Show me the Monet: Why is Canada falling behind in terms of contemporary art?

There are a lot of things to critique about the world of contemporary art. It’s elitist, self-congratulatory and – in its worst moments – unable to tell the difference between things that belong in the garbage and things that should sell for millions.

Take, for example, Italian artist Piero Manzoni whose literal cans of “artist’s shit” sell for upwards of €100,000. Or the piece by artist Josh Smith I observed last week at Art Basel, which was simply his name scrawled on a white canvas. People often like to joke that a five-year-old could replicate some of the more laughable examples of what we call art. In this case, they really could.

But, whether you love it or hate it, the contemporary art scene has never been cooler or more accessible. Thanks to the internet and the rise of trendy art fairs like Art Basel, current artists are having a moment in the cultural spotlight.

You no longer have to be a part of the inner arts circle to be able to name and recognize artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami or Ai WeiWei. Hip brands like Hennessy, Kiehl’s, Bombay Sapphire, Perrier and Clarisonic are eagerly collaborating with artists like Shepard Fairey, Scott Campbell and the Keith Haring Foundation. Entire retail brands, like Toronto-based Nuvango, have created an identity around partnering with emerging artists. Kim Kardashian was even able to justify an entire book of selfies by calling it art.

In the midst of all this hype, Canadian artists have yet to truly make their mark. Sure, there are certainly homegrown talents worth knowing and seeing, but it’s an unfortunate rarity for their work to be internationally recognized on a large scale.

Art Basel 2016

Art Basel 2016

While the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has certainly expanded its cultural footprint in recent years, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art is still a niche destination and the National Gallery of Canada’s most viral headline of late was its successful attempt to shut down the Instagram account of artist Jay Isaac, who offered a dissenting view of our country’s art history under the handle @nationalgalleryofcanada. The Canadian Museum of Inuit Art closed its doors earlier this year, and the indie gallery scene in Canada’s major cities hasn’t quite picked up the “cool factor” of its counterparts around the world.

If there’s no lack of talent in the True North, then why is Canada still lightyears behind comparable nations when it comes to making its mark in the contemporary art world?

One thing that’s certainly not helping is the dearth of powerful, monied independent galleries across Canada prohibiting artists from showing at major fairs like Art Basel. Exhibitors at Art Basel aren’t artists themselves, but rather the galleries who represent them. Without many galleries in the market to represent Canadian artists on an international scale, homegrown artists often don’t make it into the fairs. It’s also not enough for galleries to just exist – they have to be worthy of making it through a rigorous selection process and wealthy enough to pay the six-figure sums many fairs demand for the privilege of a booth. Then, of course, there’s the costs associated with shipping art and flying gallery staff and artists to the big event.

One hope for emerging Canadian artists is a generous brand to take on their cause, as happened for the first time this year with Bombay Sapphire’s Artisan Series. While the art competition has been around for several years, 2016 was the first time it was opened up to Canadian participants. As a result, four Canadians have made the finals at Art Basel Miami: three regional winners from across Canada (Patrick Lightheart from Toronto, Benjamin Lee from Vancouver and Jeremie St-Pierre from Montreal), alongside one artist currently residing in New York City (Ivan Alifan) who won one of two online People’s Choice awards to gain entrance.

Bombay Sapphire flew down all the artists – none of whom had exhibited at Miami art week before – and provided them with space to exhibit at the prestigious SCOPE Miami Beach fair in a shared booth. The grand prize winner receives a solo show at SCOPE next December.

The importance of gaining access to art fairs goes beyond simply showing one’s work. Artisan series judge and Canadian art royalty Kim Dorland emphasized the importance of young artists learning how to network and talk about their work. “It’s not as simple as hanging a painting on a wall,” he says.

Meanwhile Toronto-based Lightheart valued the ability to connect with galleries – one of which he hopes will represent him when he returns home.

But even with brands stepping up to the plate, the Canadian arts scene needs more. Alifan, for one, can’t picture himself ever returning to Canada because of the lack of opportunities. St-Pierre laments the lack of cultural value placed on art in Canada: “We should be teaching it in our schools earlier on. You don’t learn about art unless you go to university for it, and so it’s not something that many Canadians value.”

Then there’s the missing piece of a major homegrown art fair. While there are exhibitions like Art Toronto and the Papier Art Fair in Montreal, none approach the credibility, international appeal and purchase power of the large international fairs.

Canadians have to ask themselves how important art is to our national identity, and what are we willing to do to help artists “make it.” The modern art world is progressing at a rapid rate, but there’s still time to catch up if we make the right moves when it comes to funding, education and public interest.

“I’ve never bought into the idea that Canadian artists need to leave home to find success,” says Dorlan. “There’s so much talent here, and a rich history – there just needs to be more support.”

This piece originally appeared in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux