Art dealers in Canada have served as art dealers everywhere, not only as sellers of art but as tastemakers. Since they act as a link between the work of art and the art-buying public, they have an important role in the identification of who is important in Canadian art. By their sales, they help determine how much fame the artist will have, at least in the marketplace. To be successful, a dealer must act responsibly, not only towards the field but also towards the artist and the public. The Professional Art Dealers Association (founded in 1966) maintains basic guidelines and ethical standards for the operation of commercial art galleries.
Until the mid-19th century, dealers in Canada were forced to diversify their stock so that they carried art along with other saleable items. James Spooner in Toronto, for instance, ran a small picture gallery with works by Daniel Fowler, John Fraser, Paul Peel and Homer Watson in the rear of his tobacco shop on King St East. William Scott and Son, founded in 1859, sold mainly Barbizon School paintings but from 1901 was the dealer for M.A. Suzor-Coté as well as handling the work of Cornelius Krieghoff. In 1897 William R. Watson inherited John Ogilvy's in Montréal, an art business begun by Ogilvy as a hobby.
By the 1930s several important galleries had been established - Leroy Zwicker in Halifax; Robertson and Wells in Ottawa; Mellors Fine Art, Laing and Roberts in Toronto. All these galleries sold mostly 19th-century English and European paintings. The taste of the public and the Depression made sales of Canadian paintings difficult. Some art dealers, however, played a significant role as pioneers in supporting young Canadian artists, eg, Watson who sold the paintings of Maurice Cullen from 1908 until Cullen's death in 1934, Douglas Duncan who opened the Picture Loan Society in Toronto in 1936, and in the 1950s Agnes Lefort and Denyse Delrue in Montréal. in Toronto were Dorothy Cameron (her Here and Now Art Gallery opened in 1959) and David Mirvish for 15 years from the time his gallery opened in 1963.
Success did not come easily. Painters Eleven, with the help of Jack Bush who showed with Roberts Gallery in Toronto, managed to have 2 shows there in 1954 and 1955. Though critics were interested and, by the second show, there was considerable public attention, sales were few. Avrom Isaacs in Toronto opened the Greenwich Gallery as a framing shop in 1955. By 1959 he had changed the name to the Isaacs Gallery and begun to foster a group of young artists that included Michael Snow and Graham Coughtry, who are now part of Canadian art history.
In the 1960s, with the growing enthusiasm for Canadian art and increasing affluence, art dealers proliferated, particularly in Toronto. The audience by now counted among its ranks the corporate sector. Businesses such as CIL, the Toronto Dominion Bank and various oil companies, particularly Imperial Oil, began collections. The Canada Council Art Bank program, established in 1972 with a budget of $1 million a year, and the program of the Department of Public Works (1964-78), in which 1% of the cost of all government buldings had to be spent on art, added substantially to the funds available (see Public Art). During the 1980s, possibly 70% of sales in the marketplace consisted of those to corporate collections. Today, corporate collecting has declined substantially and many corporate collections assembled in the 1980s have been dismantled and sold off. Private collecting is now the backbone of most commercial galleries. At the same time, since public galleries are acutely underfunded, they rely more and more on gifts from the corporate and private sector.
The 1960s also saw the emergence of a new kind of dealer, the co-operative gallery or "alternative" space. A Space in Toronto, SAW in Ottawa and other artist-run centres in a network across the country operate art galleries dedicated to promoting contemporary artists and sales, with no stigma of "commercialism." They meet a need created by a more diversified art scene - art that involves performance, video art or large installations. Many contemporary dealers, eg, Ydessa Handeles in Toronto who opened her business in 1980, have gone along with the new trend. They consider their role more one of finding sponsors than of actively selling, though selling, particularly to the National Gallery of Canada, is important too (see Art, Contemporary Trends).
Dealers have had a significant role in influencing public taste and promoting the unusual. Private galleries across Canada have been largely responsible for the promotion and sale of the art of Native people. Max Stern's Dominion Gallery in Montréal and G. Blair Laing introduced the sculpture of Henry Moore to Canada. Stern was also the first gallery to give contracts to artists, beginning with Goodridge Roberts in 1949. Mirvish guaranteed income as well as made purchases from many living artists, starting with Jules Olitski in 1964. His relationship with American artists provided an impetus to the changing relations between artists and dealers in America. In addition, his gallery participated in the introduction of artists such as Jack Bush, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland and Anthony Caro, among others, who have now become world famous. Many painters, curators and collectors in Canada and America today recall his gallery as their classroom. He brought Canadians into a new relationship with the international scene.
The commercial relationship between artist and dealer is usually based on commission and most work is sold on consignment. Some dealers may buy an artist's production for several years and market it accordingly. Sales by commission are difficult for the unknown artist, who often must help pay for the opening and associated expenses. The dealer may advance money months before exhibitions, as well as providing exhibition space and sometimes a modest catalogue or flyer as well as the cost of framing and advertising. (These costs may be shared.) Some dealers show remarkable intuition for the future market value of an artist's work. They may hold works of art until an artist dies and then dictate market value. Max Stern bought many works by the unrecognized Emily Carr. Walter Klinkhoff, who started dealing art in 1949, recalls that he could once mount shows of work by Jackson, Lismer, Goodridge Roberts and Henri Masson, paintings he had bought to prevent others from getting them. These stocks, however, have all been exhausted.
By 1986 the market had taken an upsurge after a depression lasting from 1981. Auctions began to dominate public and private collecting. At Sotheby's Toronto auction house in February 2002, a Paul Kane canvas, Scene in the Northwest - Portrait, was sold for $4.6 million plus the buyer's premium of 10%, the largest amount ever paid for a Canadian painting at auction. A few years later, in 2011, a record for the sale of a contemporary work by a Canadian artist was reached when Nineteen Ten Remembered by Jean Paul Lemieux was sold at auction for $2 million plus buyer's premium by Heffel Fine Art.
In February, 2013, Sotheby's Canada announced that it would discontinue holding auctions in favour of concentrating on individual private sales of blue chip Canadian art. In making the announcement, Sotheby's president David Silcox remarked that private sales make up the growth area of the art market. "It's not the auction part that's profitable," he said. Sotheby's decision to abandon the auction scene in Canada left two other major competitors, Heffel Fine Arts in Vancouver and Toronto-based Joyner Waddington to pick up the slack, with no indication that either was planning a major change in their art sales strategies.