Invisible Labour and the Visual Arts

Sarah Jones, Isolation Paintings, Germain (Night) No. 1, Oil on panel, 16”x16”, 2020.

The production and presentation of art requires artists and arts organizations to perform many different types of work, most of which go unseen by the general public. On a large scale, every art gallery and arts organization has a team of administrators that take care of the finances, coordinate events, and maintain websites and social media accounts. Curators are hired to design the exhibitions, writers provide the contextual material to accompany the display, and maintenance workers ensure the proper installation of the artworks. Larger art institutions will have educators on staff to interpret the exhibits, facilitate children’s programs, and share their knowledge with the public. Museums employ art conservators and restoration teams to clean and repair artworks using imaging technologies and analyses of chemical interactions. The current restrictions on public gatherings has pulled back the curtain on the arts and culture sector to reveal the crucial behind-the-scenes work done by artists and arts organizations alike. 

Something the general public may not realize is that artists undertake a slew of administrative duties including budgeting, grant writing, marketing, promotion, and communications. I was recently talking with Saint John-based visual artist, educator, and curator, Amy Ash about how there is no such thing as a typical work day in her life as a full-time artist. In the course of a week, Amy spends two full days teaching at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design and at the Art4Life Seniors art education program. Between teaching days, Amy can be found meeting with artists for upcoming curatorial projects, corresponding with organizations to plan collaborations, applying for funding, writing for upcoming exhibitions, and, of course, creating artwork in her studio. Similarly, Moncton-based abstract artist Jared Betts spends much of his time outside the studio working to support his artistic practice. Jared spends at least four hours each day performing administrative tasks: coordinating residencies, writing grant applications, updating his website, posting on social media, applying to public galleries, keeping in touch with newsletters, and doing research for his upcoming projects. 

We may also consider that the labour artists undertake in their studio is rarely visible to their artworks’ audience. Saint John visual artist Sarah Jones has been live streaming daily “Studio Isolation Broadcasts” where she unveils the creative process with which many non-artists are unfamiliar (and through this we are reminded that every artwork was, at one point, half-finished). In these videos Sarah talks about what paints she uses, explains how artworks are priced, offers glimpses at her works-in-progress, offers advice to fellow artists (“never clean your studio!”), and shares daily excitements like compositions coming together and visits from her dog, Pip. Sarah also shares some of the challenges she faces such as accidental spills and things not going according to plan. On Facebook, artist Ysabelle Vautour flips through her sketchbooks, chats about challenges, offers advice and cost-effective alternatives (some insights into ‘pastel predicaments’), and sings some songs to lift spirits. CreatedHere Magazine’s #TheNewRegular initiative features artists and makers’ new routines, reinvented studio practices, and how they are coping through creativity. Through these online artist-driven initiatives we are reminded that art is work (hard work) and that the completed artworks we see in galleries are just the tip of the iceberg. 

The recent shift to online presentation of artworks is supported by the creativity and dedication of the artists and arts administrators working with and for local arts organizations. The New Brunswick College of Craft and Design presented their Graphic Design exhibition online last month, Third Space Gallery artist-run centre is presenting an online members’ show in May, the New Brunswick Museum is offering virtual exhibitions, the Saint John Arts Centre now facilitates art sales online, and Handworks Gallery offers local delivery and curb-side pickup. Julie Whitenect, a visual artist and the executive director of ArtsLink NB was featured on CBC Information Morning in March to talk about the impacts the arts and culture sector is feeling with recent cancelations and closures, encouraging artists and arts organizations to track their losses and urging patrons to continue to support the arts from a (physical) distance.

What may appear to be a demonstration for social media and virtual art exhibits during isolation is actually exemplary of the behind-the-scenes work that artists and arts workers are always undertaking; this invisible excess of labour is always present, it is simply rendered visible during this period of isolation through the initiatives artists and arts organizations are undertaking to bring the arts into our homes. ▪︎

Written by Kathleen Buckley

Edited by Helen Lee

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