People in the world of outsider art in Vancouver have been telling me that I have to meet “Ray”, but they couldn’t tell me where I might find him. They said he was “around” and that I would meet him sooner or later. Well, I finally met Ray by sheer chance, when he was painting outside the Vancouver Art Gallery last week.
I noticed an artist with a shopping cart full of art supplies: boards to paint on, big cans of paint, an assortment of brushes. He seemed to be packing up for the day, so I wandered over to see what was happening. I soon learned that I was standing in front of Ray, and a small collection of his artwork. He was delighted to hear that I knew about him.
Ray is in his 50s, and says he has been painting for a long time, but couldn’t be more specific than that. Apparently his style changes frequently and he just happens to be creating abstract work right now. He loves to paint – that’s just who he is. I was curious to know how he sells his work. He sells at least one painting a day right off the street. The best sales are at night when the pubs empty out. He says his work is owned by hundreds of people in Vancouver.
I learned something disturbing when I asked if any galleries carried his work. Sadly, Ray says that gallery owners buy up a lot of his work for a few dollars, then sell them in their galleries at highly marked up prices. I asked if they gave him a percentage of sales, and they do not. We discussed the injustice of it all. Ray knows the galleries are taking advantage of him, and is resigned to the situation. Having just written about ethical issues in outsider art (and about to attend a conference on the topic), I am acutely aware how life is for street artists. Their personal circumstances leave them quite powerless in the commercial art world.
I recently joined the European Outsider Art Association a fairly new organization established in 2009. (Thank you to Nita in Sweden for telling me about it.) Given the lack of dialogue about outsider art in Canada, I was delighted to discover the EOA and find a group of professionals with whom I could explore outsider art issues.
The EOA’s purpose is to strengthen the voice of outsider art by improving intercultural cooperation and dialogue across the European borders. Its objectives are to:
- create a favourable environment for those in this field willing to share experience, exchange good practice and set up partnerships at a transnational level
- collect knowledge and share out information on activities and movements in the international outsider art scene
- contribute to the shaping, development and implementation of national and European policies and legislation
- create a forum for promoting, exploring and debating the history and contemporary state of outsider art
- promote the rights of outsider artists
I will be attending a conference in Heidelberg in May (2013), called Ethical Issues in Outsider Art. The purpose of the gathering is to clarify what constitutes an ethically responsible approach to dealing with artists and artwork in the outsider art field. Because outsider artists are often not able to represent themselves in the art world or the art market, the curator, dealer, or buyer has an obligation to act responsibly.
In the past, psychiatrists typically claimed the work of their patients for themselves. But who actually owns the artwork? In many situations, the answer is not clear.
In speaking with the director of one open studio, I learned that it is common practice for organizations that sponsor the workshops or studios to claim ownership of the artwork produced there. This was described to me as an ethical and moral issue. It’s not just that; it is also a legal issue! Copyright remains with the artist unless and until the artist assigns it to someone else. You can imagine the difficulties that arise when the artists are mentally or intellectually challenged.
I am interested to hear what ownership views are among outsider art professionals, what practices are common, and how they can be standardized (and enforced) to protect outsider artists. I will report back from the conference.