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Toronto's Art Aura

In an 18th floor office in the Toronto Star building at the foot of Yonge Street an idea hatched out of the creative and entrepreneurial minds of business partners Eric Andrade and Colin Aikman along with jewellery artist Lisa Ridout. The result is Aura Collective, an online fine arts and crafts store which performs the unique function of promoting and selling the work of Canadian artists and simultaneously supporting Canadian charities.

The office is barren save for a few fine art samples - glass candy canes, a bra sculpture, a hand-painted glass platter - displayed around the room that looks out over Lake Ontario. Hardly a showroom, but that didn't prevent one customer from stopping in one day. "We were pretty surprised, but we got him a coffee and had a great chat," says Andrade, Founder and CEO, "I think he was more intrigued by the company model than anything else." The office is a hold over from a multi-million dollar sale to Thomson Reuters of Andrade and Aikman's previous company, Unleashed Informatics Ltd., a life science information management firm. Similar in set-up to Aura, that company was a one-stop online collection of leading and break-through scientific information made available globally.

"I believe artists are the ultimate small business people in Canada," he says, "The spark of innovation in their brain goes straight into their work from their hand, and then they're out there pushing this work on their own." It all started while visiting Ridout's studio, an artist he knew, where he recognized the opportunity for her business to grow and how he could help her. "I had a mentor who advised me throughout the sale of my business and I wanted to pass on the mentorship," he says. "I asked Lisa if I could present her work online, and then we came up with the idea of celebrating that work by letting people donate to a charity of their choice."

Aura Collective, which launched in early 2009 with one artist and a couple of charities, now features 17 artists, four partner charities - Habitat for Humanity, Field Hockey Canada, Mount Sinai Hospital and Nature Conservancy Canada, and gives shoppers the opportunity to donate to one of 85,000 registered Canadian charities. There's no extra cost added to the items; the artist sells their own creations, Aura makes the hefty 15% donation on behalf of the buyer and charities get the benefit of a new source of revenue.

Sensitive to the vague "a portion of profits" phrases some organizations use to define their charitable donations, Aura Collective is determined to be transparent. Each item on the website lists the exact amount to be donated. The charity is chosen from a drop-down menu, or clients can choose something created especially for the partner charities. For example, Ridout designed a Sinai Collection Bracelet specifically for purchasers looking to donate to Mount Sinai. Further, current supporters of Mount Sinai receive a 15% discount on their purchases.

The donation is officially processed by the non-profit third party portal, Canada Helps, which sends the customer a verification and thank-you message.

"We felt Canadians define themselves by the art they embrace and by the causes they support," says Andrade. "We wanted to be clear that we're a for-profit venture that is seeking to make a difference."

As a partner charity, Habitat for Humanity's spokesperson John Firman says the value is in the mutual benefit to all concerned. "There's a great advantage to our established supporters, who can save money and support a charity. Aura Collective helps us raise dollars and awareness."

Aura is less interested in making huge profits than it is in being an ethical company that provides a safe, supportive environment. The artists decide what they sell and for how much. They have a standard commercial agreement with Aura and none of their profits are lessened by the donations. Andrade says, "This is a new revenue channel for the artist, and for the charities. I think that's something worth celebrating."

Artists are chosen by peer review, recommended by someone already in the collective, are able to replicate a piece by hand, and have the commercial means to deliver on time. One such artist recommended by founding artist Lisa Ridout is Kimberley Price. Selling her one-of-a-kind rare bead jewellery at a couple of home studio shows per year and another few juried arts shows worked for a time, but she was looking for a way to expand her business. When she received a call from Andrade she decided to join. Price has since become the first Canadian artist to be offered on Aeroplan, an expansion of the Aura Collective whereby customers can use their points to purchase items such as her Blue Amazonite Karen Necklace.

"I had to design a production line," she says, speaking from her home studio in mid-town Toronto. "That was a bit of a challenge. I do have to invest more in stock and had to figure out how to more easily import my beads." Though Price's ethnic culture-inspired creations require elements from Afghanistan and other distant places, "it has definitely increased my sales and recognition and I'm proud to be involved with Aeroplan's first charitable donation program," she says.

Since Aura doesn't demand that she sell exclusively through them, she is still able to make her more storied, intricate pieces available in places like Toronto's Gardiner Museum and a gallery in Port Perry, where she grew up.

Kimberley thinks the charity aspect of Aura is "a fabulous idea. I've got favourite charities for personal reasons. That part really appealed to me."

Back in the office-cum-showroom on Yonge Street, Eric Andrade has acquired a noticeable gleam in his eye. Sure he's co-founded a company that shepherds artists into a wider market, deepens charity coffers and gives shoppers a dose of good karma, but there may just be an even bigger emotional payoff for him. "I have four daughters and another on the way," he says, "As a parent you have to work to be relevant to your kids. And when you've got five daughters, all of whom grow up wanting to be fairy princesses, you get into a fashion business."

Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto based writer and TV producer.

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