Canada needs a Visual Artist Laureate

The visual arts community is concerned that  Bill S-234, An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Visual Artist Laureate), died on the Order Paper in the House of Commons in November.

The bill intended to create a two-year position of a parliamentary Visual Artist Laureate, similar to the Poet Laureate position. The purpose of the position is to “promote the arts in Canada, through Parliament, including by fostering knowledge, enjoyment, awareness and development of the arts…[through] drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, crafts, photography, videography and filmmaking.”

It was proposed that a Visual Artist Laureate would be appointed through a competitive process by both the House and Senate speakers, from a list of three artists recommended by a committee chaired by the Parliamentary Librarian, and composed by the Director of the National Gallery of Canada, the Commissioner of Official Languages for Canada, the Chairperson of the Canada Council for the Arts, and the President of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, or their designates.

The Poet Laureate position was created in 2001, and in 2015 visual artist Peter Gough began to question why there wasn’t a comparable position for visual artists. “Artist contribute so much to the spirit of this country and therefore should have a platform for articulating the issues that face our country and all Canadian,” he said.

Mr. Gough worked with Senator Wilfred Moore to introduce a bill to the Senate, and Senator Patricia Bovey became the bill’s sponsor when Sen. Moore retired. “Creating this position will demonstrate Parliament’s leadership in underlining the importance of the arts and the significant contributions they make to Canada’s overall economy. We as parliamentarians obviously have a strong societal responsibility, so too do artists,” Bovey said.

The bill was passed in the Senate last May, but it did not secure a sponsor in the House of Commons. MP Dan Vandal intended to be the sponsor, but he was unable to do this after becoming parliamentary secretary. Before a sponsor could be confirmed, MP Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet proposed a unanimous consent motion to pass the bill at all stages, in an effort to fast-track what she believed to be an uncontroversial bill. Unfortunately, the bill did not reach unanimous consent, and the whole approval process must now start over again.

Members of the Visual Arts Alliance, a consortium of national visual, media, and craft arts service organizations comprised of artists, curators, art museums, artist-run centres, and art dealers, are deeply disappointed by this latest development. The visual and media arts contribute to the public understanding of our national culture and heritage, and the creation of this position would put us on an equal footing with our colleagues in the literary arts. Toronto and Victoria have municipal visual artist laureates, and the federal government could similarly take the opportunity to spotlight Canada’s finest professional artists through this appointment.

 We are hopeful that there still remains the collective will to enact meaningful change in this regard; as indeed, this initiative would benefit the lives of many Canadians, and we urge the government to implement this action as soon as is functionally convenient.

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