Bringing the visual arts to market: How the Canada Council supports Canadian art dealers

A view from above the 2012 Art Toronto international art fair. Alex Sabine : Courtesy of Art Dealers Association of Canada/ Courtoisie de l’Association des marchands d’art du Canada
A view from above the 2012 Art Toronto international art fair. (Photo : Alex Sabine : Courtesy of Art Dealers Association of Canada/ Courtoisie de l’Association des marchands d’art du Canada)

The Canada Council offers a growing suite of initiatives to make Canadian art more visible and competitive in the global marketplace. For visual arts it does this, in part, by offering grant programs for Canadian art dealers.   

In August 2013, Elizabeth Edwards, Executive Director of the Art Dealers Association of Canada (ADAC) interviewed William Huffman, Coordinator of the Canada Council's Audience and Market Development Office (AMDO) on the topic of support to art dealers. See below for the full interview, originally published on the Art Dealers Association of Canada website

For more information on how the Canada Council helps Canadian artists to reach new markets, visit the Market Access microsite

Five Things with Canada Council for the Arts

1) Can you give a brief summary of the function of AMDO within the Canada Council?

Well as you may know, the Canada Council is a big operation with a lot of moving parts –we’re Canada’s national arts funder. The organization has been going strong since 1957 and has significantly contributed to the lively cultural life and abundance of exceptional Canadian art here at home and around the world. 

We do that in a number of ways: we give grants to professional artists and arts organizations in every region of Canada and we also offer research, communications and general arts promotion activities. That’s the Council in a nutshell. 

And somewhere within all that, there’s AMDO! So, what do we do? Working in all disciplines, my office is largely responsible for rollout of a dynamic, national and international arts support and promotion strategy – all linked to building greater awareness of Canadian arts. We’ve got a diverse modus operandi which includes straight-up grants or a Canadian presence at big cultural forums. And sometimes we lead exploratory delegations to uncharted cultural markets. We are constantly developing strategic partnerships with diverse external collaborators such as foreign governments and the private sector. Which brings us to our work in support of commercial galleries.

2) Great segue! Why don’t you tell me more about Council’s support of Canadian art dealers?

There are a couple of programs at the Canada Council designed to support initiatives undertaken by Canadian art dealers: 

One through AMDO is intended to provide travel assistance for gallerists participating in international art fairs – including Art Toronto! 

There is another visual arts program that offsets costs associated with various promotional initiatives that advance the careers of professional Canadian artists. 

In the case of the art fair program, it supports travel expenses, freight, booth costs and production of related promotional material. It’s also worth knowing that dealers can apply for more than one art fair at a time. 

The other program supports various activities including special exhibitions, promotional kits and online initiatives – among other things. 

In both cases it’s quite a simple application to complete – but having said that, it’s a good idea to read the guidelines carefully and make particular note of the application deadline. If you miss the deadline, or don’t submit within the minimum indicated amount of time, you’re out of luck! It’s equally important to review the eligibility criteria and program exclusions – the last thing you want to do is spend time completing an application only to find out that the proposed activity isn’t even eligible. 

Now if you are one of our successful applicants, the process doesn’t end there! The two things we need in return is acknowledgement in your promotional material and final report. If this is totally new information and you are considering an application, contact the Program Officer for more details and some helpful guidance. They are very knowledgeable and happy to help!

3) Who is eligible?

Basically, support is available to professional Canadian contemporary art dealers, who intend to present the works of professional Canadian contemporary visual and fine craft artists at key art fairs in Canada and abroad. 

You’ll notice the emphasis on professional. What it means is that we want to be dealing with an applicant who has a level of specialized training in the field (and not necessarily in academic institutions), that there is peer recognition for the work of an applicant and a substantial history of public presentation. Ultimately, we want to know that we’re dealing with people who really know what they’re doing and are definitely serious about their work! 

So, those eligible applicants will provide us with information about the artist and the work that they intend to present at the fair, along with details about their strategic business plan and the anticipated results of participation in the fair. It’s always good to make sure that within the project description, applicants highlight why the fair or fairs they plan to attend are a solid fit with the gallery and its artists. See, not too complicated!

4) What does AMDO see as the role of Canadian commercial art dealers in the national and international visual arts market?

That’s a big question, but a really good one! 

As you well know, commercial art dealers play a critical role in the overall ecology of the visual (and to an extent the media) arts – they are a clear example of a commerce/culture overlap and a place in which the arts can be big business. The visual arts marketplace is unusual territory where artistic vision, curatorial practice and the public sector all collide with personal worth, investment banking and high fashion. Just take a look at the popularity and celebrity status of art fairs or the phenomenon of an expanding, global, art market bubble. I would underscore global as the operative word! 

We’re all aware that Canada lacks the population base or the private wealth of other countries or regions. There simply isn’t the critical mass of buyers or the market movement in order to compete with the United States, Western Europe or Asia. This means, in a way, that we are relying on the success of our commercial dealers at foreign art fairs to cultivate a necessary interest by international collectors in Canadian work. 

It is frustrating but we’re not the only ones in the predicament – we just need to look at Nordic countries like Finland and Sweden. These countries are small and geographically remote – yet big players on the international art scene. Their arts and culture business plan, along with considerable public support, emphasizes moving their professionals beyond national borders and into the world. 

In simplified terms, that’s actually the AMDO philosophy! We recognize that by supporting commercial art dealers in their art fair participation, we are contributing to a development of bigger markets for Canadian art. At the same time, we are also increasing Canada’s general profile in the international marketplace. So in a way, we see commercial art dealers as not only savvy business people but also as crucial cultural ambassadors.

5) What advice do you have for art dealers in their continued pursuit to grow the Canadian market?

I think they can recognize that it’s not a solitary pursuit and that there is a community of art dealers, spread right across Canada, who are all interested in the same thing. That unified voice can be pretty powerful! And collectively it’s an influential movement, which can as readily embody the high level values of Canadian identity, as it can exemplify the broader economic benefits of the arts. 

Organizations like ADAC are extremely important convergence points for that dialogue which can ultimately drive change. Collectively, the community is well positioned to tell those stories and to make some compelling cases such as: there can be a healthy link between artistic production and economics, there is a vital, multi-layered role played by commercial art dealers, and there are substantial rewards to our Canadian presence on the international cultural stage.