Dear Young Artist – the dance of art, commerce and politics

About fifteen years ago I published my first website and began promoting my paintings over the Internet. Since then I have learned much about navigating the business of art, on and off-line.

When you decide to publish a website, an online portfolio of your work, you are opening a few doors. One is the door of exposure to a worldwide market via the Internet, another is exposure to dealers and marketers and finally, exposure to the world of scammers, spammers and those who seek to take advantage of you, and there are seemingly endless droves of these people.

Every week I get email’s about calls for art, art openings, competitions, awards, grants, and the latest and greatest on-line artist directory that will give me unbelievable International exposure. It is staggering just how many of these types of websites exist. Some created by artists looking to document the art community and share with others, but most are a business for someone to make a buck and increase their website traffic by including your work on their website, and in some cases, granting access to your bank account.

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Sometimes you encounter a professional, someone who has real skill in the scam department. In 2004, I received an email inquiry from a so-called collector in England and it went as far as receiving a $10,500 cheque drawn on the Bank of America. When it arrived the postmark on the envelope did not match the return address on the outside of the envelope, first clue this was a scam. I opened the envelope to find a cheque signed by someone else other than the person I had been dealing with on very thin and suspicious paper. I went as far as to take it into my bank and they confirmed a very good scam. To this day I have the cheque as a memento. A reminder to always keep investigating and always fully research all things before making a final call.

So, why are these scams out there and why do so many artists fall for their well worded emails and phone calls? Perhaps desperation, validation, and even impatience. Most artists, particularly just out of school and looking to keep their head above water, need funds to keep themselves afloat. Others may be looking for validation, something that says their art is worthy and worth recognition. Some just can’t wait to become the next ‘Warhol’ and are anxious to get their work in front of the world.

I am not writing this to point fingers or tell you what you should or should not spend your hard earned dollars on, but I wanted to shine a light on things and share what I have learned. Many artists have no background in marketing, business, sales or promotion. I was fortunate to have worked in sales and marketing jobs before and after Art College, as well as the film industry which is the ultimate shark infested swim. When art and commerce meet, it can get messy. The better prepared you are for this, the easier you can shake things off, keep your focus on your work, and put your money where it can really benefit your career. This topic is so deep, I could talk on it forever. So why write about this now? Well, I recently entered a National Canadian art competition, and I want to share my experience with you.

I enter very few art competitions and I do not put much stock in awards. Yes, I have won a few, but they were legitimate. I did not buy them, I did not campaign for them, nor did anyone else on my behalf. It’s funny, I was speaking with a gallery owner last Summer and mentioned I won an award for one of my paintings and she said, oh. I mentioned it was a People’s Choice Award, to which she responded, that’s nice, it’s nice when it is recognition from the people and not political. Yes, I hear that word spoken all the time in the art business, that it is so ‘political’. Why is a business about creating art so political? The answer is, commerce. Which is why there are awards that exist to promote and elevate an artist’s career, they are not truly a competition, they are a marketing tool and unless you are the one who is in on the deal, or you know for certain it is a ‘true honour’, you should not waste your time entering competitions for awards. Sure, there may be an opportunity for exposure, but at what cost? You have to weigh the costs and time spent, versus the outcome and your goals. Because of my experience, I have always felt my radar on these things was pretty solid. This brings me to my recent experience in submitting my work to the 2014 International Olympic Committee/ Canadian Olympic Committee Trophy for Sport and Art. What follows is my perception of events surrounding the selection process.

The Canadian Olympic Committee is a National organization, not for profit, representing the best Canada has to offer in sport and life. The International Olympic Committee or IOC describes the award as follows;

“The annual International Olympic Committee (IOC) Trophy was established in 1985 in order to promote the teaching of Olympism in various areas. For 2014 the IOC intends to reward artistic expression. With the Canadian trophy, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) wishes to recognise artists and creators who, through their talent, have promoted Olympism and left a legacy through art.”

And the IOC defines Olympism as follows;

“Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

So, after seeing the competition for the award posted on many of the arts organization websites I belong to, and after a fellow artist also sent the call my way, I decided to submit my work to this call in December 2014.

COCletterPeterLawless

Fast-forward to the end of February… I received an email and letter letting me know that I had reached the shortlist stage of the award and I was to physically submit my work to Olympic head offices in Toronto, Canada. Wonderful! An opportunity for National exposure and recognition. I live in Victoria which is on the Western most edge of the country. I shipped my painting via FEDEX, an investment of $260 for shipping and insurance, on a $15,000 painting, an investment I felt was worth making. I made sure the painting arrived to Toronto on time and followed up to ensure there was no damage and the painting had arrived safe and sound. I asked about when they anticipated making a decision and return shipping the painting, which they had advised they would pay for, I was told end of April, beginning of May. I asked if they were going to send a press release about shortlisted artists and if there would be any press surrounding the award, I was told that none was planned but that they would let me know if that changed. The deadline for the arrival of the work was April 10th, the COC met about 7 days later.

