Do mega fests like WayHome treat visual artists fairly?

A month after WayHome, a discussion has emerged about exposure and compensation for artists at music festivals.

- Aug 23, 2016

When you look back on WayHome Music & Arts Festival this past July, chances are your memories won't just be music.

While you danced to Major Lazer, you were staring right up at two massive photorealistic face paintings by Toronto artist Charles Bierk. While you chilled on the grass between sets, you got lost in ambient light art in the trees by Nathan Whitford. You ordered a beer from a bar with a blown up print by Alex McLeod on your way to instagramming an overhead “One Night Only” sign — a sculpture installation by Trevor Wheatley and Cosmo Dean. And if you were connected or deep-pocketed enough to score VIP access, you ate your $15.75 avocado toast from the Drake Hotel against a backdrop of psychedelic live video projections by Videomancy.

Whether you realized it or not, visual art (or “WayArt”) played a major role at the Oro-Medonte Ontario festival. But for something that bills itself as a music and arts festival, there’s a growing uneasiness about the treatment of visual artists.

One Night Only Cosmo Dean Trevor Wheatley WayHome

Trevor Wheatley and Cosmo Dean's One Night Only. Source: Indie 88

Chart Attack has spoken to nearly a dozen artists who created installations for the festival in 2015 and/or 2016, some of whom have declined to talk on the record. In interviews with artists, as well as curators at this year’s festival, a discussion has emerged about the role visual art plays in festivals, what kinds of opportunities exist for artists outside of the usual gallery and museum environments, and how intangible measures like “exposure” and “experience” measure up against monetary payment.

A month after WayHome 2016, these are questions that remain pertinent in both the overlapping realms of art and music.

In a crowded festival market where many lineups look like carbon copies of each other, big events like WayHome have to find ways to stand apart. That’s why WayHome promoter Republic Live’s creative director Ryan Howes has been so consistently on-message about the festival’s “immersive cultural experience,” placing special emphasis on food, camping, and especially art.

In its first year in 2015, WayHome enjoyed a good reputation in the visual art community. It’d be easy to fill the 650 acres of land at Burl’s Creek with brand activations and mega projects ushered over from its then-big sister festival Bonnaroo, and though there was some of that, the founding festival organizers assembled a roster largely consisting of local and national artists. It may be a profit-oriented mega fest, but there was a widely shared optimism over the fact that it was an opportunity creator for up-and-coming talent, one that treated its visual artists almost (though not quite) like its musical artists.

There wasn’t a noticeable shift within the grounds — in fact, many of the major pieces carried over between year one and year two — but, according to a number of people involved, there was a change in mood behind the scenes.

“The artists all camp in the same area, and after a while you start talking,” says Vanessa B. Rieger of Videomancy, echoing a sentiment from a few other artists spoken to for this story, “and the general sense was that this year just felt weirder. It felt colder. There wasn’t the same sense of community.”

“Mood” is a hard thing to measure tangibly, but money isn’t. A number of artists at this year’s festival expressed frustration that their time and work, which were well compensated in 2015, were being taken for granted in 2016. Most specifically, this was an issue at the “art bars” — the alcohol bars printed with work from local artists.

Charles Bierk Dave WayHome

Charles Bierk's Dave 2. Source: Indie 88

Last year, artists were commissioned by then-curator Charles Bierk (who was back solely as an artist this year) and presented a clearly defined contract for $500 and two VIP tickets for one-time use of their work. This year, many of the same artists were approached by another employee at Republic Live asking to reuse the work for 2016. When they asked about compensation, they were offered 4 WayHome tickets and a campsite, but no money.

Artists like Megan MacDonald, Diana VanderMeulen and Jason Deary all told similar stories: a two- or three-sentence email asking if they can use the piece again, then a long delay when they asked to be paid, eventually ending with the offer of tickets which they could “transfer” to another person if they didn’t want to use them.

Deary says he felt that the ask was a betrayal of the “contractual agreement and good faith agreement” that they had created in year one. Rather than take the tickets, he requested that his work be cut up, followed by photographic proof. He says they sent a photo of his print “comically destroyed,” which satisfied him in regards to his own work, but not to the broader conversation. “I tried to get a dialogue going about ‘why it’s important you need to pay us for this,’” he says, but he instead received only short, to-the-point emails in return with weeks of silence in between.

After all of it, he says he’s disappointed that some artists took the offer. “If you were working a job and you were like ‘yeah, I charge 20 bucks an hour’ and then someone else pops up and says ‘I’ll do it for 10!’ it’s just a bit of a bummer,” he says. “It’s a problem when people say ‘yeah sure.’ It devalues the work.”

“Sometimes the cultural clout you gain from it makes an opportunity worthwhile. Sometimes dollars don’t matter as much.”

Alex McLeod

Howes disagrees. “I think showing work in front of 40,000 people at one of the more popular camping music and arts festivals in North America, that’s a great platform to spread your name and your work.”

