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Artists as workers – a new model for organizing

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Talking Radical Radio

Listen to the interview using the audio player below!

Jonny Sopotiuk is a visual artist, a curator, and a community and labour organizer. Zandi Dandizette is a new media installation artist and an arts and culture worker. Both are founding members of the Vancouver Artists Labour Union Co-operative (VALU CO-OP), a workplace owned and run democratically by its workers, and of the Arts and Cultural Workers Union (ACWU). Scott Neigh interviews them about how this new model for artists to organize themselves – a worker co-op and a union – may be the key to challenging precarious work and poverty in arts and cultural sectors.

Being an artist can be a pretty precarious way to make a living. That has always been true, but as austerity continues to take its toll on both arts funding and social supports, things have been getting harder – and that’s not even considering the pandemic.

In the face of these challenges, artists and cultural workers have limited options for responding to them collectively. While there are already a range of organizations that are at least in some sense of and for artists, there are a lot of gaps in what they do. There is, for instance, Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC), which plays a role in setting minimum standards for artists exhibiting professionally in galleries. While that is important, it impacts a relatively small proportion of artists and contexts. Then there are associations of artist-run centres, but they usually represent not artists or arts workers but the centres as organizations. And as for artist-run centres themselves, they often, despite the name, operate not too differently from the sector’s other (generally underfunded) nonprofits, with all that implies about hierarchy and about working conditions.

So most people who are trying to make a living off of some combination of their own creative practice, gig work, work for nonprofits, and other kinds of small contracts in the arts sector have had no real collective organizational home to represent their interests.

Until now, that is.

While Sopotiuk was recovering from burnout from his intense involvement in student and labour organizing in Winnipeg, he moved to Vancouver to take sculpture, ceramics, and printmaking at Emily Carr University. Once he graduated, he went back to doing organizing work for unions. And he got a BC Arts Council grant that allowed him to spend a year examining organizing models for artists and cultural workers across North America. He then took what he learned in that project and started talking to other people in the arts sector in Vancouver.

Dandizette was one of the first people he talked to. Along with their own artistic practice and other work, Dandizette is also a founder and executive director of an artist-run centre called the James Black Gallery and the president of the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres, and they have worked with the BC branch of CARFAC in the past.

In the wake of these conversations, Sopotiuk, Dandizette, and a number of other artists founded not one but two new organizations – VALU CO-OP and the ACWU.

The co-op offers arts and design services of various sorts. It is, first and foremost, a way for its worker-owners to make a living wage and not have to live in perpetual precarity. It also embodies a specific ethical and political orientation, with a commitment to anti-oppressive values, to supporting working-class community, and to opposing gentrification. They have, for example, developed a relationship of mutual support with the Lim Sai Hor Kow Mock Benevolent Association, a working-class community organization in the Chinese-Canadian community in Vancouver whose building they share. They also work to provide infrastructure and support to other artists.

The ACWU voted in early 2020 to become Local B-778 of the International Alliance of Stage and Theatrical Employees (IATSE). IATSE mainly represents workers in the film and tv industries, as well as the theatre, so it has lots of experience representing workers with unstable and episodic employment. As well, they have existing, portable benefit plans far beyond what most small arts sector employers could manage, which means that ACWU also offers a rare opportunity for workers in the arts sector to access benefits. Since its founding by the members who were also founding VALU CO-OP, ACWU has gone on to organize artists and cultural workers in a number of other contexts in BC.

Sopotiuk and Dandizette hope that this organizational model can be taken up broadly across Canada, and indeed there has already been lots of interest from different places. They have received a Vancouver Foundation grant to allow them to proliferate the worker co-op model among artists and cultural workers in British Columbia, and they are happy to talk with people about what it takes to set up a worker co-operative. And while the ACWU is focused on supporting existing members at the moment, they have already had inquiries from arts and cultural workers in different parts of Canada and they are developing a country-wide organizing strategy that they intend to deploy after the pandemic.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of VALU CO-OP and the ACWU.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter


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