Visual artists demand 'fair' share of sales
01 May 2017 - 18:19
Geneva: When Canadian Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak sold her print "Enchanted Owl" in 1960, she pocketed $24, but when the piece was resold at auction in 2001 for nearly $59,000, she received nothing.
That is because Canada does not recognise a resale right for visual artists, which in some other countries guarantees them a small percentage of proceeds from secondary sales.
Unlike musicians, writers and filmmakers, who receive royalties each time their works are sold, used or downloaded, painters and other visual artists in many countries are paid just once.
Like Ashevak, who died in 2013, they receive no proceeds from later sales, even when the value of their work balloons.
The United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is this week debating a proposal from Senegal and Congo-Brazzaville to push for an agreement guaranteeing the resale right globally.
More than 80 countries worldwide currently recognise the resale right, providing visual artists between one and five percent of secondary sales proceeds, with a cap of roughly $15,000 (13,800 euros).
But some of the world's biggest art markets, namely the United States, China and Japan, do not.
"As artists, we make the value of our artwork increase through continuing to work and expanding our reputations," Canadian artist Grant McConnell told AFP.
"Others are benefitting from that, so why the hell don't we?"
He recalled selling his work "We Live on Barren Ground" in 1988 for around Can$5,500 and then seeing it snapped up by a public collection in 2014 for four times that amount.
If Canada recognised a resale right of five percent, as McConnell and others are advocating,, he would have received a check for around Can$1,000, he said.
WIPO chief Francis Gurry insists it is only fair for artists to benefit from a booming global art market, which raked in sales of more than $63 billion in 2015.
"This should really be a no-brainer," he told AFP.
According to the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), only two percent of royalties collected globally for creators in different fields goes to visual artists.
"Compare that with the 87 percent that goes to music, composers and lyricists, and you understand the huge difference," CISAC chief Gadi Oron told AFP.
Visual artists are clearly losing out, he said, pointing out that even with many of the main art markets not providing resale rights, they generate around $50 million annually for artists in the countries that do.
"When you hear about auction houses selling artworks for tens of millions, I think it is only fair that a small percentage should go to the creator," Oron said.
While top-tier artists would certainly benefit from the resale right, McConnell said the incremental income it could provide was most important to the average artist.
'Bread and butter'
"In Canada the average artist makes about Can$18,000 a year, so the occasional Can$50 check in the mail may seem like a paltry sum to many in the art world, but for working artists this is our bread and butter," McConnell said.
French artist Herve di Rosa agreed.
"Artists need to be able to make a decent living to go on producing art," he said.
Since France, like all European Union countries, recognises the resale right, di Rosa said that over three decades he had received small payments a dozen times for a single work, as it was sold and resold.
The resale right also helps artists track their work and can be useful in uncovering forgeries, observers say.
There has been opposition from some countries and auction houses in particular to granting the resale right over fears it could negatively impact the art market.
But Gurry said those fears were proven baseless after Britain finally folded to EU pressure and granted the right in 2006.
"Sotheby's and Christie's didn't collapse overnight. They are still there, they are still doing well," he said.
"All of the available evidence suggests that this is not disruptive to the art market," he said, voicing hope an international deal could be achieved within three years.