He highlights the ArtWalk event that opens the festival the night before the music starts. There, festival-goers who show up early can meet the artists and learn about their installations.

“I think it’s really great to give opportunities for artists and create visibility,” says video artist Alex McLeod, who took the tickets in exchange for his work being reused on the art bar (he also created work for the VIP barn and worked on a 360 degree promo video with Puncture Design to announce the lineup before the festival, for which he was compensated “very fairly”). “It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If WayHome didn’t give this many opportunities for artists, people wouldn’t complain about not getting paid enough.”

“At the end of the day it’s about recognizing talent,” says Howes.

If recognition was the goal this year, it showed in the scope of the projects. Though there were fewer artists installing, many of the works were on a much larger scale.

“One of the major differences between 2015 and 2016 on the visual art side was that in 2015, we took an approach of doing smaller, more gallery type of art installations throughout the grounds,” says Howes. “While all of the installations were amazing, I find that when you’re on 650 acres of land, some of those art pieces get lost.”

Howes highlights Aaron Li-Hill’s massive 65 by 15 foot installation, the giant scrims of Charles Bierk’s paintings on the WayBright stage, and the dragonfly wing LED installations from California group (and Bonnaroo artists) The Do LaB. Angus Watt’s flags returned and multiplied. The VIP area, similarly, was curated with visibility in mind. Pieces from Lady Aiko and Videomancy were designed to be seen outside the VIP barn, so you could view them whether or not you had paid for that access.


Lady Aiko and Videomancy at WayHome. Photo by: Eric Faist

This makes sense for a festival like WayHome, which draws over 40,000 music fans over the course of 3 days. Expecting fans who came to see The Killers to seek out gallery-style installations is a big ask, so it’s easier to make works bigger and splashier. But there could also be an economic element to that decision. As the festival market becomes oversaturated, the low Canadian dollar makes foreign acts more expensive to book, and the promoter incurs regular $200,000 fines for permit infractions, it could be more economical to invest in fewer pieces that take up more space. (In researching this piece, it should be noted, none of the artists with large-scale installations in the main field said they were being under-compensated.)

In that way, year one almost worked as a trial run for year two. Many of the artists, like Nathan Whitford, Aaron Li-Hill, Trevor Wheatley, Cosmo Dean, and OCAD University, returned this year, plus all the artists at the art bars (or at least the ones who consented to reusing their work in exchange for tickets).

In 2015, Ryan Howes worked with Charles Bierk to recruit and program the majority of the projects. This year, Howes assumed the entire curator role for the general admission area (“I was the curator for the art installations as well as the stage designs and the entire look and feel of the grounds and the festival itself,” he confirms), while Bierk returned solely as an artist. Bierk declined my interview request, but confirmed he was no longer a curator in 2016.

Many of the artists who showed in year one credited Bierk with getting them involved in the festival, some of the more DIY-focused artists admitting they might not have felt comfortable or ready to display in such a huge environment if not for his encouragement. Having a local artist representing their interests, more than one artist said, helped them feel at ease linking up with WayHome. Those who returned for 2016 cited the great opportunity the festival creates for artists to show their work for so many people.

Aaron Li-Hill Cosmo Dean Trevor Wheatley WayHome

Aaron Li-Hill, Cosmo Dean, and Trevor Wheatley's Soon at WayHome 2015. Source: Indie 88

If using the same artists from year to year is repetitive, it also creates a solid, consistent visual brand for WayHome while people shuffle behind the scenes. WayHome’s founder Shannon McNevan departed Republic Live as of fall of 2015 and this year had no involvement in the festival. AC Entertainment, the booking company that also books Bonnaroo, “is also no longer part of WayHome,” says Howes. Fource Entertainment came on board for this year’s festival and in 2017 will be a full partner, taking on the role of talent booker. Howes calls both “business decisions.”

Considering how much of the early press for WayHome revolved around McNevan and AC Entertainment, this seems like a significant change. While the festival was initially billed by the media as a sort of Bonnaroo North, its identity is now being carried on without some of the major figureheads who initially established it.

So if people know their WayHome weekend will include balloon chains or flags or forest light displays, that works to the festival's advantage. Whether or not the average festival-goer knows who created the art, or even that it is art, they associate it as what WayHome looks like.

For some artists, the fact that it’s not a traditional environment for art actually makes it an ideal environment.

“There’s a lot of innovative work that you couldn’t do at a gallery,” says Nathan Whitford. “It’s about creating an experience for people, more than putting art on a canvas.”

Whitford’s The Understory requires three 250 pound projectors worth almost $80,000 each, rented just for the festival, so he has to be able to adapt to the environment and experiment with what works and what doesn't on site. That kind of spontaneity, he says, is one of the things he loves about doing art at festivals, and his ambition drives him to seek out large environments like WayHome.

