The value of art

This could be a long one. I'm going to attempt to tie together a variety of thoughts that are rattling around in my brain and which have been inspired by, to a varying degree:

  • Wednesday night's mayoral arts debate
  • An interview I did with a third-year Ryerson journalism student
  • A venue in crisis

Now, for those of you out there who (like me) don't always get through long blog posts/articles, let's see if I can summarize what this will be all about:

  • The arts are important
  • How do we educate young musicians about the value of their art?
  • How do we educate the audience about the value of the art they are consuming?
  • How do venues support live music?
  • I want a mayor who understands the importance of the arts

Here we go...

On Tuesday afternoon, I was interviewed by an enthusiastic, third-year Ryerson journalism student (and aspiring music writer) named Max Mertens. He was interested in my take on the jazz scene in Toronto - the venues, the educational programs, the attitude of musicians, etc. - and it ended up being a wide-ranging, 45-minute discussion. One of the items that came up was how musicians are paid - by venues, by audiences, etc. - and as we were discussing it I realized how passionate I was feeling about it.

It is, without doubt, a tricky issue. When I was in high school, my trumpet teacher said many things which I took to heart; one tidbit I especially remember is: take every gig. And I'm glad I listened to that particular piece of advice. As an emerging artist, an open attitude towards playing the trumpet in a variety of settings led to meeting all kinds of people, playing some pretty fantastic music and, eventually, making some money. And it's advice that I would give to every student who asked.

But where does an emerging artist draw the line between getting experience and making a living? When does an emerging artist make the transition to being an established artist? This is a difficult question, and leads to a discussion about artistic hierarchies, the value of someone's art, and the value society places upon art.

Although I would love for all artists to be making a decent living from their art, the bottom line is some artists have been at it longer, work harder, and frankly deserve more recognition (and compensation) than others. That said, just because seasoned veterans can rightfully request a higher fee, it doesn't mean that younger musicians should be making zero dollars. And yet that seems to be the expectation, especially from certain venues and from certain audiences.

However, and to be fair, venues cannot take too much blame. Economically, as I discussed in a previous post about jazz clubs, it is very difficult to make a go of running a full-time music club. Let's look at an example.

Venue X has a seating capacity of 75 people. On a Friday night, venue X wants to bring in a jazz quartet to play. For the sake of argument, let's say that the jazz quartet is requesting union scale - $135 per musician, plus double for the leader, for a total fee of $675. In order to cover the cost of the musicians, and assuming a reasonable cover of $10, venue X needs to have 67.5 people (okay, let's say 68) in attendance. And that doesn't cover the lease, utilities, food and beverage costs, staffing costs, etc., etc. So is it any surprise that venues have a hard time committing to certain fees?

A common question is: do I think that Toronto needs more jazz venues? Theoretically, yes - I would love for this city to have another full-time jazz club or two. However, there are already a ton of venues which present jazz in this city, even if only one or two nights a week. The challenge, as listed above, is that most can't afford to guarantee musician fees. As a result, there are lots of places for younger musicians - who may ask for less money - to play, and very few places for the veterans to play. So yes - we do need another venue or two which can afford to pay a bit more in musician fees...the economics of that proposition, however, are just not that friendly.

Unfortunately, the idea of clubs struggling for survival is front of mind these days. The Tranzac Club, a vital venue for jazz and experimental music (as well as theatre, dance, and various other community organizations) has launched an emergency fundraising campaign. If they don't raise the money they need by the end of this calendar year, they might have to close their doors. Any venue which embraces experimental music is in an especially tough spot, given the typically smaller audience in attendance (and I've been to shows there with only ten other audience members); they are unlikely to even cover their costs on food and beverage sales. However, it's vital that contemporary art has venues in which to develop - I have come to believe strongly (especially through my work with Continuum Contemporary Music) that without boundary-pushing artists, art would not advance. I've seen some of Canada's top jazz musicians perform in the Tranzac's main room and Southern Cross Lounge, and I urge you to to support their fundraising efforts. Go to their fundraising page for more details.

So if venues aren't entirely to blame, do we shift our gaze to the audience? Well, we can't simply blame the audience for being unwilling to pay for art. On Wednesday night, at the mayoral arts debate, a question about increasing public access to the arts was asked of the candidates. The answers varied (and in fact at that late stage of the debate the candidates seemed more interested in being snippy with one another than actually answering the question); tuning out temporarily, I gave the question some thought too. We're lucky in Toronto to have outstanding events like Luminato, Nuit Blanche and, most recently, Culture Days, which, along with a variety of other year-round programming, provide free access to the arts. It's always exciting to see how many people get out and enjoy the visual art, music, dance, theatre, etc., on display. But - are these events training the general public to expect their art for free? For example - in order for an arts organization to participate in Culture Days, the expectation was that each arts organization would present a free, interactive event. The interactivity of the event was fairly flexible, but the admission price was not - it had to be free. Oh - and there was no funding available from Culture Days for any organization interested in participating. So here was this great cultural event, promising free access to all kinds of art, but which required participating organizations to ask their artists, musicians, dancers, etc., to contribute their work for free. Doesn't that seem a bit odd? We certainly don't ask athletes to perform for free; and would you ever think to ask your accountant, or lawyer, or dentist to work for free, just so you could have greater access to their services?

