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Art With Heart Empowers Disadvantaged

1 February 2017 at 8:20 am
Ellie Cooper
Disadvantaged artists, with experiences from homelessness to domestic violence to disability, have been given a platform to sell their work.

Ellie Cooper | 1 February 2017 at 8:20 am


Art With Heart Empowers Disadvantaged
1 February 2017 at 8:20 am

Disadvantaged artists, with experiences from homelessness to domestic violence to disability, have been given a platform to sell their work.

Open Canvas is a social enterprise that empowers artists who have experienced adversity, by helping them exhibit and sell their art and merchandise with their art on it.

The founder, Dan Rath, works in Melbourne’s CBD and says the concept first came to him when he walked past artists on the street “who do very good work”.

“That kind of sparked a real interest, speaking to those artists, and seeing other similar programs [to Open Canvas] overseas. They’ve achieved results for homeless artists,” Rath says.

“These days we’re bombarded quite a lot with the issue of homelessness and I really just wanted to do something to try and contribute to helping with a solution.

artist Perry Seau

Perry Seau

“The Open Canvas concept is not about giving a hand out, it’s about really empowering people who are homeless and disabled and have come from very rough backgrounds, because the work is actually theirs.

“There’s quite a lot of charities out there that will donate and do other things that contribute towards a homeless cause – this is actually the artist doing something.

“That really appeals to me, being involved in something which actually empowers people who are disadvantaged.”

The 16 artists currently working with Open Canvas, who Rath has connected with via not-for-profit organisations, sell their work at

“There’s original pieces, and by originals I mean there’s drawings and paintings and sculptures and woodworks,” Rath says.

“But the real point about Open Canvas is putting artwork on other merchandise. At the moment on the website we’ve got teatowels, phone covers, puzzles, greeting cards.

“The point behind that is each artist has the opportunity, if their original artwork sells, for repeat sales, and that becomes really important for the artists who may not have the resources and means to continually buy supplies to do original artwork.

“So, in other words, the one piece can be sold many times if you like, there’s opportunities for multiple sales from the one artwork.”

Open Canvas uses the 70/30 business model, with artists receiving 70 per cent of the profits from each item sold.

“We print on demand, we have suppliers and it costs us to print, we then put a margin on top of that, and 70 per cent of that margin goes to the artist, and Open Canvas retains 30 per cent to keep up as being a viable entity,” Rath says.

“Until we get lots and lots of sales, Open Canvas is essentially subsidising the whole operation. But it’s set up as a commercial enterprise with a very specific social aim.

“The artists are always told right from the very beginning that it’s not a hand out, it’s really empowering them, and we treat the artists very professionally.

David Parkinson aritst

David Parkinson

“We are probably more generous than an artist hopping on any number of sites out there… and when I say generous I mean we help them do really high-quality digital scans and photos of their artwork so that we can then put them on those products, we run workshops, we’ve got this [upcoming] exhibition – Open Canvas is funding those things.”

Rath says the social enterprise model appeals to him.

“I know people in the not-for-profit space and it very much can be, not necessarily, but can be very reliant on external funding,” he says.

“And I made a conscious decision right from the beginning that the social enterprise space is a good balance between blending social outcomes and being viable commercially. That really sums it up for me.

“One of the questions people often ask me is: ‘How are you funding this?’ ‘What grants have you tapped into?’ To be honest, external funding would be useful, it would accelerate things, but I never want to be reliant on it.”

But he says social enterprise is not without challenges.

“There’s been so many challenges. One challenge has really been on the sales and marketing side of things,” he says.

“The organisations [who work with artists] absolutely love the idea, but a real challenge will be taking sales to the next level, and when you’re predominantly online it is hard building an online community and driving online sales to your site, that will be an ongoing challenge.

“And basically just learning how to be a Jack of all trades really. We’ve built the website from scratch and that was a real learning process, it took us longer than we expected, and I think those have been the key challenges for us.”

But he says the work is worth it.

Rath tells the story of one of the Open Canvas artists, Jacqui from Geelong, who is homeless and has lived out of her car for 11 years.

Despite this, and her history of abuse, Jacqui is a self-taught artist whose drawings take up to a week to complete.

Rodney Mallee

Rodney Mallee

Rath says she is often moved on by local council if her car is in the same place for two days, resulting in a book of half-finished pieces.

“The other day we sold two of her originals and… put $400 in her hand,” he says.

“That allowed her to go and buy stuff, she’s repairing her car that she lives in. It’s money back in pockets.

“There’s that financial reward for artists, and a lot of the artists engaging with Open Canvas are very hard at it financially.

“But there’s also that empowerment… not only was the money a help [to Jacqui], but just knowing that someone really loves her art enough to buy it is incredibly enriching and rewarding for the artist.

“They get that positive reinforcement that what they’re doing is beautiful and good and appreciated. That’s a massive part of it.”

Open Canvas is holding its first exhibition from 7 to 18 February at fortyfivedownstairs Gallery, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Rath says there is an open invitation for the opening night.

Rath says the exhibition will make the artists feel empowered.

“A lot of the artists don’t regularly see their families and get out socially,” he says.

“And to have an exhibition of this nature and to have the artists get a very tangible, on-the-spot feedback and have family and friends and other networks around them appreciating their art is another big thing for them.”

Rath is crowdfunding the exhibition, to cover the hire and to frame selected pieces.

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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