario Arts Council results from 2015 and both the visual arts emerging and mid-career [grant awards in terms of size] are the same as they have been for years.

"Also, [having been] on several arts boards over the years, I can tell you arts admin people do get a bonus and/or a salary increase annually. But increases [for] equipment-buying are always put on hold, or we had to organize a fundraiser to buy needed equipment. It never made sense that we had to fundraise for equipment but always had funds available for a year end or a staff salary increase. I think we need to pay our arts admin people, but [putting bonuses over equipment] is ridiculous."

Cole points out that many arts administrators in Ontario appear on the provincial government's 'Sunshine List,' an annual disclosure of public sector workers earning more than $100,000 per year.

The arts practitioner is severely underpaid and undervalued.- Peter Kingstone, artist and Toronto Arts Council worker

"That just bugs me," he says. "I have a dear friend who works at Canadian Heritage and she stays at The Royal York hotel when in Toronto and can expense almost everything, yet she just looks at paper all day! I feel like I am the one staying up late, stressing about ideas and money and time and how I am going to pull it all together, and making the art — she does none of that but makes a fortune off of people like me."

The real problem, Cole says, is that artists "let them [arts administrators] get away with it, and it bugs me. We let them act like vampires. I will never forget [the time when one] arts admin person told me that she always carries around a spare pack of smokes in case an artist needs a few smokes. Gross."

On the subject of whose values win in funding situations, Cole is again blunt. "If you can never and have never been able to get past certain arts admin people/funders you will never get around them no matter what — no matter what any jury of peers say. The power is in their hands."

In this wide net I cast, I naturally went first to our national arts funder, The Canada Council for the Arts. Simon Brault, director and CEO, has a differing view on relationships among administrators and artists.

"I don't think there is resentment," he says. "I never saw it in my career in the theatre world in Montreal, and any of the arts administrators I've met over the years are firmly committed to improving the employment and compensation of artists."

Brault also questiones whether administrators are really doing much better than artists when the most successful among the latter group are factored in.

"There's less variation in administrators' salaries than for artists, where there's actually a percentage of very high earners….In my experience there has always been little predictability in artists' revenue, and there's a huge variance in their salaries. In theatre in Montreal, for instance, you see actors who are on TV all the time, playing in movies, doing radio and voice-overs for advertising. In those cases, they earn much more than arts administrators.

"In museums, orchestras and operas, the highest paid people are the music directors and head curators, not the administrators."

Simon Brault, CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, believes the average incomes for artists are wide-ranging compared to those of administrators. (CBC)

That aside, Brault also describes his organization's much-needed strides toward improving the support for artists: "One thing that can be done is to increase the average grant for individual artists. The Canada Council for the Arts is heading in that direction. We're also committed to raising the budget for the Public Lending Rights program, which is money that goes directly to authors and translators whose books are available in public libraries. Another way is to fund more organizations and institutions, with the condition that professional artists are adequately compensated."

Peter Kingstone knows both sides of the system. A multimedia artist and filmmaker, Kingstone now works for the Toronto Arts Council. He sees the root problem as an overall lack of funds.

"I don't think I would look at it as a dichotomy between arts practice and arts administrators — both are underpaid in relation to other professionals doing similar jobs. But I do agree the arts practitioner is severely underpaid and undervalued. The artist fee system [set fees paid by public institutions] is way too low in comparison to the benefit the community/audience/city/business community receives from the work."

When I ask Kingstone how his own practice has been changed by working as an arts administrator, he replies simply that he now rarely has time to make art, but that "if individual artist funding and artist's fees paid a living wage, I would not be an arts administrator."

Terry Graff, the CEO and chief curator of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is also an artist with a long and healthy career.

"Life is never a fair playing field," he says, adding that he has had good and bad economic years, and then notes that "[this] topic [is] something of a minefield.

"There is a problem with generalizing about the income levels of artists and arts administrators, and also in even comparing the two roles or functions. The arts administrators who work in the not-for-profit public gallery system serve many stakeholders, and perform many public-oriented duties and responsibilities, so I think their jobs are more comparable to, or aligned with, other public service jobs than to the work of the artist."

​Graff continues, "How and what kind of art gets funded is really a question that should be directed at the Canada Council and other funding bodies, which select certain arts administrators, as well as artists, to sit on juries to determine who gets the funding. As you know, the art world in Canada is very small and often incestuous. Sometimes the art that gets supported seems overly generic and simply rubberstamped because it's known or recognizable to the juries. By their selection of jury members, arts administrators at the Canada Council can actually determine the outcome of who gets a grant."

Vancouver poet and editor Billeh Nickerson, who has served on a number of advocacy groups for writers, observes, "when creator groups get together to advocate en masse that the writers are often the only ones who send an artist — the ballet, the symphony, the opera, even the theatre groups send their executive directors."

Nickerson has a basic rule. "If your shoes cost more than the monthly rent of the people you represent, I don't want you making decisions about their art."

The responses collected above represent about one fifth of the people I contacted. Many artists told me that they did not want to participate in the article because they feared repercussions from funders. Many in the arts administration field did not reply at all (possibly out of career fear as well).

You will also note that all but one of the responses are by men, although half my questions were sent to women. Women are already wildly underrepresented in the arts on all levels, and therefore have more at stake in this conversation. But women artists also already know how the system can punish outliers, because, being women in the arts, they experience it every day.

Yes, the situation is that sticky, and yes, there is that little trust between the participants.

From my own experience I know that when I apply for funding, the available amounts I could be awarded are the same, or only marginally more, than they were in the 1990s.

No-one is saying arts administrators should not be paid. No-one is saying arts administrators don't work as hard as anybody else. This is not about salary-shaming.

However, when you make the product (the art) but the people who make so many decisions (the administrators) about that product's fate live in another world, the artist and arts administrator "partnership" looks, from the bottom up, more like a perfect case of exploitation.

The only way to improve the situation — to create an atmosphere wherein artists trust funding/administrative bodies and those bodies trust artists with enough money to actually make art — is for the two stakeholders to form an alliance, based on the simple fact that neither can exist without the other.

Artists will never stop making art, and arts administration in Canada is so deeply ingrained in the entire system of Canadian art production and presentation that, were it to suddenly disappear, the infrastructure that helps the public to gain access to art would collapse as well.

The problem, then, is one of parity.

When artists' wages catch up to the wages paid to the cheque-signers, only then can a more transparent dialogue between the groups begin. The stumbling block, of course, is that only the public workers have the power to implement policies that can create this parity. The system is out of balance.

Let the negotiations begin.         

EDITOR'S NOTE: CBC Arts does not necessarily endorse the point of view of this article.

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