When Derrald Taylor sells one of his carvings to a gallery, he knows he’s bound to see it resold for many times the amount they offered him.
It’s an unfortunate reality for the Inuvialuk artist from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., who now resides in Yellowknife, and for many other artists across the country: as it stands, there is nothing to stop art buyers from reselling Northern artwork for a large profit.
“I’ve got a family with kids … and I’ve got to pay bills. I’ve just got to take what I can get,” said Taylor, who has been carving since the 1970s and learned the craft from his father. “That’s all I’ve been doing these last years.”
Whatever price he gets from that initial sale is, currently, all the money he’ll ever receive from his art — though that could change if the federal government reforms Canada’s copyright law to give artists a cut of resales.
Taylor recalls selling a couple carvings for less than $2,000, only to find out by chance that the gallery resold them on eBay for $8,000 apiece.
“We beg for that price that we get,” he said.
“I couldn’t do nothing because I already sold it to them; I agreed to the price.”
Getting royalties from resales would be like a “Christmas present,” Taylor said.
“It’ll make artists feel a lot better for the work that they do. And at least let us know the price of what they sell them for, because they keep it quiet, they wouldn’t tell us,” he said.
Resale rights on the horizon
In December 2021, federal Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne received a mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that included a directive to amend Canada’s Copyright Act to allow for resale rights for artists.
Work is now underway to revise the act, though it has not yet reached the House of Commons. In August, Champagne’s office told The Canadian Press resale rights are “an important step toward improving economic conditions for artists in Canada.”
Advocates hope the resale right will mean artists or their estates will get five per cent of resales, if their work is sold through an auction or gallery.
For Theresie Tungilik, a Rankin Inlet artist who is part of the Canadian Artists Representation Le Front Des Artistes Canadiens (CARFAC), that would be a vital — and long overdue — change.
“We’ve been working pretty hard for many years to have artist resale rights become law in Canada. We’ve been unsuccessful for many years, but when you want something hard enough, you keep at it,” she said.
“It’s in my heart to make sure that our artists across Nunavut and the nation are treated equally like businesspeople.”
She pointed to the late Kenojuak Ashevak, an Inuk artist who originally sold her now-famous Enchanted Owl artwork for $50 in the 1960s. In 2018, that artwork resold for a record $216,000, but her estate didn’t get a cut.
“A lot of our artists are living in borderline poverty, and anything coming back to them is a great big help,” Tungilik said. “It’s a right that we feel we should have as artists.”
A 2016 federal report on the Inuit art economy highlighted that there are thousands of Inuit artists in Canada creating tens of millions of dollars worth of art. Yet Inuit artists who produce visual arts and crafts earned roughly $12 an hour after expenses at the time of that report, and had an average income of $25,000 a year.
Levelling the playing field
The federal move to bring in resale rights also came after years of advocacy by Sen. Patricia Bovey, from Manitoba, who has worked in the arts for more than five decades.
“Canada has lagged behind in this for years,” she explained, adding that it’s a measure France has had in place for a century, and one dozens of other countries have adopted as well.
“In the Senate, when we did [a] cultural diplomacy study a few years ago, this came up as a big issue and meant that Canadian artists, with their work abroad, were not playing on an equal playing field.”
If Bovey has her way, though, copyright reforms won’t end there. She also wants to see some rules come in to protect the integrity of Indigenous artwork, given the growing amount of counterfeits out there.
She pointed to examples of mahogany totem poles, purportedly from the B.C. rainforests — where mahogany trees don’t typically grow.
“The work is being faked,” she said. “Quite honestly, the artists … don’t have the wherewithal to be able to fight it legally.”
Bovey said she wants to see a legal fund set up, or legal recourse granted, for artists to go after counterfeiters.