Visual Arts Summit (Ottawa, November 2007)

This article is long overdue for posting here on my blog. It originally appeared in the CARFAC Saskatchewan Newsletter in January 2008. It’s the final version I submitted to my editor, so there might be a few rough spots. My raw notes for the article weigh in at about double the length of the article. Please let me know if you’d like to see them.

Visual Arts Summit

November 25–27, 2007 in Ottawa, Ontario

The Visual Arts Summit, a gathering of over 450 individuals representing a cross section of the visual arts in Canada, was held in Ottawa at the end of November. The conference featured two and half days of discussion and events designed “to bring Canada’s visual arts sector together.” This was the first time in over 40 years that such an event had been organized.

The main purpose of the summit appeared to simply be to get the various interest groups within the sector talking to each other in an attempt to find common ground. This is in contrast to the usual order of business, where each group tries to get as much as they can in a competition for scarce resources.

The immediate outcome of the summit was the creation of a Collective Agenda for the Visual Arts, a document which outlines the goals and aspirations for the sector. This agenda will be covered in greater detail elsewhere in the newsletter, but the opening statements bear repeating:

Art is the face of Canada.

We, as artists, curators, collectors, dealers, educators and supporters, are united to enhance the opportunities for Canadian art to be created, seen, understood and enjoyed. We came together in the largest gathering of the visual arts in our history, to proclaim the critical role of the visual arts in an innovative and compassionate society in the 21st century. We know what is needed: we call on the governments, nations and peoples of Canada to join us in realizing our potential.

Fitting words for a group that prior to the summit included organizations that had been fighting for years. The Canadian Museums Association (CMA), Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization (CAMDO), and CARFAC National started off the summit by announcing that they had come to a mediated settlement of the issue of artist fees. All three parties were organizing parters for the summit, with the CMA taking the lead role. The other partners were the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (ACC), Art Dealers Association of Canada (ADAC), Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference (ARCCC), Association des groupes en arts visuels francophones (AGAVF), Canadian Education Association (CEA), Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMAA), and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA). As well, the Canada Council was credited with providing significant financial support and research assistance.

How did these diverse groups come up with a statement as unified as the Collective Agenda for the Visual Arts? Through panel presentations, question-and-answer sessions, and small discussion groups. The conference followed a standard format with an introductory panel discussion to set the context, followed by alternating sessions of presentations and small group discussions. There was also plenty of time built into the schedule for socializing and networking.

The opening session covered the historical context of the visual arts in Canada, and the growth of the sector over the last fifty years. Moderated by Clive Robertson, panelists Sylvie Lacerte, Diana Nemiroff, David Silcox, Matthew Teitelbaum each gave a short presentation, followed by discussion, and then questions and comments from the audience.

The presentations followed the familiar narrative of the “the early years” (1960s) lacking any sort of cohesive national identity for the visual arts, and the absence of institutions and systems to support the arts. As well, there was a substantial measure of complaint about the difficulty of connecting with audiences. For me, one of the most interesting discussions was about the falling-out-of-fashion of the concepts of a national narrative of the visual arts, or even an overview of contemporary visual arts activity in Canada. Whether Canada should have a single art narrative, and whether or not the concept of a nationalist agenda is well past its prime were debated from both sides. This group also talked about the absence of public dialog about the arts among people outside of the arts, the difficulty of connecting with audiences, and the need to find more ways for the public to connect with artists. There was also a small amount of discussion about the decline in visual literacy, a theme which ran throughout the conference.

I think the most meaningful part of this session happened at the very end, after the moderator had announced that there would be no more questions. Artist Michael Awad requested all of the practicing visual artists in the room to stand up. Somewhere between one-third and one-half of the room of 450 people stood up. It was a powerful statement to see so many artists in attendance.

The second day was taken up with sessions and discussions of education and collecting. The entire premise of the education talk seemed to be that audience development is based on education, and that education should start at an early age. Sara Diamond, Gary Michael Dault, Jamelie Hassan, and Dale Sheppard at on this panel, with Robin Metcalf moderating.

During the question period, Tamara Winnikoff of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) in Australia (I’ll discuss Winnikoff and NAVA in greater detail later) declared that visual education is a fundamentally important issue. She suggested that this summit could be used to promote a specific set of guidelines to present to the public. She said that it is vitally important to define what we mean by “visual literacy,” and said that in Australia the visual arts sector has started calling it visualcy, a term that can be understood as being on par with literacy and numeracy. She also asked why visualcy had been lost in today’s education system, and how we could train teachers to teach this. One answer the question of the devaluing of visualcy was that our education system has moved towards one in which we place value on subjects that are measurable, specifically those that can be evaluated numerically through standardized tests. Art has been forced into a ghetto where it is a means to teach other, more “testable” subjects.1

I had a side conversation about education with different people on a number of occasions during the summit, prompted by the underlying theme of the importance of education to the health of the visual arts. The issue was brought up often: the importance of art education, or the arts in education, or artists in education, or some such mix of the arts and education. The so-called “golden days” of the seventies were often brought up to reinforce this. However, I—and a number of others—kept asking ourselves if the educational practices in the seventies were so great for the visual arts as a sector, then why are we still having to defend ourselves so heavily, and why has our status not advanced? Why are we still struggling? If the proliferation of arts education among people of my generation—I was born in 1970, and was one of the children who received this glorious arts education—has not led to concrete positive changes, how is a return to such a system going to improve the life for those who come after us?

For me, personally, arts education in elementary and secondary school—and even post-secondary—was a mixed bag. In hindsight I can see that some of it was good, but much of it was at best passable. But I became an artist anyway.

The session about collecting and exhibiting art included Louise Déry, Vera Frenkel, Joe Friday, Seteve Loft, and Shauna McCabe, with Shirley Thompson as moderator. What stood out for me was the identification of the disconnect between current institutional collecting practices and current art practices: institutions have simply not adapted to rapid changes in arts practices. Joe Friday—a private collector—talked about the growing role of private collectors, and the desire on the part of the collector that works on loan to exhibitions be contextualized in an informative way.

The final day of the summit began with a special presentation by Tamara Winnikoff, Executive Director of the NAVA in Australia. Whereas in Canada we have individual organizations representing specific interest groups in the visual arts, NAVA speaks for the entire visual arts sector. From the NAVA web site (

The National Association for the Visual Art (NAVA) is the peak body representing and advancing the professional interests of the Australian visual arts and craft sector. Since its establishment in 1983, NAVA has been very influential in bringing about policy and legislative change to encourage the growth and development of the visual arts and craft sector and to increase professionalism within the industry. It has also provided direct service to members through offering expert advice, representation, resources and a range of other services.

NAVA undertakes advocacy and lobbying, research, policy and project development, data collection and analysis, professional representation and service provision.

The focus on the interests of the entire sector means that while there may be disagreements between specific constituencies in the arts sector—a Canadian example is the recently-resolved conflict between CARFAC and the CMA and CAMDO—as an industry they can agree to set aside individual differences in order to achieve common goals. During her presentation—and prior to the summit at presentations to CARFAC and the conference partners—Winnikoff gave examples of specific projects, and the steps required to achieve them. She noted that it was not enough to simply describe the problems of the industry, that it was necessary to translate those descriptions into actionable tasks, and then for someone to do the work. Throughout the summit, Winnikoff made suggestions about how we could make a start on the list of things to fix that grew increasingly intimidating as the summit progressed.

Winnikoff was followed by a presentation by Kelly Hill of Hill Strategies Research, a company that “aims to provide insightful evidence about the arts.” He presented a wealth of statistics about visual arts consumption, attendance, and patronage, and gave us a picture of the economic plight of visual arts. For artists, the average 2001 income—from all revenue sources, including second and third jobs—was $18,700, and did not increase appreciably with education and experience. This is compared to the average income of the Canadian worker at $31,800. In addition to his financial data, Hill’s research on consumption patterns suggest that our marketing efforts would be best spent collaborating with other groups in the arts and culture sector rather than trying to convert people who don’t “get” the arts.

The third session of the day—a panel entitled “The Force of Markets”—began with moderator Wayne Baerwaldt riffing heavily on Michael Awad’s opening-night request that all the artists in the room stand up. Baerwaldt asked for a show of hands for each of a number of categories of arts professionals. Everything from art collectors, gallery owners, artist-run centre directors and curators, journalists, politicians, teachers, artists, gallery directors, and so on, as well as a variety of age groups. After this exercise he pointed out that for a group of 450 people that claimed to be representative of the visual arts in Canada, there were some important groups poorly represented: artists under 25 (5), under 35 (30), gallery owners (3 historical, 3 contemporary), corporate leaders (0), mass media journalists (4).

