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Art, Community, Labour and Money

June 14th, 2012     by Sarah Feldbloom     Comments

Transcription by Victoria O’Meara

‘Art, Community, Labour and Money’ is a podcast about what it means to be a community artist. Anna Camilleri, artistic director of Red Dress Productions, and co-organizer of ‘Work in Progress’ - a panel about community engaged artists and their labour - tells us what’s up with unions, payment, and definitions of work in the arts sector.

Take a listen here:

For a transcription of ‘Art, Community, Labour, and Money’ read on:

Sarah Feldbloom: Hi, I’m Sarah Feldbloom, Shameless Magazine’s Web Producer. There are thousands of creative young people in Canada who are following their passions to find themselves in economically destabilizing careers. I’m one of them, and I have dozens of friends and colleagues who are in the same fragile situation. In the current issue of our print mag, which is themed “money,” we’ve featured an awesome pull-out poster and set of comics by Marta Chudolinska about supporting yourself financially while working as an artist. We’ve also included an advice column, written by Shameless’s Columns editor Shaunga Tagore. She interviewed Gein Wong, community artist and artistic director of Asian Arts Freedom School about whether it’s possible to make a living as an artist.

Those of us who work in community arts face a unique set of challenges. As this is an emerging discipline, the expectations and conventions around labour practices are still very much in the process of being negotiated and developed. This is difficult. But what are those of us who are in love with this work to do?

On May 7th Anna Camilleri, artistic director of Red Dress Productions, and Florencia Berinstein of the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts, in collaboration with the Neighbourhood Arts Network, facilitated ‘Work in Progress – A panel about community engaged artists and the labour that they do. I spoke with visual artist, author and community arts practitioner Anna Camilleri in the week leading up to the panel, about why she feels it’s important to discuss and organize around this issue.

[Sound up on Interview]

Anna Cammalleri: My name is Ana Cammalleri and I am an artist – multi-disciplinary artist – and founding artistic director of Redress Productions. We work in performance and then also large-scale visual public artworks. Community engagement is kind of a thread that runs through all of the work that we do. We’re working with Mayworks Festival on an event called Work in Progress.

SF: Would you mind describing what community art is for someone who might not understand the distinction from what it means to be a community artist as opposed to another kind of artist?

AC: Community art can be interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary in nature, but what’s at the center of it is that what’s being made is being made in a community engaged context. Fundamentally, it’s about something that we’re going to imagine, create, produce, possibly disseminate together with community members. So what’s clear at the beginning is the form or the disciplines we’re working in. The concept is unknown. We do arts based research, consultations, sketches, exploring experimenting, working in print making, storytelling, collage…kind of all over the map. We’re looking for a concept.

We work in a format that’s essentially kind of consensus based. We’ve identified themes, visual motif, narrative threads and this is the story or the direction we want to move in and then we make it. It’s pretty complicated in reality. But that’s my perspective on community art. It’s not just art that’s theoretically about community or that ‘community’ - you know in quotes - is invited to attend, but that it’s essentially participatory and collaborative in nature and that we’re constantly in relation to one another.

SF: And what would you say is the labour of a community artist?

AC: There’s a lot of pieces. It’s really exciting and intense work that requires a lot of skill. Proficiency in a discipline (or disciplines) and aptitude or skills working in community engagement; they’re different things. When they come together it’s really great but they are different things. So when we say community arts it’s this big umbrella.

So as an example right now, Redress Productions is working on a project based in Queen West Community Health Centre. We began doing arts based research and community consultations in January. Really intensive process, three months long and now we’re in production. But the backstory is that we were approached by the Health Centre back in January last year, and we decided to partner with one another. We’re worked with the organization on fundraising for the project for a year. That’s a big piece of the work. How are we going to do this thing? Because in most community arts projects there is no revenue. If access is one of your central values then your not actually going to make any money anywhere along the way doing this thing. I mean certainly there’s payment for the work, like artist fees, but it’s a real piece, of like, how are we going to put together the budget that we need to run a project that is artistically sound, that is sound from a community perspective, that’s ethically minded, that’s inclusive.

We work with apprentices. Mentorship is really at the centre of what we’re doing so there’s a lot of supporting, training, encouraging, mentoring. That’s a big piece of the work, building a team. There’s lots of administrative work. Intense partnership. And I probably should have said that first: Community arts is partnership. And you know, relationships are work. Any relationship is work and partnership is work.

And then there’s all the artistic stuff in order for the studio to be really accessible we need to think carefully about the materials that are in the studio. Being able to accommodate any amount of activity in the studio. Whether there are 5 people and it’s a really chill kind of group or if there are 25 people. So do we have areas for folks to work on? Are there areas for people to come in – who have no prior experience – to actually work directly with someone and start immediately? Are there areas that you can move onto and build skill if that’s what you want to do? There’s a lot of planning that goes into thinking about the production of a project and how to keep it moving smoothly and for it to be a really comfortable, safe, inclusive environment.

