Moral Rights of Artists

June 1, 2009

I was born an arts advocate. The arts have been a huge part of my life since I could walk and talk. At first, my focus as an advocate was the general public. As the managing director of one of my community’s theatres and the curator of its publicly funded art gallery, my programming goal was to earn the arts a huge audience amongst my fellow citizens.

After a decade of advocacy as programming, I got very involved in arts advocacy that involved the education and lobbying of politicians. I wanted more money and a healthier legislative framework in which and with which to make art. But I saw governments and parties come and go and nothing changed. Also, I realized that no matter how much the arts meant to me, I would not base my voting on a party’s arts policies alone.

So, the object of my advocacy became students, and to reach them: teachers. And to reach the teachers, school boards and trustees. I came to believe that the arts would get the educational funding, political funding and social respect it was due when the general public demanded it, not my fellow artists and I. Societal values concerning the arts have to change, as they have about our environment, and I can only see that happening through action in the classroom: our teachers can be our leaders; our teachers can be agents of social change. Or so I hoped.

Recently, I was forced to realize that there are educators who still do not understand the rights of artists and the integrity of art. Artist Richard Tetrault and David Thompson Secondary teacher Malcolm McTaggart both called me about work they had done together at their school. They were concerned because the school principal had entered into an agreement with a film company for location filming in order to earn the school precious extra dollars. But a byproduct of the agreement was a serious compromise of Richard and Malcolm’s art project.

The Betty Welburn Fund (of the Vancouver School Board) funds projects that create an artistic legacy for a school. David Thompson Secondary had earned a Welburn grant for students at David Thompson to work with Richard to create a massive two-story mural in a stairway – a major thoroughfare of the school. Thirty-five students were involved in creating the mural.

When the movie company moved in, they wanted to conceal the mural by applying sticky tape. Testing by Malcolm and Richard revealed that when the tape was removed, the work would be damaged. The Principal decided to proceed with the rental based on assurances that the movie crew would undertake repairs – the Principal would not fund Richard to undertake the restorative repairs.

The message to the entire David Thompson community was one of disrespect for art and for creativity, originality and beauty. Ultimately (and thankfully) the Vancouver School Board stepped in to hire Richard to oversee the restoration of the mural that had been, as predicted, damaged. Although the final outcome was what one would properly expect, it took a furious effort on partners Richard and Malcolm to ensure right won out.

This experience is about the moral rights of the artists attached to the work. The creator of a work of merit can expect the work to be professionally maintained and not altered in any way without the consent and/or involvement of the artist. In principle, I feel a principal should know far, far better and set a better example!

Chris Tyrell