Writing about the art market in a city like Halifax is as much an exercise in hope as it is a form of reporting. That’s because the market for visual art and fine crafts in this city, while active, is always in need of growth.
What we need is not more venues (at least not yet), but more customers. In a climate where many people will spend more on sneakers than they would ever consider spending on original art, the gaps in education, habit, and perception combine to make buying art something relatively few people consider.
A large part of that is the fault of the art world; we’ve spent generations teaching people how rarified and special art is, something for the ages, and not a mere consumer object. Art, if ever we buy it, is a rare purchase. Sneakers, after all, wear out. Paintings do not. And if something costs as much as small car, we tend to hang on to it. And for much longer than we do the car!
But not all art is destined, or even intended, for the ages. Many worthwhile, beautiful and engaging things are meant to be enjoyed for a time and then supplanted. Like music, movies, or books, artworks fall in and out of fashion. Theoretically, I suppose, there is no reason why we can’t change the artwork on our walls with the same frequency we change our wardrobes.
Artists over the centuries have addressed this by making works that are more consumer friendly: small works, and drawings or prints, that cost less and can be more ephemeral. Picasso made ceramics (plates and vases, for instance), and Dali made jewelry and fashion. T-shirts have long been a popular item for contemporary artists to produce, creating wearable art that, like the ubiquitous running shoes, wear out and need replacment.
In an upcoming column, I’ll write about the marvellous exhibition by Jordan Bennett at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Jordan Bennett: Ketu’ elmita’jik. But today let’s look at a corollary project Bennett has undertaken at the AGNS Gift Shop.
In the AGNS lobby, you’ll see that the shop windows are emblazoned with signage advertising the Jordan Bennett Collection, a selection of clothing and jewelry designed by this young Mi’kmaw artist to complement his concurrent exhibition. The familiar staples of museum shops the world over (scarves, T-shirts, pins, and even keychains) get the Jordan Bennett treatment.
His designs, based on traditional Mi’kmaq iconography and drawn from historical sources such as petroglyphs and quillwork, are vibrant and stunning.
His t-shirt, Pjilita’q Mi’kmaki (Welcome to Mi’kmaw Territory) features a round design that, as his artist statement says, evokes “Community, inclusivity, and growth: this design is about people gathering in Mi’kma’ki (Mi’kmaw Territory), making their way from West to East to learn about this place, take part in community, and grow in a good way.”
Similar in imagery to some of the carved paintings in his exhibition, the shirt, like everything else in the collection, is a limited edition, that is, when they are gone, they’re gone. Site specific, as it were.
The themes of Bennet’s works speak to the changing seasons and to the long tradition of Mi’kmaw visual culture. These items are steeped in historical awareness. Much of what remains of Mi’kmaq design dates from the 19th century, when there was a vibrant industry of fine crafts (primarily quillwork and basketry, but also, let us not forget, hockey sticks!) made by Mi’kmaq artisans for export across the world. Many of these now grace museum collections.
The items in The Jordan Bennett Collection are modestly priced, ranging from $9.99 (the keychain) to $64.99 (the scarves), it is a unique way to own work by an artist who is one of this region’s, and this country’s, most important emerging voices.
The exhibition runs until March 31, the Collection is available at the AGNS Gift Shop while supplies last.