by carl wilson

Art for a Change/Change for the Arts


Had a grand time yesterday at the launch of the new Coach House uTOpia book. There were two major themes that I think emerged from the "unofficial culture" and "official culture" panels (I was on the former, along with Sarah Hood, Karen Hines, Stuart Ross and Kat Collins), along with discussion among the several hundred people in attendance: One, the notion of exploring alternative models of funding based on a grassroots patronage system, either for individual artists or for organizations - there was a lot of talk about getting rich people involved, but I think you could also get groups of middle-class people to pitch in, if there were a structure for it. I've mentioned the project ArtistShare before on Zoilus. I wish I'd thought to bring it up yesterday: It organizes musicians' fans to fund projects up front, rather than just buying T-shirts and CDs at the back end - and that's a model that could be emulated in various forms for other endeavours. But also, as moderator Misha Glouberman said, it would be a simple step forward if arts audiences (music fans very much included) were encouraged to think of themselves as patrons rather than consumers - rather than trying to get a bargain price on a CD, pay extra for it. Buy the T-shirt even if you're not going to wear it. Who cares? Give it to your little sister. And if you're broke, what about forgoing that pint of beer at the bar so that you can help out the band? Because what you're doing is funding artists whose work you admire. It's not like trying to get the best price on breakfast cereal.

The other big theme was the relative isolation of the downtown, white, indie-arts community from the racial diversity of Toronto. I talked about this from several angles in my piece in the uTOpia book, which is about participatory culture - a form that's been flowering in Toronto, but when looked at closely can seem dangerously incestuous. Two of the main things people name when they say what they love about Toronto are how great the arts community is and that the city is so diverse - and yet the two virtues don't overlap nearly enough. In part, that's a natural contradiction: People seek out like-minded people to work with, and art that speaks directly to them, and so it's inevitable that this will lead toward some similarness. Not as much as armchair critics resentfully assume, but still more than is ideal. I think these things have to come in stages: The community that's been built is mature enough now to begin extending into new realms, and challenging itself with encounters with people from very different contexts and ways of thinking. It seems necessary not just from some sort of politically correct point of view but in order for the art itself to get sharper and more powerfully connected to the real world that we inhabit. It was great to hear that feeling emerge from the crowd collectively as a real yearning, something that went deeper than lip service. My feeling is that it will be fraught with complications on a bunch of levels, but for change to begin all you need is a few smart, small initiatives. Most often people are just too hesitant to take the first step.

Recordings of the panels will apparently be up on the Coach House website, along with a discussion board.

The music after the panels was actually a lovely illustration of the themes and ideas of the day: First there was a classic indie-art-scene group, the Phonemes, playing one of their better sets ever (their new album on Blocks is going to be wonderful, and I'm betting it'll garner a lot of blog attention in 2007). They were followed by rapper More or Les and his DJ, Professor Fingers (also of Insideamind). It was my first time seeing Les - I've been meaning to check him out for awhile, thanks to buzz from local heads such as Del Cowie - and it was a real pleasure. He's got great flow, but moreover he's got one of the most charming, personable stage personae I've encountered in a while - and while some of his raps-about-rap are predictable in that indie-rap way (okay, we get it, you don't like women being disrespected, guns or the N-word), quite the opposite is true when he rhymes about brunch, busking and other quotidian facts of life. Plus, he did a freestyle based on the uTOpia book - getting an audience volunteer to call out page numbers, he flipped to those spots in the volume and improvised rhymes based on words and sentences in it. I got to hear a subtitle from my essay turned into a rap. Pretty hard to resist. And finally there was the one-off band Scarborough A/V, who played a live soundtrack to a video of the sights of the suburbs, mostly desolate and ugly, but sometimes beautiful, which fit with the occasional mentions in the book and through the day of the downtown arts world's need to consider the fact that most of the population doesn't live downtown, and to exhibit a little curiosity about life north of St. Clair, and to the west and the east.