SF: Why do you do community arts?

AC: I’ve thought a lot about that question, actually. I am the only artist in my family. Working class background. That actually does inform me a lot in my artistic practice and how I approach what I do.

Less than 5% of the population goes to galleries or museums. I’m not saying that because I’m down on galleries and museums, but they are a kind of rarified space where a lot of people don’t feel welcomed or included. So community engaged practice, particularly community-engaged work that has a public art component, really invites people to be a part of a community narrative, to contribute to it, to be reflected in a neighbourhood.

I really do think that art and artists are really important contributors to civic engagements, and how we live in our cities and what our cities and what our neighbourhoods can be. I think we should all have access to being creative.

SF: Why have you chosen to organize Work in Progress in collaboration with the Mayworks Festival?

AC: Mayworks Festival is a festival that’s focused in labour and arts. Mayworks Festival recognizes artists as workers. So that’s part of what’s here at the center of this discussion. Artists, all of us, we are workers. We are the largest unorganized – and I don’t mean disorganized – but I mean the majority of artists are not represented by unions or worker protections. If we look at the statistics of the average income for a dancer, for example, in Canada, it’s under $17,000 a year. With visual artists, there are a lot of chemical sensitivities, environmental stuff that’s developed in association with the practice and materials and the majority of artists don’t have any benefits or coverage. I might not think about myself as a particularly vulnerable person in the world but when I look at the reality, the working reality, of artists we fall into this really interesting place in our culture where on the one hand art is recognized as this rarified thing that crazy mystical, magical, addicted people do, or you’re a no talent person who has chosen not to do real work. There’s a lot of cultural baggage around art and what it is.

I guess that’s part of what we’re centering here. Artists are workers and the reality is that most artists in the country are working class workers, are low-income workers. They fall into this really interesting class of being not really recognized or legible in our class systems, which aren’t even really acknowledged in our culture to begin with. Class is barely on the table as a conversation. So partnering with Mayworks makes a lot of sense.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked in my life “Do you actually support yourself as an artist? What’s your other job?” I’m a professional artist. I’ve been developing and working at an arts practice since I made a decision many years ago in my early 20s that this is the work that I want to do. This is what I’m doing. This is what I’m cultivating. There are many other working artists that aren’t really recognized as workers. Even in our arts communities, and our arts silos folks can be really quick to say. ‘Well the money doesn’t matter.’ But all of us, we should all have access to better pay for our work. To be remunerated and recognized for our work. Have access to health care, have access to housing. Artists shouldn’t be exempt from that. And community artists; there are some nuances that are specific to the work that we wanted to make room for.

SF: You just brought up that question that artists get asked. Is this your real job or is this your hobby? How do you do it? In a very real way how does an artist survive?

AC: I’ll answer that from a personal place instead of being general and vague. For myself I would say there’s been a slow cultivation over time. For a whole bunch of years there was my arts practice that earned a little bit of money and that little bit of money increased a little every year. Then I had a job or a number of contracts, jobs in arts and also in other fields.

I think for me one of the most significant things was learning how to produce a grant application. The granting system is not incredibly accessible. Grants officers do work really hard to build relationships and try to make clear what this stuff is, but it’s a difficult system to enter and figure out. For me I would say that was really, really important. Like maybe 10 years ago now there was one significant individual grant that came through that was a $15,000 writing grant and I said, “Ok, I’m going to take this leap. I’m going to leave this contract position that I’m in and I’m going to try to keep pursuing this.” It absolutely is challenging.

I think I have come to, after many years of working as an artist, establish what is normal for me. What’s normal for me is that this idea of security is not a real thing. I kind of work with a production schedule where we’re working on development and fundraising of a project two, three years in advance. And that’s as close to security as I come. It’s not an incredibly secure place in reality, but I think because I’ve been developing an arts practice over a fairly long period of time at this point…

The last time I was in a full time job I was 22 years old and I’m 42 now. I didn’t have this experience of being in a job with all these benefits and all of this stuff. I’ve kinda been in this self-employed track for a long time and really for the last 10 or 12 years fully employed as an artist. And when I say that the reality is I work more than full time hours and my income doesn’t reflect that. I know that my income doesn’t reflect the value of my work. That is just the truth and is the truth for, I would say, the majority of artists.

SF: Another thing that I wanted to focus in on, something that you were talking about before is the organization of artists. I think it would be helpful if you could talk a little bit about the history of artists in terms of organizing into unions and what unions exist for artists and whether there is any sort of body that you know of for community engaged artists or if there’s something that’s developing.

