Whitehorse’s own Mario Villeneuve has just been elected president of Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC), Canada’s national association of professional visual and media artists.

It’s the first time a Northerner has held the high-profile position.

CARFAC is legally appointed to negotiate with national organizations on behalf of all visual artists in Canada and defends artists’ socio-economic and legal rights through advocacy and professional development.

The organization produces a schedule of artists’ fees that is widely recognized as the national standard and is the reason that we, as Canadians, have access to shows that provide an experience or explore a concept rather than simply offer work for sale.

The CARFAC board met in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, in early June. Villeneuve has served on the board for three years and, with his new role, is beginning a second term of two years.

Villeneuve takes this role over from P.E.I. artist Gerald Beaulieu, who has been president of CARFAC since 2006. However, he will be sharing the work with Beaulieu as past-president. And the vice-president is Deirdre Logue.

Logue, a Toronto-based video artist, will be “covering the East” for Villeneuve while he looks out for the West. The past president, Beaulieu, will keep heading up the organization’s longstanding negotiations about copyright fee schedules with the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Villeneuve feared that the long distance between his home and Ottawa would prove costly for the organization should he be chosen as president. But everyone on the board had a reason not to do it.

Sound familiar?

“After five days of pretty intense discussion, we decided to set aside our fears and focus on the positives … what would be best for the organization,” Villeneuve relates.

And Villeneuve was chosen.

As to what exactly his volunteer workload will be, Villeneuve doesn’t yet know. To bridge the distance cheaply, a lot of issues are discussed by e-mail. Villeneuve phones the CARFAC national executive director, April Britsky, once a week to check in.

Villeneuve was chosen specifically because as a Northern and bilingual artist he brings skills and perspectives that the organization needs.

CARFAC holds its annual meetings in different places across Canada in order to meet members across the country. They want to introduce their members to some of the bigger legal concepts that CARFAC deals with, including copyright and resale rights.

But they also listen to the needs of the artists of the varied regions of Canada.

Villeneuve finds that, although it’s valuable to touch base with artists across Canada, “issues are the same no matter where we go.”

Artists across Canada wrestle with lack of studio and gallery space and also with challenges related to funding from government or municipality. For many artists, they would like to join CARFAC, but even the annual fee is too much.

“I heard some sad stories – the fee would make the difference between that artist and their cat eating that month or not – but they have to make art … that’s what they do.”

This desire to improve the lot of the working artist inspires Villeneuve’s tireless efforts in CARFAC. “We’ve done amazing work over 41 years, but there’s still lots of work to do. A lot of these issues are labour issues. We need to improve the working situation for artists.”

Villeneuve hopes “that in the next few years we can improve the situation of visual artists, the majority of whom currently live below the poverty line despite the contributions we make to the economy and the social fabric of Canada.”

And he’s particularly aware that Northern female First Nations artists occupy one of the lowest income brackets in Canada. He hopes that the work CARFAC does can help change that.

In his daily life, Mario works full-time at the Archives as their photographic technician. He’s a photographer by art practice and keeps on shooting, wishing he had more time in the darkroom. Between that and his home life, it “makes for busy days”.

As a photographer, he’s known as a champion of the antiquarian avant-garde, using methods from the early days of photography as he hand-develops his prints in the darkroom.

“More and more, my belief keeps getting stronger that I must keep working with traditional methods so that their knowledge and aesthetic doesn’t die.”

As for Villeneuve, he says, “A lot of irons in the fire keep my creative mind going.”

In his CARFAC roles, he takes part in discussion panels, shares his work and sees work from other artists from around the country. It puts his work on a national stage, which is “always a little scary,” but when he finds that his work fits in on a national scale, he says, “It puts wind in my sails.”