So, I waited. Then I sent an email on April 24th asking when they anticipated announcing the winner, I received no response. So, I waited thinking they were likely very busy with all the delegates, meetings, PanAM Games preparations, etc.

May 2nd I got a call from my local Purlator dispatch centre, they tried to deliver a package to me but did not have the correct information and asked me to provide it and they would re-deliver. Bizarre, I was not expecting any package. I waited for delivery.

On May 5th, I received my painting back from the COC, with a letter attached to the outside which thanked me for submitting my work and for reaching the shortlist level, with no mention of whom won the trophy. I was shocked. I quickly went on-line to the Olympic.ca website and searched to see if I could find something about the trophy, under press releases I found an announcement about the trophy. The release stated that Canadian recording artist, Roch Voisine, was awarded the trophy at an event held during the Spring session of the COC. The same session at which the shortlisted artists’ works were presented to the Olympic committee and a winner was to be selected. No other artist’s were invited to this event. This press release was posted April 18th, six days prior to my email asking when they anticipated announcing the winner, which no one answered.

The trophy was awarded to an artist, Roch Voisine, who collaborated with the Olympic committee to write an anthem for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Team. Voisine was also present at an event during the Spring Session meetings. Isn’t there usually a stipulation that employees or people that have worked through contract, relations, etc. are exempt from such competitions? That has been my experience and understanding in everything in business, it prevents the potential of a competition appearing fixed. Submitted works were posted to the Olympic website, there was no song by Roch Voisine included.

After this I felt it was important to relay my experience and thoughts to the COC and did so in an email to their contact for the trophy. In the following 24 hours I had a chance to research more about Roch Voisine’s winning song. I found a produced segment on the Olympic committee’s YouTube channel. A promotional video of the CEO of the Olympic committee helping Voisine ‘realize’ his song with the help of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, posted to the Team Canada YouTube channel in Jan, 2014. You can view the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzbKbtZnSA8

The next day I received an email response from the COC contact for the prize. While the COC contact agrees that the whole process could have been handled better and that they will use my suggestions going forward, there was no mention on my thoughts about Roch Voisine, and how this looks like an opportunity for promotion rather than a legitimate competition. This contact just happens to be a lawyer in Victoria, BC. I am not surprised he did not comment, and am not sure he really knew what he was getting himself into at the time he was chosen to oversee this competition.

I thought long and hard and received advice from many before deciding to write about my experience in this blog post. I have spent the past five years painting my views of Canada and Canadian sport on canvas. I have enjoyed painting for Canadian Tire Jumpstart, painting on site at Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and supporting their induction ceremonies, as well as exhibiting work during the Canada55+ Games. I have had many enjoyable experiences working with the sports community over the past five years and my goal has been to try and bring the worlds of sport and art together. Too often sports and arts organizations fight one another for funding from the Government. I was a young artist who also played sports and I feel that I have a unique understanding of what artists, and perhaps athletes, go through to realize their ultimate goals. Our journeys are very similar in many ways; whether it be training, travelling, or finding sponsors and ways to fund our passion, and our career for a lifetime.

So, there you have it, all the experience in the world and I was blindsided on this one. I am truly disappointed. Based on my experience and interpretation of the events, it is obvious to me that this trophy was designated for Roch Voisine long before the artists shipped their work to Toronto. I want to be clear, I have worked with many respectful and passionate people in the sports community, in regards to art over the years, and I am sure there are many that are part of the Canadian Olympic Committee. I am really enjoying working with the sports community, their passion and energy is contagious. One of my goals is to continue to work with Canadian sports organizations and institutions in regards to art.

I feel that it was only a few that were involved with this competition, who knew the planned outcome.  It is unfortunate that this experience left such a bad taste in my mouth in regards to this National organization that represents the best Canada has to offer, in sport and life. I hope that by sharing my experience with the Olympic contacts for the trophy, and here in this blog post, I can have some positive influence on how these types of awards are handled going forward. I welcome comments from the COC, if they feel I am off base in my interpretation of the events as detailed in this blog post.

There was a time when art was much more a part of the Olympics and much more respected than it seems to be now. There are actually some original, beautifully hand drawn Olympic posters in the collection at Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame from the early days of the Olympic Games. The European countries still have more experience and understand the connection between art and sport, when it comes to the Olympics. I view one of my jobs as a Canadian artist is to continue to educate, question and challenge those that do not understand the importance of art and its connection with sport.

Promote your website, buy a print ad, exhibit at that art fair, sign a representation deal with that gallerist, but before you do make sure you do all the research, talk to those who have the experience, get references and referrals. Better to put your money where it can really work for you, rather than the other way around.

I feel it is our responsibility as artists to share our experiences openly. There is always an opportunity for learning and I hope that in sharing my experiences, we can all find common ground and make the business of art and business in general, more transparent and more fluid.  ` Brandy Saturley, Canadian Visual Artist Painting Canadianisms on Canvas