Artists weaponize their work to bargain with the boss


IS A PAINTING A PICKET SIGN? It was for the artists on staff at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver.

The artists used an in-house exhibit of their art work in early February to make their case for better working conditions. The artists seized on the fact their contract requires the university to allow the artists an annual exhibit, with the freedom to display any works they want to.

The workers called their exhibit The Work of the Work. It featured several paintings, including one with the explicit text message “Stop killing us” and several installations, including the display of a large paper shredder with the ironic label “Your voice matters.”

Creative organizing

“It’s a classic example of creative organizing,” says long-time labour activist Steve Kuzyk. “It’s smart and saltly and takes the battle right into the belly of the beast. Joe Hill would be proud.”

The Work of The Work invented a way of bargaining through mixed media. The art called out the university for:

  • a heavy reliance on non-regular faculty (who teach over 50 per cent of classes);
  • paying less and asking for more than other Canadian art and design post-secondary institutions.
  • failing to provide studio space or time for faculty to practice their own art—the reason they were hired to teach students in the first place.

“It’s not like a self-serving thing,” says visual artist Jay White, who has a tenure-track position with the university. “It’s about what a university does and why people come to a university, is to have people who are doing that work, who are deep into their fields.”

Long hours, low pay

Jay spent a decade as a sessional, or non-regular, instructor at Emily Carr. He had no job security. He had to reapply to teach every semester.

Jay was made an assistant professor last September. In three years he can start applying for a tenured or permanent faculty position.

But despite his new job security and pay increase, Jay, who doesn’t live in Vancouver, stays in the city a couple of nights a week, sleeping in his van.

“To be able to work the number of hours I work, and still have time with my family, I work here quite late,” said White. “And then at least I have my weekends to myself with my family.”

Emily Carr fourth out of four

While The Work of The Work drew a distinction between the working conditions of non-regular and permanent faculty, the overall point was that neither group is getting a fair shake.

There are three other art and design post-secondaries in Canada. Faculty salaries can range from 30 to 60 per cent higher than Emily Carr’s, depending on tenure and seniority.

Associate professor Henry Tsang spent 13 years as a non-regular instructor before getting a tenure track position in 2005. He says Emily Carr’s normal teaching load asks too much from their staff.

The Ontario College of Art and Design University, for example, only requires their faculty to teach half as much as the Emily Carr faculty. In addition, the Ontario college does not require professors to conduct research—unlike Emily Carr’s faculty.

“When you’re spread thin, everything is thin,” says Tsang. He also points out it is difficult to attract and retain non-regular faculty unless they already live in Vancouver, because the cost of living is too high and the pay is too low.

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