Nathan Whitford - The Understory

Nathan Whitford's The Understory

“WayHome is a really unique festival because there’s a great deal of importance put on how art functions in the festival," says Drake curator Mia Nielsen. "They have an incredible vision, they’re big dreamers. I really think they challenge what it means to have visual art installations outside, at a huge music festival.”

Howes says the festival is committed to helping artists see their visions through, especially as the art gets bigger. “ It’s not just ‘okay, install this 20 by 40 foot installation.’ We help them from sourcing materials, heavy equipment, support, labour, and it’s important to us that we treat artists on a high level.” Indeed, many of the artists from 2015 and 2016 spoke highly of the support they received from the festival.

Many of those who did have issues weren’t back in 2016. Artists Sean Martindale, Camille Jodoin-Eng, and Phillipe Blanchard all had work stolen, damaged or vandalized in the first year. But despite complaining of insufficient security, all three called it a good learning experience and said they would consider returning to do different work. None were invited back.

One artist, Diana VanderMeulen, says the support didn’t spread throughout the whole festival. VanderMeulen was “curated in” to the festival through the Drake with a site-specific installation inside the VIP barn, which is about 70’ long and 40’ high. She says at first she thought she’d be one of many artists installing there, but when she learned it would be a full immersive piece she realized the dollar amount they were offering her was less than her material costs. Meanwhile, she says, negotiations dragged on with poor communication while the number fluctuated within about a $1000 range.

WayHome Nicole Beno

Nicole Beno at WayHome. Photo by: Eric Faist

She would need an assistant to help install, but only one ticket was offered to compensate an extra person. In the midst of negotiations, she received a separate email about reusing her 2015 work in the art bar in exchange for four tickets. She took the tickets, thinking she could use it to bring in extra assistants.

“Materials aren’t free. My time isn’t free. My life isn’t pre-planned. I have a studio and I have rent. I have to eat. You can’t always take on projects just because of blah blah blah exposure."

Diana VanderMeulen
She says she asked for a contract or a statement of exhibition to recruit potential sponsors, but couldn’t get anything in writing. Eventually, after “about 40 hours of on-site install, and months of discourse and planning (all of which was lost and uncompensated)” she pulled out and gave away her tickets.

Mia Nielsen, who independently curated the Drake's VIP barn, denies that the number shifted and says she feels uncomfortable that an artist would speak out about a work that didn’t come to fruition, especially when there was no formal contract. She prefers to talk about the work that did appear in the VIP, which she says she’s exceedingly happy about, especially given the circumstances: “It’s a massive operation and I truly admire all my colleagues who pull it all off with relative ease.”

“We can all get really excited about the possibilities of a project,” she says, “but if the resources aren’t there to execute it, there are two choices: you either adjust your vision to work with the available budget or you don’t. And you just move on.”

Alex McLeod also showed his work in the VIP barn, but used a video piece he had already completed. He says he didn't mind giving it away for free, though he acknowledges his only material costs are his electricity bill. “The opportunity is mutually beneficial,” he says, pointing out that “you’ve touched on something that’s an ongoing point of contention in the art world.”

WayHome Alex McLeod

Alex McLeod at WayHome. Photo by: Eric Faist

“Sometimes the cultural clout you gain from it makes an opportunity worthwhile. Sometimes dollars don’t matter as much.”

But VanderMeulen says since art became her full-time job, she’s realized that mentality isn’t practical. “People ask artists to work for free all the time,” she says. “Materials aren’t free. My time isn’t free. My life isn’t pre-planned. I have a studio and I have rent. I have to eat. You can’t always take on projects just because of blah blah blah exposure. You’re always fighting just for this tiny bit of money for your time.”

Many artists I spoke to for this story said they appreciated I was writing about this because artists are asked to work for free all the time, especially in non-gallery settings where CARFAC’s recommended minimum fees aren’t standard. For many artists, especially young, racialized, and otherwise marginalized people, speaking out can mean risking missing out on opportunities. The Canadian art world is small and insular and no one wants to get a reputation for being difficult to work with.

“It is sort of a privileged thing, I suppose, to turn down opportunity, to fight for your rights as an artist,” says Jason Deary, who acknowledges his full time job and gallery representation make this easier for him to talk about. “But I feel like if you don’t fight for it it will never happen.”

At the end of the day, WayHome is a music festival first and foremost, but Howes reaffirms the festival’s commitment to local artists. And he’s optimistic about the future.

“Like any other festival we have budgets that we need to work within, but as far as a year two festival goes we definitely offered up a huge offering between music, art and food, and will continue to grow the whole visual art component in 2017 and beyond,” he says. “We’re definitely going to be expanding our portfolio of Canadian talent starting in 2017.”

“There’s a lot of music and art festivals in North America where they don’t offer up the same amount of compensation or experience onsite for artists.”

The question leading into 2017 will be: how widely does that apply?

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