03/13/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 05/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Canadian artists hoping royalty regime will get painted into budget

OTTAWA - The Conservative government wouldn't touch a tax or levy for the Canadian arts scene with a ten-foot pole, but what about a royalty?

Canadian painters, sculptors and other visual artists are hoping Finance Minister Jim Flaherty looks favourably on pre-budget proposals which would allow them to collect a cut whenever their pieces are re-sold on the market.

Singers and songwriters get royalties for their work every time their work is broadcast or used, and film and TV producers can get licensing fees, but the same system has not extended to the realm of visual arts.

For Mary Pratt, a well-known Newfoundland artist whose works are in high demand, a royalty could have netted her a few thousand dollars when one of her pieces commanded $50,000 at a recent auction.

Pratt says she sold the piece for half that. Although she is a successful artist, the 78-year-old says she is in the minority. Few professional artists have pensions or the means to support themselves when they are no longer able to work — Pratt herself has been plagued with back problems.

"When you're old and the paintings you did when you were 35 — and you got $25 for, or maybe you gave them away — are suddenly selling for huge amounts, it's when you're old that you need to benefit from these things," said Pratt, whose work is being celebrated this spring with a retrospective at the Rooms gallery in St. John's.

"When you're young you can go and work at Tim Hortons, you can do all kinds of things to make up for your income, but when you're old, you can't."

The so-called artist resale royalty would work this way: apart from the initial sale and person-to-person exchanges, each time a work of art is sold on the market, a percentage would be sent back to the artist. A government-approved collective would collect and distribute the funds.

The group Canadian Artists' Representation, or CARFAC, has been lobbying MPs and officials to introduce such a system for years, suggesting a 5 per cent royalty when a work clears a $1,000 threshold. The costs would be shared between the seller and the art dealer.

"Artists, from the time that they make the work, they continue to build their careers, build their reputations, and in a sense build value into the artwork by continuing to make art over their life," said Grant McConnell, president of CARFAC.

"An artist might originally sell a work for $500 to $2,000, and later in their life it would sell for many multiples of that, sometimes upwards of $200,000."

Resale royalty regimes are in place in dozens of other countries, including France, the United Kingdom and Australia. The Australian system was introduced in 2010, and was designed primarily to help aboriginal artists. Between its inception in June 2010 to January 2013, it generated royalties of more than $1.4 million.

In Canada, art work from the North often ends up getting resold in Europe and other markets. The government of Nunavut recently put out a study on artist resale rights, and determined that the territory's artists would have the most to gain.

One of longtime printmaker Pitaloosie Saila's works, of an Inuit woman in "Summer Fashion," is currently up for auction on the online site Waddingtons. Saila is based out of Cape Dorset, Nunavut, the source of much art that is exported outside of Canada.

"It would be good for her if she could get some royalties," said daughter Lau Saila, who added her mother is rarely even aware of when her prints are re-sold.

Said McConnell: "In an economy where there's not a lot of loose money, this is one where the government could do something that is really of no cost to them, that could benefit those of us in the cultural sector."