AC: There are a bunch of unions that have different disciplinary focuses for artists. So there is the Writers Union of Canada, the Playwrights Union of Canada, there’s a Directors Guild, there’s Carfac Ontario, there’s the Musicians Union. There are a number of different bodies.

There is no body or organization that I’m aware of that focuses on workers rights for, with, by community artists. It doesn’t exist. We can go to our various organizations or affiliations and say “do you have any information for me about this” and if your question is really about a community-engaged component there’s a lot of gray.

SF: What would you say are artists rights as workers?

AC: There’s a lot of sweat equity that goes into it. There’s a lot of sweat equity that goes into my work as a solo artist. The artist fees cover a percentage of the work that’s happening so that’s the stutter. I am part of a large group of people who are unorganized workers. We don’t have worker protections and rights and benefits. What happens when your body is worn in a particular way from your arts practice and we don’t have benefits and protections as workers? What happens really? When young artists come to me and say, “How do I do this? Am I going to be able to do this for a long time?” It’s a big question that we continue to live with and work out as we continue down this path of being an artist.

I remember for some reason I had this kind of marker “I am going to fully commit to my art practice and I’m going to evaluate where I am at the age of 33 and really ask myself the question, “Is this sustainable?” Financially, emotionally, physically is this sustainable?” I got to 33 and I said, “Ok, yeah, there have been a lot of challenges with this work. I love this work. This is my work.”

What other choice could I make? There’s risk that inherently comes with this work, particularly if you don’t come from a family or a class where there are some safety nets. There are many of us who are working without safety nets. Am I going to choose a different life now? This is what excites me. This is what I want to do in the world. Just keep trying to work it out. There are many of us who are working it out. What that means looks like different things. It might mean I do my work, I enjoy my work, I love my work and I am low income. I’m not sure what that’s going to mean 20 years from now or 30 years from now as an honest answer.

SF: I wanted to ask you do you have any advice for young artists to plan in terms of their own health and security. If you can look back at what worked for you or what you’ve seen in terms of supportive practices. Do you have any tips?

AC: Yeah I have a few different tips. I would say one is really identify your allies and your mentors. That’s something that many years ago I thought about and looked around at who are the people who I know, or who I’ve had some contact with, or whose work I’ve had contact with who have integrity, who are doing work that’s exciting and how have they cultivated their lives and their art practices? I sought some of those people out and had conversations with them. How did you do this?

One of the things that I really encourage in apprentices I’m working with – is really take the time to develop proficiency in the discipline. It’s important. One of the reasons it’s important is when you start applying. This is where allies can help. I have read, reviewed, advised on dozens of grant applications as an ally. It’s an interesting thing. That whole system is quite classed and if you have the language down, if you can speak with confidence about who you are and what you’re doing and establish a context for it, it can be possible to see some support there and build on it.

I like to think about momentum. You know, here’s this work that I’m doing, how can I continue to support this? How can I grow this? Archive the work, document the work, share the work. Let people know about it. Tell people how much time it actually takes to do the work. What does that include? That includes your time onsite, your time working in community. But what about all the prep time, the fabrication time, the research, the planning. That’s work. That’s real work. Know the scales.

For a young artist I would say really think about that, think about the work that you do. What’s required to do the work that you do? Recognize all of it as work. It’s not just the product; it’s not just the thing that’s made. If you bring that understanding to yourself and to your art practice I think it will do a lot for just establishing the frame.

SF: Can you give me your definition of what work is?

AC: Work is what we all do. Work is what we do. Hopefully, work is something that we’re passionate about, that supports us, that we support. One of the things that’s central to this idea of work is that there’s an exchange. You make something or do something and you receive something. So work supports life and life supports work.

I don’t think of work as being external. I guess work, for me, is what I am personally passionate about. And I think that that speaks to my relative privilege as well because there are lots of folks who would say work is a pain in the ass and I can’t wait to leave. Work is a long day for little pay. There are lots of different answers.

[Sound up on extro]

SF: I’m Shameless Web Producer Sarah Feldbloom. You’ve been listening to ‘Art, Community, Labour and Money’ - a podcast about the labour of community artists.

I’ve been speaking with Anna Camilleri, artistic director of Red Dress Productions, and co-organizer of ‘Work in Progress,’ a panel about community engaged artists and the work they do, put on in collaboration with the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts, and the Neighbourhood Arts Network.

For more on the artist as worker, don’t forget to check out Marta Chudolinska’s comics and pull-out poster, and Shaunga Tagore’s advice column with Gein Wong published in the most recent print issue of Shameless, themed money. Thanks so much for joining me. Talk to you soon.


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