Art in the age of inflation: is it becoming a luxury few can afford?

Artists Ken Lum and Erin Finley talk to Elamin Abdelmahmoud about making art in this age of inflation, and some of the creative solutions they've found to the pandemic's many challenges.

The rising cost of, well, everything, is forcing artists to change the way they work.

Ken Lum with a new public artwork made for Burnaby B.C. — a sculpture of a retired workhorse that will sit at a major intersection as a sentinel of both the past and the marginal. (White Pine Pictures)

Life as an artist has never been easy, but with the pace of inflation in recent months, it may never have been quite so hard to maintain as it is now.

Artists Ken Lum and Erin Finley have felt the squeeze of inflation in their artistic disciplines over the last couple of years. From the cost of materials such as metals for sculpting, to particular types and sizes of drawing paper, rising prices have made it increasingly difficult for artists across media to access the materials they need to conduct their practice. 

The panelists joined Elamin Abdelmahmoud to talk about making more with less, and the creative solutions their students have found to different pandemic-era problems.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. For the full conversation, listen and subscribe to Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud wherever you get your podcasts.

Elamin: Ken, let me start with you. You're one of Canada's most respected sculptors, you've been commissioned by all these public institutions and cities to make public sculptures for them, and now you are the chair of Fine Art at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, you're not just starting out in this game. How are you seeing the way that the cost of materials has gone up?

Ken: Well, it's not just the cost of materials, it's also the cost of daily sustenance and living and taking care of kids, which I have, and so on. So it's on every level, right? You can say, 'well, I can pay for the materials,' but then you have to cut back on somewhere else. And as a teacher, it's certainly affecting many of my students… So there's lots of things which is consuming to me, not just in terms of cost but time, energy and trying to find solutions for students and find solutions for what do we cut back, in terms of family excesses and so on.

Elamin: Are you finding that your students are coming to you saying, 'I don't know if I can afford the material that I need to work with,' is that a part of the conversations you're having? 

Ken: Oh, yeah. I'm lucky, I teach at an Ivy League university, so there's a built-in cadre of donors and so on; I'm always on the phone. And that's all spent even before the end of the academic year, for the sake of students. And that was something I didn't really have to do two years ago.

Elamin: And when we talk, we're talking about these materials. Let's ground it a little bit, Ken. We're talking about bronze, we're talking about aluminum. Approximately how much would you say the cost of these things has gone up?

Ken: Well, I would say that certainly bronze, because it's about 90 per cent copper, has gone up. I would say it's doubled in the last ten years; in the last two years, probably gone up by a third, for example.

Elamin: Erin, your specialty is drawing, and you also teach it at the Ontario College of Art and Design. What have you seen with the stuff that you use?

Erin: Yeah, no, absolutely. What we're doing at the university is we've got a university re-use depot that is really well-used by the students. It was started by the Indigenous Visual Culture program and the library's learning zone, and it's just a great way to reduce students' financial burden. They can pick up cardboard, poster board, magazines, masonite, paint, but even things like steel and copper, or wire scraps. So it's just a really great way to redirect material away from the landfill. In my own practice, I've moved away from this really specific, luxurious paper I used to use. Just to give you an idea, it was about $3 a sheet prior to the pandemic, and it's now almost $5. There's a larger 10-yard roll of paper I sometimes use, it used to be about $24 for ten yards and is now almost $40. So, it does bog the process down because you become a little bit hesitant when you want to make many drawings – because drawing is largely an iterative practice, you want to make many of them, you want to sketch all the time. So now, I'm actually making my own sketchbooks; I sort of assemble found papers together, sew them together and bind them. 

Elamin: But do you ever go, 'you know what? This thing costs so much that I don't think I'm even going to return to this piece of practice anymore, until something changes'? 

Erin: Yes, for me there's a very specific paper that's actually the paper that Italian currency is made from. And I've moved away from it. It's a beautiful paper, really luxurious and absorbent, but I have had to move away from it in the meantime. 

Elamin: What I hear there is you saying it's clearly something that is ideal for my practice, it's something that is ideal for the work that I do, but also literally in this economy, it's just not something that is sustainable. Is that true?

Erin: That's right. Yes, absolutely.

The full conversation is available now on our podcast. Listen and subscribe to Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud wherever you get your podcasts.