LivingArts: The Weirdness of Globalization

Last month I installed a public art project titled Wild Life that was commissioned by the Edmonton Arts Council. The install went smoothly, and I was relieved to see the accumulation of two years of work finally realized. During a public art install there are periods of standing around waiting (waiting for approvals, waiting for cranes, waiting for the rain to stop) and I took the opportunity to post images of the installation in progress on Instagram.

By the time I arrived at my hotel that evening I had received two separate emails from two separate foundries proposing that they cast my next public art projects. Both these foundries were located in China, and from what I could find online seemed to be legitimate foundries specializing in art fabrication.  The emails were courteous and professional, but with an underlining hard sell – they could do the work for a fraction of what North American foundries would charge. 

Curious for more information, I began emailing one of these foundries and enquiring about their process and business model. They always respond instantly and with exactly the information I request. They even offered to cast a sample of one of my sculptures (for free) so that I can test their product. I have always heard of artists working with foundries in China and India as a way of saving money, but I never truly considered it an option. Intrigued, I asked the foundry to provide a quote for casting a life-size bronze sculpture. 

I was stunned with the result: they offered to cast the piece for 1/5 of the cost of a North American foundry, and when we are talking about budgets in the tens of thousands this was a very significant amount (I could buy a new pick truck with the saved money).

The foundry I work with on large projects is based in Toronto. I won’t name them but I will recommend them if you send me an email. They are a small business that employs artists and artisans, giving many young artists the chance to develop their skills working on larger projects. They always meet deadlines, come in on budget and their product is the best I have seen coming out of any foundry (domestic and foreign). When I am working with them, I can show up to the foundry whenever I want and oversee the casting, request revisions and even hammer on some metal if I feel so inclined.  As an artist who needs to have his hands dirty on every project, this is an invaluable experience that I would not get using an offshore foundry. 

I have also heard horror stories of inferior workmanship done by offshore foundries. Welds cracking or patinas failing on a public art commission is a sure way of sinking an artist’s reputation. There is also the case to be made that offshore fabrication takes advantage of lax foreign laws in regard to environmental protection and labour. I certainly do not want to encourage exploitive labour practices or environmental destruction, although I have no proof of either of these arguments and honestly do not have time to research their validity.

All things considered, when I am crunching the budget for a project, I realize that the funding for my public art projects often comes from the public – as in taxpayer dollars, or municipal funds, or even private individuals who have made their money here in Canada. If I am taking money from these entities, I feel I have an obligation to feed back into the local economy by using the best local fabricators whenever possible. Building public art is not about generating profit; it is about making artwork that enriches the community. Whenever possible, the process of fabrication should mirror this intent and support local, sustainable business in the community.  So for now I will not be farming public art projects out to offshore foundries, as appealing as new truck is.