Okay - let's try to keep on track. (If I can remember what exactly "the track" is...) We've established some of the challenges facing musicians and venues in this city: musicians want to be paid for their services (and rightfully so), venues can't afford to guarantee those fees (and, in many cases, rightfully so), and some audiences aren't used to paying for their art. So what do we do?

Educate. And we need to start young. If we can teach elementary students that music (and all art) is important, and get them to experience it first hand, those students are more likely to grow up with an open mind when it comes to art of all kinds, and may therefore be predisposed to performing or, alternately, consuming art - and paying full value for it. If we can teach university students the value of the art they are pursuing, educating them about the business side of things and not just the craft, my hope is that they will be better equipped to ask for, and expect, fair pay. And, finally, if we can educate the general public about the value of the art they are consuming - the amount of time and effort involved in producing the art; the world-wide recognition earned by some of our local artists - it is my hope that more artists will be compensated fairly for their efforts.

And, apparently, we also need to educate certain mayoral candidates about the arts. The crowd at Wednesday's mayoral arts debate was certainly a lively one; the arts community is mobilized like I've rarely seen it. Bailie Court at the Art Gallery of Ontario was full to capacity a full 45 minutes before the debate; I ended up in a lecture hall at OCAD, watching the online stream of the debate...and that room filled to capacity 15 minutes before the debate started. Overall, I found the debate interesting. Some of the candidates did a better job than others; some chose to attack their fellow candidates rather than answering the questions asked; and they each spoke with a varying degree of passion for the arts. (I'd like to make special mention of James DiFiore, who was chosen by a poll on to be the one non-front-runner mayoral candidate to take part in the debate. He brought a unique perspective to the debate - relying on his extensive experience as an active member of the cultural community - and brought a welcome dose of levity to the event.) However, it was Rob Ford's answer to the question of involving the private sector that drew the evening's only boos. When asked how arts organizations should involve the private sector, Rob Ford said: "It's easy to involve the private sector. I've been to tons of fundraising dinners - organizations just need to put on fundraising dinners, and the private sector will buy tickets, and that's how they can raise money." Let me be clear: I do believe that arts organizations must involve the private sector in order to raise money and be sustainable. But the arrogance of the suggestion that "all you have to do is this" illustrated what I can only interpret as Rob Ford's complete lack of understanding of the capacity of arts organizations in this city. He clearly indicated, throughout the debate, a total lack of interest in supporting the arts and a total lack of understanding of the economic contributions created by the arts. If Rob Ford is elected mayor, how can we expect him to help anyone become more educated about the arts? I haven't yet decided who I feel is the right person for the job...but it's pretty clear to me after Wednesday's debate that it's not Rob Ford. (And this is my personal opinion, and should be taken only as such.)

I will now attempt to sum up.

We have a duty to educate artists about the value of their art so that they will be fairly compensated for their efforts. We have a duty to educate the general public so that they understand why they should be paying for the art they consume. We need to work with - not against - venues so that they can continue to support and present art in a sustainable fashion. And we need to elect municipal leaders who can help, and not hinder, our efforts to extoll the benefits, the economic value, and the importance of the arts.

To suggest that there is a simple solution to all this would be naive, and I'm certainly not trying to do so. We all have a role to play, and if we all pitch in, over the next few generations I'm hopeful that Toronto will actually grow into the oft-used moniker of "World Class City."

I feel this is a vital discussion and I welcome and encourage feedback, comments, dissent, criticism and opposing opinions. What do you think? Is art undervalued in today's society? Are artists doing enough to ask for fair compensation? Can venues do more to support the artists they present? Does the general public need to do more to support artists and the art they consume?


P.S. - And totally unrelated: Brian Dickinson and Ted Quinlan are celebrating the release of their new CD on Addo Records this Saturday, October 2, 8 pm at Gallery 345. This is an all-Canadian affair: Brian and Ted are two of Canada's best jazz musicians; and Addo Records was founded by acclaimed Canadian recording engineer Steve Bellamy. I encourage you to check it out. (And to get acquainted with Gallery 345 - owner Ed Epstein is a keen supporter of the arts and frequently hosts top-notch performances in his space.) Details at

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