I'll post quickly later about last night's Wavelength, with Tomboyfriend and Yah Mos Def. But I also wanted to mention that I have a brief piece in this feature in the recent anniversary issue of This Magazine, the small Canadian leftie publication where I worked a decade ago. My bit, about halfway through, is called "The Art of the Game," and in many ways, it's a short summary of some of the ideas I discuss in my uTOpia essay. If it catches your curiosity, why not buy the book? It's a sweet, gooey Whitman's Sampler of cultural notations and impulses - I've only gobbled up a few truffles so far, but it tastes like inspiration.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, November 27 at 4:34 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)



point(s) taken. as a partial solution for medium-sized artists, it's a great idea. i'd happily pay for, say, a small chunk of ornette coleman's rent (more than a CD, less than my own rent) to see my name in the liner notes of his next album. maybe with an orchestra again? science fiction was 1971, goddamit.

Posted by dave m. on November 29, 2006 1:32 AM



oh, PS - the motivation not to succumb to "sloth and obscurantism" is that the kind of money you're going to raise this way is not likely to be a level you want to stick with. you get your existing fans to fund the next project which will get you further fans. I'd say the danger actually is much more that artists might be more tempted to stick with what they know their fans like, rather than to change radically, since they'd be x percent more dependent on old fans. But even that prediction seems unnecessarily alarmist - these ideas should be looked at as supplements to how things currently work, not some kind of wholescale replacement.

Posted by zoilus on November 28, 2006 5:48 PM



The ArtistShare model generally gets the devoted fans to pay more than the cost of a CD. I think their experience is that the feeling of involvement the fans get from it can motivate people to be more generous, thus helping make up for the people who don't pay anything at all.

It's not like commissioning or grants in that the people doing the funding don't exercise any choice or control over what the artist does. They trust the artist. I suppose if this model became super-prevalent you'd have to worry about it becoming too cozying and corrupting, but that seems ridiculously premature and naysaying at this point.

The more appropriate critique is that it only works for people who already have devoted followings, but it's still an inspired alternative for that middle layer of artists who only make enough to keep going and whose biggest problem is often having the money up front to make the work, rent studio space, etc.

Posted by zoilus on November 28, 2006 5:44 PM



k-os is a man of peace.*

interesting post. the whole concept of fans funding the project up front seems like an invitation to sloth and obscurantism, though, judging from how most grant/commissioned work seems to go. if the devoted fans are the ones paying for the production of the work on the front-end, how is that different than what currently happens? the people who would contribute to such a scheme are probably the same people who will actually buy the album / the t-shirt even if it doesn't fit / the overpriced beer to prop up bar sales. funding the work in advance is called Going To The Gig Before The Album Comes Out. if the hope is that by formalizing such a system it would encourage those swayed by appeals to charity, what do you lose when you make every artist a charity case?

the problem is the casual listener who used to buy the album because there was no other way to get it, but now downloads it for free instead, and the patronage model doesn't do anything to make them change. that's the audience that needs to be coerced. what do we do about them?

*and when he's not, here's hoping he's too drunk to get the safety off.

Posted by dave m. on November 28, 2006 4:14 PM



That's a good point, Tim, and something I've seen at jazz shows, too - it's not such a problem at rock shows. The classic jazz-club structure has depended on having audiences that are solvent enough to buy both a CD and a beer (and often dinner, too) but as jazz audiences have shrunk, especially for non-crossover jazz, that's often not enough. It would be great to see a club come along that had some new creative ideas for how to make itself a hot spot, to attract people to the music as much as using the music to attract people.

Another point that came up on Sunday was for artists to hold events more often at non-bar venues, so that they don't so often feel like glorified boozesellers. There are good reasons why bars have been favoured - they're easily accessible semi-public spaces, on a bunch of levels - but variety is good.

Posted by zoilus on November 28, 2006 1:47 PM



I am sad I missed this event. Sounds great.

Although I like your sentiments about supporting artists I am not sure about your idea of forgoing beer Carl...sometimes when you have $6 to spend it might be better to buy a beer. It makes you happy and might help keep some of these small venues alive. (obviously it depends where you are as to whether they need your barley buys) Jazz fans are the worst and will often sit down and order a glass of water and then wonder where all the clubs have gone.

pour me another one,

Posted by tim on November 28, 2006 1:37 PM



"predictable in that indie-rap way (okay, we get it, you don't like women being disrespected, guns or the N-word)"

Meanwhile, on the CBC the other day, it was suggested that only *one* hip hopper-- K-OS-- would *ever* suggest abandoning guns.

Perspective really is everything!

Posted by Jill on November 28, 2006 10:20 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson