Friday, August 01, 2008

The Myths of Gallery/Artist Relationships: Biting the Hand that Feeds / Feeding the Mouth that Bites

The Myths of Gallery/Artist Relationships: Biting the Hand that Feeds / Feeding the Mouth that Bites

It is safe to say that most of us have heard an artist complain about a gallery owner or a gallery owner complain about an artist at some point during our art careers (even if you don‘t view it as a career). Others have no doubt read horror stories online-- specifically on forums and blogs devoted to art-- involving a disgruntled artist who is unhappy with his or her gallery. The same dialogue-- reversed-- can be found on the other side of the aisle-- with gallery owners and staff ranting about experiences they loathed involving artists they once represented. Both parties tend to post their frustrations anonymously. The remarks fueled by said frustration can enforce negative opinions about the artists and gallery owners involved in these rants. They can also strengthen the mythical image of the gallery/artist relationship in popular culture as well as the stereotypes of ‘the artist’ and the “gallery owner” as dictated by popular culture. These myths have teeth and both artists and gallery owners are sometimes more than willing to bite-- more than willing to spill their share of the bad blood.

We all know the mythos of the gallery/artist relationship-- that it must be filled with some form of hellish drama and that the ‘artist’ is almost always on the receiving end of the emotional and financial beating stick. The majority of novels, films, and other forms of media that depict this relationship do so in a negative manner such as this. The ‘artist’ is seen as a rebellious hero or heroine caught in a position that threatens his or her passion-- his or her drive to exist. The gallery owners are depicted as heartless, passionless vampires who strive to suck the creative blood of their victims in order to obtain financial and material success. Needless to say, popular culture dictates that the stability that should arise from gallery representation eventually causes instability for these societal underdogs. Sadly, people tend to associate with this manner of thinking when debating the gallery/artist relationship and when dealing with the reality of their own situation regarding galleries in general.

One outcome of this media enhanced myth is that the image of ‘the artist’ and the ‘gallery owner’ and their failed or complicated ‘relationship’ tends to sway the opinion that people have concerning galleries and artists in general. The consensus online (which is why I’m writing about this topic) seems to be that gallery owners are the natural enemy of artists. I’ve witnessed this manner of thinking on art blogs and forums on several occasions. It even played out in the comments at Ed Winkleman’s blog not long ago after he released an artist from his stable. Again, the majority of the negative comments were made anonymously.

Based on my experience it seems that a countless number of artists, most of whom have never experienced gallery representation to begin with, habitually rant about the exploitive nature of gallery owners as if they were booted by a mainstream gallery just the day before. They fall victim to the myth. They get angry by the myth. They show their teeth over the myth. There is no doubt in my mind that this apparent hatred stems from the myths that have been created and shaped by movies and other aspects of popular culture that I’ve mentioned.

The negative myths of the gallery/artist relationship can be dangerous for artists and gallery owners-- as well as for how the public views both. These myths can enforce an attitude that leads to a lack of opportunities and total cynicism-- specifically in the minds of emerging artists-- because said myths fail to reveal the one truth that artists and gallery owners tend to share in that they both want stability and success. I would go as far as to say that the negative myths concerning this professional relationship has caused many to unknowingly accept a defeatist approach to career advancement in the professional art world-- which is no advancement at all! In other words, if we can’t respect both the positive and negative aspects of our work… why should anyone else?

Popular culture teaches us that galleries are to be feared and that the motives of gallery owners should be questioned. Instead, we should be learning how galleries work. We should learn how they function and remain open. We should take note of how they remain successful and respected. We should remember how they benefit their artists… and most importantly, how they benefit each other within the context of the gallery/artist relationship. On that same note, gallery owners who have experienced difficult artists should remember that not every artist shares those same traits. True, there are petty artists and petty gallery owners. However, those same conditions can be found in any profession. Biting at each other with harsh words is not exactly the way to go about understanding our shared desires.

I think part of the battle that I’ve observed-- both offline and online-- is due to how closely related one is to the other. No, I’m not talking about the obvious need that one has for the other. I’m referring to how close our paths are as far as our work is concerned. Your average gallery owner has many things in common with the average artist. Both work long hours for something they believe in. Both do something that the majority of the population would never consider doing. Both are faced with financial burden based on the career choices they have made. Both rely on a degree of networking and positive exposure in order to position themselves for career success. Few have assistants. Few have great wealth. Both desire-- for the most part --to be published and reviewed. Both must endure criticism. Both must make some form of investment--be it time, money, or both-- in order to gain ground. Both fight to keep a roof over their heads. Both hope to still be doing what they are doing five years down the road. Both can be drained physically and emotionally by their work. Both have bouts of doubts-- though they may not acknowledge it to others. In other words, one could say that the majority of artists and gallery owners live very similar lives.