In addition to Baerwaldt as moderator, the panel included Patricia Feheley, Bernard Lévy, Pierre-François Ouellette, Teresie Tungilik, and Paul Wong.

Feheley talked about her experiences as a dealer of Inuit art, specifically the change in recognition of Inuit work from an art-world ghetto to a more respectable status. Tungilik described how art fit into the economic system of the north, and that funding for Inuit artists comes through the economic development branches of government rather than arts and culture. Ouellette talked about his motivations for becoming an art dealer, and some of the reasons why collectors buy challenging contemporary work.

Of all the panelists, I found Paul Wong the most interesting. He talked being a self-taught video artist in the early 1970s, in a time and place where there was no art world context for the work he was making. He had to build his own dialogue about his practice, and invent a business model for his work because so much of it was ephemeral and/or unsalable. During the discussion, he also pointed out that whereas some artists have done a few “big things,” he’s cobbled together a career out of a multitude of “small things,” referring to the fact that he’s exhibited in many many smaller venues.

There was a break in the proceedings, during which Hank Bull auctioned off two pieces as a fundraiser for Jann L.M. Bailey, director of the Kamloops Art Gallery, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia. He auctioned one copy of a limited-edition Paul Wong DVD ($500) and one of his own paintings ($800). He was an excellent, dynamic, funny, entertaining auctioneer. I later talked to Paul Wong, who said that he ended up selling out the small edition of his DVD

During the final session, titled “Sculpting the Future,” Shawna Dempsey gave an excellent speech about the importance of keeping the artists foremost in any discussion of the visual arts. [Jim, you’ve covered this elsewhere, right?], reinforced by Gerald Beaulieu, who was emphatic that making art must not be an act of public charity. Hank Bull enumerated a list of demands ranging from cultural diversity to various hopes for government policy, and another Summit in two years. After a few more presentations and further discussion, the Summit was brought to a close with the presentation of the first draft of the Collective Agenda for the Visual Arts.

At the end of the summit it was difficult to know if we had accomplished what the summit had set out to do. Going into the summit, no one really seemed to know what we were trying to achieve, not even those of us recruited to facilitate the small group discussions. While the creation of the Collective Agenda is a good start, overall I found that the discussions at the Summit were vague and unfocused. Part bitch session, part networking event, ultimately it was an enormous exercise in trying to figure out what we, as a sector, want and need. Part of the problem was the sheer enormity of the task. As the summit progressed, we simply kept grafting on more and more demands. The organizers had promised a report of some kind coming out of all of the discussion notes. I hope that—as Tamara Winnikoff from NAVA Australia recommended—that the report includes a realistic action plan for advancing our sector. If so, I’d like to follow Winnikoff’s advice to choose three actionable items, do the most important one, then the second, then the third. And repeat.

I had planned to post my unedited notes to my blog, but thankfully I can instead send you to a couple of other web sites for further reading. Artist Julianna Yau, who sits on the CARFAC Ontario Board of Directors, blogged the event here: Her notes and commentary are from the perspective of a young emerging artist. Rob Labossiere, the Managing Editor of the publishing arm of Toronto artist-run centre YYZ blogged the entire event live:

I am grateful to the organizers of the Visual Arts Summit for awarding me a bursary for travel to the event. For more information about the Summit, including the full text of the Collective Agenda for the Visual Arts, visit The site has an annoying horizontally-scrolling interface, but there’s some excellent information there, as well as bios of many of the presenters.


  1. The following paragraph is an edited version of a digression that was cut from the published article.
    The talk of our education system moving towards an emphasis on test-based evaluation worries me because of some of my experiences teaching English in Japan from 2003-2005. At my school—it was the third-ranked high school out of 30+ schools in a city of about one million people—the pedagogical focus was on test preparation. English lessons were exercises in grammar-based translation: sentences were built, taken apart, or analyzed much the same way that an algebra problem might be solved. Students at my school—which specialized in math and science—were actively discouraged from pursuing the arts as a career despite the personal views of some of the teachers. At the same time, there is an ongoing debate in Japan about whether the existing system—teaching through rote memorization and evaluating via standardized tests—has had a negative effect on creativity and international competitiveness of the Japanese people and companies. Some have suggested this might have been a contributing factor to the four successive recessions in Japan since the economic bubble of the eighties burst. The Canadian educational system seems to be morphing into one which has many of the negative traits of the system I was part of in Japan. I worry because there is little place for creativity in such a rigid, quantitatively-assessed environment. ^