What’s in a name?
This old question is being revived in a growing feud in the local arts community.
Talk to local art dealer Art Webster and he’ll tell you the name of a prestigious gallery show is free advertising for a competitor.
Talk to other heavyweights in the local arts scene and they’ll name Art Webster as a nemesis of the vibrant arts co-op Yukon Artists at Work.
So what’s going on?
Well, the dustup began with the opening of two shows at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery last Thursday.
The first is a historical display of masks presented by the Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry.
No problem there.
But the second stirred up a hornet’s nest.
It’s dubbed Yukon Artists at Work, From These Hands.
And Webster has a problem with that.
Yukon Artists at Work is a business and a competitor, he said.
“And it’s a serious mistake for a public gallery to promote one business at the expense of others.”
Webster owns the North End Gallery — which sells a wide selection of local and imported arts and crafts.
“I love to support the arts with my tax dollars,” he said. “I just don’t want to subsidize a competitor.”
Artists at Work is a co-operative that sells arts and crafts — so, it’s a business, he said.
Artists at Work used to be a non-profit society, but this April its society status was revoked after Webster lodged an official complaint with the societies registrar requesting an investigation.
“I’m not at war with Yukon Artists at Work,” said Webster.
“I’m not picking fights with artists.
“What I am engaged in is an effort to establish some fair and ethical business practices in the Whitehorse arts community.
“I don’t want special treatment.
“I just want to play by the same rules as everyone else on a level playing field in an open marketplace.”
Webster is a merchant who may not understand the role of public galleries, said arts centre executive director Chris Dray.
Yukon Artists at Work is like any other group of artists, he said.
“We’ve got a group of artists who are part of the Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry showing at the same time, and he’s not complaining about them. And those artists are actually making more money on their work than the guys out at Artists at Work.
“So, we think it’s an invalid argument.”
But the Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry is a non-profit organization, noted Webster.
“I have no problem with artists showing and selling their work,” he added.
He just doesn’t want the gallery promoting the name Yukon Artists at Work. It’s that simple.
Webster doesn’t mind other artists in the gallery, he’s just against artists who happen to belong to the Artists at Work collective, said Dray.
He’s identified this collective as the group of artists who are competing with him, added Dray.
But Webster doesn’t care who is showing art at the gallery — he simply doesn’t want it slugged Artists at Work.
The mistake is hosting a show named after a business that sells art, said Webster.
And the dispute has split the arts/business community.
Last week, Yukon Gallery proprietor Brenda Stehelin sent a letter of complaint to the arts centre’s board, echoing Webster’s concerns about the Artists at Work show.
Webster and Midnight Sun Gallery and Gifts owner Nancy Huston signed that letter.
“It doesn’t make a difference whether (Artists at Work) is a society or a business, they’re still just artists who sell their work,” said Dray, who maintains the arts centre gallery is following the practice of like institutions across the country.
The Yukon Arts Centre has a sound criteria for how it decides to put on shows, and it’s consistent with arts centres across the country, agreed Yukon retailer Chris Sorg.
The arts centre gallery is operating in a policy vacuum, said Webster.
Corporations, co-ops and sole proprietors function to make a profit, and Dray made a mistake hosting this show — using public funds to promote a local business, said Webster.
Not so, said Sorg, who sits on the Main Street Yukon Society board with Webster.
Sorg owns a private gallery in Dawson, where he maintains a good working relationship with the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture.
“From time to time, the Klondike Institute sells artwork and other art-related supplies, and we have never found that this activity has been a detriment to our business,” he said.
“We’ve worked together, and they’ve prospered and have lots of government dollars going into them, and we’ve done fine as well.
“It illustrates that, by taking a look at the big picture, which is really what we’re trying to do here, having more arts and culture happening all around us, and featuring it, is one of the attractions that Whitehorse has and one of the things we can do to get visitors to stay here longer.”
And, by criticizing the arts centre and dividing the business community, Webster has undercut one of the Main Street Society’s primary initiatives — to foster this partnership with the arts community, said Sorg.
“As far as the arts community is concerned, it appears the business community has essentially started this witch hunt against the arts community, which is the furthest thing from the truth,” said Sorg.
It’s disappointing this disagreement is happening now, as we head into tourist season, agreed Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce president Rick Karp.
“The Yukon Arts Centre mandate is to display local artists and it shouldn’t matter if they’re associated with Yukon Artists at Work, or not,” he said.
“I don’t see this as a conflict with Mr. Webster.”
Artists at Work was approached by the arts centre and asked to develop this showcase of original, Yukon-made art, said co-op president Harrison Tanner.
Although it does sell work, it’s still treated like a community gallery, he said.
“We’re artists who came together to form a positive, creative contribution to Whitehorse and the Yukon.”
All work sold at the Artists at Work space in McCrae is original and Yukon-made, said Tanner.
“It’s all high quality Yukon art, and we sell nothing from the Orient, or other parts of Canada, and no fudge, tea or coffee.”
Nine months of the year, the co-operative is only open one and a half days a week, but in the summers, it’s open daily.
Everyone who works there is part of the co-operative and donates their time, said Tanner.
“And some artists sell nothing for a whole season.”
Last year, Tanner made $1,000 in sales. Of this, $250 went to the gallery and the remainder helped to pay his $350-a-month studio rent.
Although Artists at Work is no longer a society, Tanner pointed out that lots of societies do have a retail component.
“Now, we’re going to follow a not-for-profit co-operative model,” he added.
“Overall, I think more arts in the community is a good thing,” said Webster, who sells work by several Artists at Work members in his store.
“And it would be great if Whitehorse became known for a good arts culture,” he said, in agreement with Sorg, Dray, Karp and Tanner.
“Over time, you look behind all this and think, ‘Oh for goodness sake, the town’s way too small. For God’s sake, just go back to work and stop fussing,’” said Sorg.