Perhaps that is why so many artists and gallery owners seem to snap back and forth about this issue? Perhaps that is why we choose sides? Could it be that artists and gallery owners are so close to being the same in ideology-- in work ethic and ambition-- that they will always endure some form of professional or personal conflict-- a conflict enforced by aspects of popular culture and the myths that stem from that source? The myths of old revealed the flaws of humankind--- the burden of professions and passions. Perhaps that is what we fear and why we react as we do? Perhaps that is why so many rant without adding anything new to the dialogue and with no willingness to understand the position of the other. Perhaps this is why both sides sometimes ban together like a pack of wolves to the slaughter. Is this clash over the gallery/artist relationship as troubled as I assume? Or have I fell victim to the myth in my own way?

Don't get me wrong. I realize that both artists and gallery owners can have good reason for their opinions and concerns. I understand that some artists are poorly represented based on gender, age, and other factors that should not matter as far as the message their art conveys and the respect that it should have-- just as I understand that some gallery owners try hard to endure professional relationships with artists who are reckless, to say the least. However, it does seem that these concerns have been beat into our minds to the point that we come to expect those specific outcomes no matter who we associate with. The evidence of that fear can be discovered in the conversations we have, the rants that we read, and the opinions we overhear.

Consider this an open debate about gallery/artist relationships. Feel free to offer your experiences as far as this issue is concerned. Anonymous posting is an option if you wish to prevent yourself from being identified.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

There are issues that are very real. Like the issues based on sex and age that you mentioned. But I also know that a lot of my peers have a overwhelming fear of how galleries will react to them. It is even worse when one of them is sent a rejection letter. I always tell them not to worry about it because if the NYC galleries let every artist in their would be no point in showing their in the first place. There are a lot of smaller galleries throughout the US that are more than willing to give someone a chance. It is better to exhibit somewhere than nowhere at all. People forget that. Thanks for posting this.


Anonymous said...

I’ve owned two galleries in my life. I’ve also worked as a gallery assistant and that was even worse. When an artist is let go it is more about their attitude than anything else. The art might be just as fantastic as it was when they first arrived but that does not matter if they are making the job of representing them ten times harder.

Anonymous said...

Galleries are not the enemy. Jealous artists are. Who cares if the mainstream galleries won't show you! Exhibit at smaller venues until the NYC, Chicago, and Miami galleries knock on your door!

ZD said...

This is the first I have heard of the myth. Maybe that is because I am more knowledgeable about "commercial" art. This blog is really the only art blog I read which explores the other aspect of art.

Anonymous said...

I have worked with 3 galleries over the last 25 years and have yet to have a 'bad experience'. Galleries are a business and like all other businesses they have to make money from your work. Artists are just suppliers of goods for sale, and I think this is where most of the conflicts stem because many artists can't get round this fact. The sooner they accept that if they want to sell their work through a gallery they will be treated as a supplier, then the better the relationship between the two will be. I see my work as a commodity, a unique commodity perhaps, and I have been with my current gallery for over 15 years. His biggest gripe is that I don't provide him with enough work, but he doesn't make a big issue of it. Perhaps I have been very fortunate, but if I wasn't too sure about a gallery owner I would look for somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

I've been through three Denver galleries that mistreated their artists.
To satisfy your need to not read anonymous complaints, I'm not afraid to name all the characters. I'm Barbara A. Swanson,

When Abacus Gallery went out of business, they refused to return their entire stable of works. When a class action suit was brought, the owners (sorry, their names are lost to time) disappeared--along with all the art. Luckily, I only had a few small pieces there.

The second gallery owner, Joanne Lyons, I'd met at a friend's (Sandy Kinnee) home. The next day Joanne dropped by my studio to make an appointment for me to deliver ten pieces she'd handpicked. Two days later, I arrived spot one time, reintroduced myself, and said I had the pieces she'd picked. Joanne barely glanced at me saying "I don't know you. I've never met you in my entire life."

My only explanation: "It was the drugs, man."

The third gallery (Bill Havu aka 1/1 aka William Havu) "forgot" to send checks for pieces sold. This had been an ongoing problem with several artists showing there. The day of discovery was accidental. I'd called Bill about temporarily pulling a few pieces for a show. When I couldn't find four of the works, the assistant (Bill wasn't present) opened my file. There were four receipts for sold works dating as far back as eleven months. The assistant profusely apologized and wrote out a check for the entire amount. I announced I was pulling my entire stock and in front of customers in the gallery--she said "I don't blame you." The next day Sandy Kinnee also discovered unpaid receipts in his file and he pulled his entire stock.

The good galleries have been Kyle Belding Gallery and Robischon Gallery, both are in Denver.

Anonymous said...

For what its worth, I thought I would give my 2 cents as an art collector. I have bought a number of pieces from galleries and artist alike. For me, there is really not much difference when dealing with either. I have had very good experiences with both.
Of course I have to pay more for art when buying through a gallery, but thats business, and sometimes it is the only way go.
I use the internet a great deal to find art, and I am sure more artists than ever before are selling work without a gallery, but there are also more galleries than ever before too. Bottom line is that I appreciate artists and galleries alike, and I will continue to do business with both.