Institutions by Artists Debate Two

Should Artists Professionalize?

As artists have taken on the creation of artist-run organizations or have turned themselves or their practices into institutions, their roles have expanded, taking on the work of curator, administrator, critic, educator, publicist, and so forth. While the polyvalence of contemporary artists has enriched institutions with resources and support, any reciprocity remains subject to debate. The professionalization of the artist, arising as a consequence of artist-run institution building and the blurring of professional roles inherent in such activity, may limit artistic potential in that artists take on increased administrative and curatorial responsibilities, among others, at the opportunity cost of artistic production. In the second debate of the convention, presenters will deliberate on the many roles of the contemporary artist, making the case for and against his or her professionalization.


From left: Jeff Derksen, Candice Hopkins, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Sam Gould, Claire Tancons, Tania Bruguera


Session Summary

Written by Michelle Kee, SFU Contemporary Arts student

At the get go, Claire Tancons stated that the level of preparedness of each team was perhaps a reflection of their positions in regards to the professionalization of the artist. The prepared papers and coordination of Team A, in favour of the professionalization of the artist, contrasted with the opposing team’s haphazard notes written in Moleskine journals and on hotel notepads. Perhaps, it was the selection of the members on each team that created tension in the Debate Two. However, it was more likely the debate question itself that made for a heated event!
The debaters first explored the definitions of professionalization and what this concept implied for artists. Tancons dissociated the idea of professionalization from that of being professional, and supported her argument by citing as an example her own experience conversing with Venetian working artists in contrast to speaking with recent MFA graduates. In her view, the fact that the Venetians had not yet adopted “professional” speak was refreshing, and contrasted with the language used by the graduate students. While effectively being professional artists, the former had not yet become professionalized.

Jeff Derksen (Team Yes) pursued this thought with the idea that the professionalization of artists, which first materialized through parody (e.g. The N.E. Thing Co.), has evolved into a vertical structure replete with associate directors and CEOs; thus fully mimicking the corporation. He called instead for horizontality, with a focus on process rather than structure. Similarly, Sam Gould (Team No) declared that it is important to retain fluidity while involving oneself in this form of parody, warning that if the mask is worn too long, the character may become the mask. Both teams agreed that the professionalization process was an inside job – Derksen called against the “tyranny of life into art [but rather] art into life.”

Both Candice Hopkins and Julia Bryan-Wilson of Team Yes noted that professionalization did have the advantage of being a means to an end – an idea that Sam Gould highly disagreed with. Professionalization can be a response to marginalization as it allows for legitimacy and has potential for transformation. Hopkins cited the women’s movement and the formation of aboriginal art collectives as examples of professionalization resulting in the heightened awareness of marginalized groups. She continued her argument by stating that, due to the diversity of the many roles lumped into the term “artist,” it is extremely important to consider the historical, cultural, and economic particularities of individual situations.

Tania Bruguera from Team No raised the question of who decides the “value of value.” Noting the hegemonic state of capitalism, she discussed the fact that professionalized artists may have large exhibitions while their art may be questionable. In essence, these artists are able to exhibit uninteresting work because of their social skills rather than their artistic merit. Nevertheless, she argued that, while professionalized artists may not necessarily produce good art; they have the potential to produce great art institutions. Accordingly, the idea of specialization comes into play when discussing the concept of professionalization. To this effect, the creation of a niche was an idea that Team No was highly against.
In conclusion, the more poignant idea that came from the discussion was probably the notion that the question of the debate itself was flawed. To much applause, Hopkins ended her comments with the question: “How should artists profess?”

Team A (for):

Julia Bryan-Wilson
Jeff Derksen
Candice Hopkins

Team B (against):

Tania Bruguera
Sam Gould
Claire Tancons



Music: A Call to Order
Composition and arrangement by Kathleen Ritter and James B. Maxwell
Performed by Peggy Lee (cello); Jon Bentley (alto and bass clarinets), and Chris Gestrin (piano)



From left: Sam Gould, Claire Tancons, Tania Bruguera



From left: Jeff Derksen, Candice Hopkins, Julia Bryan-Wilson



Post-debate audience vote

Photo credits: Andrea Creamer