Memo for artists : Arts are a market

By Vincent Geloso on October 2, 2008

Artists in Quebec were hoping that Stephen Harper would be ripping his hairs off to look like Jack Layton as they unleashed ads criticizing the government for cutting funding to arts in the province. However, their cause is not benefitting from widespread support as they expected and whatever support they have are polite yet lacking in passion. Such a situation should force questioning as to the state of arts and culture in Quebec.

Award winning artist Anne Dorval put it best this Sunday on the talk show Tout le Monde en Parle (everybody talks about it) when she said «why are Quebeckers not with us?». Indeed a fascinating question considering that Quebec sees itself as a distinct society with a culture and an identity that puts it apart from the rest of Canada. A strong national identity would normally imply a strong culture, thus we would expect to see Quebecers massively behind the artists. Then why are Quebecers either siding against artists or just being politely supportive?

Part of the answer resides in what the arts community produces and the other part is found in Quebeckers as consumers of arts and culture. Both element of the answer cannot be taken without the other in mind since – broadly speaking – arts and culture are markets where consumers and producers meet to exchange.

For centuries, arts were the affair of the elite few – monarchs, princes, dukes, popes and rich merchants. Nowadays, with so much more prosperity than then and globalized markets, more and more individuals choose to consumer cultural goods and services. And with richer and larger markets, artists developed and exploited niches that were once unprofitable. Never before have we seen arts and culture so accessible to the wide public. Less than a half-century ago, nobody could actually boast to have heard Beethoven's moonlight sonata or «Figaro’s marriage» by Mozart. Now, concerts are cheap and accessible to all and you can buy those on iTunes for your iPod. Meanwhile, artists acted like entrepreneurs by boldly going where no artists had gone before. Thirty years ago, who would have thought that there would be markets for a tatoo museum and new age poetry? New forms of arts emerged with the public willingly deciding to consume them.

You cannot extract cultural activities from the basic laws of economics. Funding arts can be the best way to extract arts from the unanimity without conformity that the market provides. French philosopher Jean-François Revel expressed better than I could ever wished too when he said that if state funding is guaranteed to provide the best work of arts, the most magnificent painting would have hailed from Soviet Russia.

Artists in Quebec have been making the case that they are doing this to extract arts from the diktat of profit that produces dumb reality shows. They plead that higher arts and culture can only come from state funding that extracts them from the market. However, in such a situation artists can produce not for the public but for themselves only using the money of others (I would not really be writing this article if they used their own money on themselves). Here we see the answer to Anne Dorval’s question.


We cannot spontaneously create great works of arts, cinematographic masterpieces, internationally acclaimed plays and award winning musicians by throwing money out of the windows of the ministries of finances and culture. We build a culture by putting more emphasis on choice from consumers. However, the former has been the policy in Quebec for decades and the best way for people not to care about something is to tell them that somebody will do it for them.

In the United States, we find the greatest number of operas, museums and ochestras in the world. The same country is host to the most magnificent collections of paintings, sculptures and historical objects. It is also the same country where households spends more than Canadian households with public subsidies less than a dollar per capita (0.34$) compared with $61 per capita in Canada. Alberta is also where we see the highest private support of museums, shows and books. It is also where we see generous donations from the private sector. We might pass judgment on what is produced, but the matter of the fact is that individuals consume cultural goods and services if they feel it fit their preferences. Otherwise, there is no connection between artists and consumers. The best case in example are the impressionnists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir (whose paintings are presented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) in France who were born against the will of the Academies that had been granted - broadly speaking - a monopoly to decide what is art and what is not.

So memo to artists in Quebec, if Quebecers don’t care about the funding cuts, it’s because you don’t fully connect with them.


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