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Industrial struggles and a nod to Karine Savard's work (theme # 14)

Theme : work

Museums are places where works of art are exhibited and preserved. We visit them to discover the productions of artists from the past and present, to question and learn from their reflections and experimentations, to live extraordinary experiences. Less often, however, we think about the museum as a workplace or about artists as self-employed workers.

The strike mandates voted in 2019 by two important cultural institutions in Canada, the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) and the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), remind us that cultural sectors are workplaces with precarious conditions, where job security is fragile, wages are low, and benefits are rare. These issues were at the heart of the demands of MAC unionized employees, half of whom were then on contract, with no benefits, insurance coverage, or vacation time. Having been without a collective agreement for five years, MAC workers felt obliged to take to the streets to make their demands public. The same grievances were at the heart of the demands of the employees of the Vancouver Art Gallery, on the other side of the country. While the MAC strike lasted only one day in November 2019, the VAG strike lasted 7 days in February 2019. A non-profit organization, the VAG has a status similar to that of the Musée d'art de Joliette. After eight months of negotiations, a week-long strike, and a session with a mediator, the employees and managers of the Vancouver museum agreed to a retrospective salary increase and a revision of work schedules.

Cultural workers and artists work in a sector where many are called and few are chosen. Competition is just as strong for positions in artist-run centres, exhibition centres, and museums as it is for exhibition and residency opportunities. For every superstar artist whose work is valued at impressive prices on the art market, hundreds of others struggle to make ends meet. That said, the romantic image of the artist on the fringes of the system as a bohemian protest figure does not, or no longer, correspond to reality. Already in 2002, Pierre-Michel Menger, in a small book entitled Portrait de l'artiste en travailleur [Portrait of the Artist as Worker], noted that "not only are creative artistic activities not or no longer the flip side of work, but, on the contrary, they are increasingly claimed as the most advanced expression of new modes of production and new employment relationships generated by the recent changes in capitalism" (p. 8). According to him, "the creator should henceforth be seen as an exemplary figure of the new worker, a figure revealing many decisive transformations: the fragmentation of the workforce, the rise of freelance professionals, the magnitude and sources of contemporary inequalities, the measurement and evaluation of skills, and the individualization of employment relations. "(p. 8) How can this be explained?


Karine Savard, Passage, 2016, installation, Festival Art souterrain, Place des arts, Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Québec, Cité internationale

Artist are workers whose commitment to their craft is boundless, who derive a sense of personal fulfilment and gratification from their occupation, who identify with their production and performance. In short, they are workers who see their activity not as a job, but as a vocation. Much of their success is therefore measured in the form of non-monetary gains. If their degree of autonomy and freedom in work is high, the flexibility that artists enjoy for their organization is proportional to the level of risks to which they are exposed. One of the popular ways of mitigating the risks and instability has been to turn to multi-activity. This, enhanced by hyperconnectivity, contributes to the blurring of work and personal life, which many teleworking people are currently experiencing across the country (see an open letter published by Le Devoir on this subject). As a result, artists often find themselves working in alternating periods of intense productivity and relaxation, always with the uncertainty of resuming their activities in the future. This makes their situation very precarious and increases their anxiety when the time comes to "pull the plug" to take time off work. We can thus see a parallel between the artist model and that of the self-employed, independent, or contract worker, who both evolve in a competitive environment based on reputation and network, and whose success is always uncertain. Paradoxically, it might precisely be the high degree of unpredictability of success of this model that acts as its driving force, since it fuels the worker to remain creative and innovative. Hence the high social prestige of those who stand out, both for the artist and the self-employed worker. It remains a vision of the labour market that favours employers and does disservice to employees by valuing insecurity, which opens the door to slippage that could lead to burnout.

Menger thus concludes that the artistic professions have become "the paradigm of free, non-routine, ideally fulfilling work, [but] generating considerable disparities in conditions between those who succeed and those who are relegated to the lower levels of the pyramid of notoriety." (p. 52) These changes in the labour market, favouring autonomy and independence, probably partly explain the decline in interest for unionism, where risks are distributed through collective association. Freelance workers thus find themselves alone to defend their rights, negotiate benefits and pay, for better or for worse, against employers who often carry much more weight than they do.


Karine Savard, Outils de travail, 2015, vidéo sur camion d’affichage mobile


This reflection on the evolution and upheavals in work organization fuels an upcoming group exhibition project at the Musée d'art de Joliette. Produced in partnership with Maud Jacquin, independent French curator, and Chloé Grondeau, director of the artist-run centre Diagonale (Montréal), it will consider the role of the art world as a precursor in experimenting with work hyperflexibility.

Among the artists in the future exhibition is Karine Savard, a Montreal artist and researcher interested in the world of work. Trained as a graphic designer, she makes film posters for a living and, in her artistic practice, develops a reflection on her own status as a self-employed worker in the cultural industry. In preparation for the installation she will exhibit at the MAJ and Diagonale, in 2020 she will carry out a research residency at Vidéographe, an artist-run centre specialized in video, whose collection includes more than 2,250 works. Vidéographe presents its collection as a resource highlighting "the artistic issues and social movements that have shaped Quebec and Canada since the 1970s." Drawing from this rich collection, Karine Savard will select video works that deal with the theme of work, address the beginnings of union organization and self-management initiatives, or give workers a voice. She will then produce posters promoting these video-pamphlets of the past. The posters, diverted by the anachronism of their usual promotional function, will subsequently be exhibited at the MAJ, in the city of Joliette, but most importantly at the Diagonale artist-run centre, whose spaces are located in a former industrial building in Montreal, revitalized to accommodate several cultural organizations. With this gesture, the artist hopes to "create bridges between the struggles of the past industrial period and those to be waged in the context of today's cognitive capitalism" (according to her preliminary proposal) – a context in which artists and cultural workers evolve.

Savard’s project and the exhibition it is part of are still in development, but already we can see that they have the potential to raise awareness of the reality of artistic workers and self-employed people, who face the similar challenges in the transforming job market.

Karine Savard, Box with the sound of its own making, 2016, installation, photographie et bande sonore, Galerie Leonard et Bina Ellen, Université Concordia


This article was written by Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre, Curator of Contemporary Art, Musée d'art de Joliette.


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