Don’t shoot the messenger: aka and the exploitation of emerging artists

There was a recent complaint regarding my comments on air, on The A Word on CFCR, calling aka artist run a pimp for exploiting emerging artists with its “TBA” space, which I also prefer to call “The Unpaid Intern” space. I was accused of pursuing a “vendetta.” I’d like to take some time to clarify that, although I feel I made my point quite concisely on air. However, this is something that should be elaborated upon, so the larger community is aware of it, and this is an easy way to do so.

aka’s 2014 was not one of their best years: the early tone was set with a significant cut from one of their main funders, the Canada Council.

In response to this, aka decided to emulate paved art’s very popular – with artists but also funders – Toon’s Kitchen initiative. This is a worthy model: but aka missed the main thing that makes Toon’s focus on local artists – sometimes emerging, sometimes experienced – so worthy of praise and support. paved pays artist fees, and pays fees to any writers commissioned to respond to the work. This is not only appropriate for an artist run centre, but is an irrefutable part of its mandate and reason for being.

There was a time when artist fees were not paid, when major galleries would act as though the artists should thank them for the show. CARFAC fought for a pay scale that is still in usage: many ARCs literally shamed mainstream galleries into paying fees (and yes, there is an echo of that public shaming in what I’m doing here). Its sad to see that the fight isn’t just unfinished, but that natural allies, like aka, are choosing to exploit emerging and inexperienced artists, with (at best) delusional or (more likely) cynical arguments, claiming “exposure” and “experience”.

Those are common lines – or lies –  put out by organizations that are looking for a reason not to pay artists of any media (I’m sure you’ve seen that social media post about how to respond to a restaurant that wants you to play for exposure and experience, and how shamelessly exploitative the idea is shown to be when reversed).

It’s even more transparently false here, where the attendance aka gets in two months may match the Frances Morrison Library Gallery space for two weeks. You’ll get more exposure at Unreal City, or The Woods: and though none of these places pay fees, they are NOT artist run centres. They also allow work to be sold off the wall. Frankly, all three places have done a better job publicizing their exhibitions than aka has done with their TBA space.

Experience, considering that the ‘unpaid intern’ artists do their own vinyl and seem to have no installation support, is akin to how getting mugged and learning to be more wary is also “experience”. This is where my cynical re titling the space “Unpaid Intern” speaks to how this exploitation is something we see elsewhere, at magazines or businesses that want the benefits without any investment or respect for the intern. Remember the outrage that was the response to the governor of the Bank of Canada suggesting the unemployed millennial “volunteer” instead? Sadly, there’s more offenders of this variety in cultural spaces than corporate ones, these days.

Arguably, there has never been a harder time to be an emerging artist: whether its the debt load many carry out of their BFA or MFA, or that there are fewer and fewer jobs at less and less pay. There’s no real space in the city specifically dedicated to emerging artists, as in larger urban centres. The art school at the University of Saskatchewan rarely prepares its graduates for post degree action: most MFA students are unknown in the larger community, and the BFA program is poverty stricken in terms of larger community connections.

Traditionally, ARCs have been stepping stones: many have focused on the demographic of emerging artists, who are often seeking a community to continue making work and to exhibit it post university.

Exploiting a group that is inexperienced, and yet often very eager and excellent is despicable. To try and claim you’re assisting them, when your next door neighbour is paying them fees as well as supporting their exhibition both physically and media wise, when in fact you’re using them to make yourself look better to your funders, is reprehensible. Exploitation is defined as benefiting unfairly from the work of others, or to use a person in an unfair and selfish way. That is also, when combined with a focus to use the unaware, trusting and inexperienced, a very accurate definition of a pimp.

To call this a “vendetta” is willful misconstruing. I worked with students and emerging artists for nearly 15 years here, so seeing that they are respected and rewarded appropriately is important to me. During that time I worked with the Visual Arts Student Union to foster professional development, and make them aware of their options, as well as their rights. Perhaps a better question is why an artist run centre is not as concerned about this as I am.

