Art in the Yukon, art in Montreal: Maybe not so different?

What does it take for an artist to become well-known in the Canadian art world? We often think the Yukon’s situation is much different from that of Canada’s major cities. But recently we spoke with Clarence Epstein, executive director of the Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Family Foundation, based in Montreal. He argued there are common threads between the situations of artists in the Yukon and artists in Montreal.

What does the Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Family Foundation do as it relates to the visual arts?

The Bronfman family has supported the arts in Canada for three generations. In the current generation, Stephen and Claudine Bronfman have made it their priority to focus on Montreal as a centre for the elaboration of the Canadian arts scene. Montreal is a hub of culture, and they want successful projects in the city to be a springboard for other local, provincial and federal initiatives.

But Montreal is already a great cultural centre. Why did they choose this priority?

Montreal has many cultural strengths. But its communities are often divided by ethnicity and language. They each see Montreal through a different lens, so it’s not always easy to get them to align on a common cultural plan. What’s missing is some cross-community threading, so people who are committed to the arts realize their overlap with other like-minded people in the city. 

Montreal is like a petri dish of Canada. We have so many diverse groups dedicated to the arts, it’s all there, but people don’t have the connections. As a Foundation, we are very hands-on in all of our projects, trying to create the bridges that will reinforce the city as a whole. If we can make it work in Montreal, we can work with partners to scale it up and make it work nationally.

Through your work you see many aspects of Canada’s arts ecosystem. What are its strong points? What is missing?

In Europe people are raised to appreciate art as a central aspect of their identity. In Canada this is missing. Our arts ecosystems – in other words, the network of people and institutions who teach and create art and make it possible for others to enjoy it – are based distinctly in each of our provinces and regions.

Culture should be something that connects the country. To help us see what we have in common, we need to help artists get their messages to more people.

Private donors can help create the momentum. It’s hard for artists, by themselves, to generate enough attention outside their own community. That’s where a strong ecosystem comes in.

What does this mean for artists in smaller communities?

Local artists often find they have to leave home to be recognized. This same pattern applies to athletes and entertainers, too. It applies whether you are from the Yukon or from Montreal. No matter where artists are, they need to get out, develop their reputation, build their network, and become relevant on the national or international levels as much as in their regions. Once they achieve a certain level of critical success, their hometown is often all the more proud to recognize them and be associated with them.

Social media can help make connections, but a good network includes being represented by a dealer. It’s hard for an artist to make all their commercial contacts, do the marketing, promote their work, and sell it, all on their own. An elite athlete who is obligated to having a second job never gets up to the level of the athlete who has a support system that allows them to focus on honing their skills.

Does it matter that Yukon art does not have a defining characteristic or brand, the way there is for Inuit art?

No one wants to be stereotyped. Artists should not follow what they think is popular or what fits a local pattern. They will fail big time if they do that, and they know it.

You should celebrate the artists and spread the word about their talent – irrespective of their local connection. A community can support its artists, but ultimately the innate talents of artists is at the core of their success.

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Speaking with Clarence gave us new insight into the challenges facing Yukon artists. The Yukon does not have the art dealers, galleries, critics, and large base of art collectors that Montreal enjoys. Yet as a share of the total workforce, the number of Yukoners who make a living as visual artists is the highest in Canada, probably because artists like living here and find inspiration here. To truly support artists, we need to step up our game and think about how to share their talent with a wider audience.

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