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CARFAC founders win Governor General’s Award

Ottawa, Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 – The Canadian Artists’ Representation/le Front des artistes canadiens is thrilled that founders Tony Urquhart and Kim Ondaatje were awarded the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts for Outstanding Contribution today in Ottawa.

Part of the original group who insisted the National Gallery pay artists for their participation in the project “300 years of Canadian Art”, Urquhart and Ondaatje helped to establish CARFAC as a national network which later won rights for visual artists in Canadian law.

Tony Urquhart & Kim Ondaatje

Tony Urquhart & Kim Ondaatje

In collaboration with the now late Jack Chambers, Urquhart and Ondaatje promoted the idea that artists should be paid for their work. They faced an uphill battle trying to convince galleries to pay artists’ fees for public exhibitions.

Urquhart recalls: “The first time that Kim and I went up to Montreal and met with the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization… One by one they whole table got up and said, ‘We agree, yes it’s a wonderful thing, but our institution just doesn’t have the budget.’ They played violins.” He suggested to the Montreal Museum Director that instead of hosting twenty contemporary exhibits in a year he host nineteen and use the last budget to pay the artists.

With time, artists’ fees were accepted as standard practice and by 1975 the Canada Council for the Arts made it a requirement for museums to pay fees as part of their funding eligibility criteria. Canada was the first country to adopt this standard, and other countries such as England and Australia followed suit by paying similar fees to artists. In 1988, this practice was cemented in law when the Exhibition Right was incorporated into Canada’s Copyright Act, entitling artists to be paid when their work is exhibited in a public exhibition other than for sale or hire. CARFAC continues to set minimum fees for exhibitions in consultation with Canada’s public gallery umbrella associations.

Where are artists’ rights today?

While CARFAC has made many gains, the battle started by Urquhart, Ondaatje and Chambers is still being fought today. “Artists are still economically marginalized and struggle to be treated as professionals” said Gerald Beaulieu, CARFAC National President. “Our job is to make sure that artists’ rights are respected and to move them from the bottom of the economic ladder in an industry that profits greatly from their efforts.”

Recently released statistics from Hill Strategies show that the average visual artist earned just $13,976 in 2005 – $6,824 below the Statistics Canada low-income cut-off. Even worse, half of visual artists earn less than $8,000 per year. CARFAC has found that even Governor General Award winning artists find it difficult if not impossible to make a living from their art. Some have incomes that fall significantly below the national average and others work full time jobs to subsidize their practice.

CARFAC is active on many campaigns that aim to help raise visual artists above the poverty line. Income averaging is one option. “We used to have income averaging and it was a big help to artists and other independent workers like farmers,” said Tony Urquhart. “Some years you are hot and some years you lose money on your practice. It would be a big help if we could average that out on our taxes and have some consistency.”

CARFAC would also like to see social security programs such as pensions, disability insurance, maternity leave, and employment insurance extended to visual artists. Visual artists have the highest number of self-employed workers of any arts discipline and are among the lowest wage earners, making it more important to access these types of programs. Other self-employed groups, such as fishers, taxi drivers and hairdressers are eligible for programs like EI but not artists. “When institutions pay honoraria to artists they should also pay into the Canadian Pension Plan,” Kim Ondaatje suggests, “That way today’s young artists will be able to support themselves when their careers start to wind down.”

Visit CARFAC’s media room for pictures, timelines and in-depth information about the achievements of Tony Urquhart and Kim Ondaatje.

CARFAC (the Canadian Artists’ Representation/le Front des artists canadiens) is the national association of Canada’s professional visual and media artists. CARFAC defends artists’ socio-economic and legal rights through advocacy and professional development and produces a schedule of artists’ fees that is widely recognized as the national standard. The Status of the Artist Act empowers CARFAC to negotiate with national organizations on behalf of all visual artists in Canada.