I might also suggest attempting to shoot the messenger is neither an effective or positive approach. Nor is it merited.

After all, I’ve given significant coverage to several artists at aka this past year (Shanelle Papp, Joi Arcand, Shelley Niro, Felicia Gay, Mary Longman), and may continue to do so, if the work is deserving (its an active community, and some things are more worthy of coverage than others). I produced five radio shows this June / July alone to support Sounds Like IV: bluntly, without me, there would have been no media coverage of that worthy festival save a piece in VERB.

The Canada Council has cut aka twice in the last five years. The previous one was significant enough to mobilize the community to prevent a feared shutdown: despite the accusations of a “vendetta” on my part, I have no interest in seeing that. But I also have no interest in fostering the illusion that aka is a healthy, functional space which respects its mandate or fosters its role in this community.


I’m updating this now, in 2016, as some things need to be highlighted, and I’m long past the reach of those whom lack integrity, by sins of omission or commission, in Saskatoon.

I should add, that since this post originally went up, Stephanie Kate (as she identifies on FB, or as her actual name is, Stephanie Norris ) smeared me and maligned me online (there were some outright lies in her FB post, such as claiming I named her, but her ignorance, is, once again, unsurprising). I did not respond to that, as the CFCR board and Director responded appropriately, though Norris puled and whined online, as most children do when they don’t get their way, that they didn’t cave to her “demands.” Perhaps, if she’d stopped for a moment to think, she’d have realized that those in the musical sphere, such as CFCR, have a very negative response to artists NOT being paid, or the old tripe that aka administrator Tarin Dehod (whom was Tarin Hughes at the time of this abuse and dereliction of duty) used in attempting to justify the TBA space, of “exposure” and “experience.”

At the time of the yoga teacher (Norris has no experience with galleries, nor artist run centre experience) complaining, she was a board member of paved: they declined to become involved in her vendetta despite her attempts to sully them in this matter.

This may be due to paved’s board chair and staff being aware that aka was breaking a major ethical rule in not paying artists (Gary Young had raised concerns about this, at an aka AGM, and was dismissed), and perhaps due to the fact that aka had essentially “stolen” paved’s Toon’s Kitchen idea and passed it off as their own (except, of course, for the payment and the production support a media centre like paved can provide).

Tellingly, the only people who complained about my comments about aka NOT paying artists were Norris, as the yoga teacher of the aka director, aka’s board (which had already been criticised for a number of other failures of governance), and the aka director’s significant other [at that time], Travis Cole. He didn’t inform his board at BlackFlash that he was inappropriately tainting his professional space with personal biases (his complaint was made as ME of BlackFlash, and CFCR was unaware of his personal relationship until I brought it to their attention).

However, it’s important to highlight and name the complainants: as I’m sure Norris was paid a full artist fee for her role in an exhibition at paved in 2016, and is really unable to see the larger issue. She’s perhaps blinded by her “friendship” and ignorance regarding the roles – and rules – of ARC culture. This ignorance was clear in her slanderous declaration of me as having no respect for women, when my history in Saskatoon clearly showed otherwise, and when she, in fact demonstrates a lack of respect for women in ignoring that at least one female artist was NOT being paid in that space.

I add this update for two reasons:  Stephanie Norris needs to be named, as she enjoyed the benefit of smearing me on FB without any context or debate. However, anyone who wishes to submit work or articles to BlackFlash may wish to do so again, as Cole has since moved on to be at paved, and perhaps has taken his stench of unprofessionalism to that organization. This is regrettable: I say this as a founding member of paved, but as with many groups that are being degraded by incompetents, I’ve walked away from them.

As well, if reading about the actions of the individuals involved here concerns you, I suggest contacting the chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, Pamela Acton, at The Canada Council lacks the will or the integrity to deal with this situation, as they were unwilling to even acknowledge the governance failures at aka, whether due to incompetence or wilful abuse of position.

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). Gazzola was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine (3 years), and was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. He held the latter role for more than a decade, publishing reviews about Saskatoon visual arts and the larger community twice monthly. He's a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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