The potential for classism in gallery discrimination

“To the victor the spoils! And may the rich get richer!!” Ages old battle-cry of the aristocracy and all champions of the status quo.

Jill Foote-Hutton just added a guest post on Carole Epp’s ‘Musing About Mud’ blog visiting the question of whether the artist/gallery relationship needs to be reexamined. I imagine that it certainly does! Its an interesting post that outlines a number of issues and directions it is possible to take. Worth reading.

In it she says the following:

The final tidbit of wisdom from my discussion with  (Sunshine) Cobb was an anecdote about the standard shipping arrangement between galleries and artists.  Cobb is currently working as a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana.  Shipping from Montana can be pretty pricey, and anyone who has had to fly out of Montana to anywhere besides Seattle, Denver, or Minneapolis can tell you there is no easy road out in regard to travel.  She shipped work to a gallery and made the choice to send a grouping of smaller objects.  Of course, all the work sold out rather quickly and the gallery called to request she send more work for the exhibition and include larger pieces in the next shipment.  Cobb was happy to oblige, but observed and asserted that she was getting the short end of the deal in regard to the shipping arrangement.  “If all of my work sells, then the gallery never has to ship work back to me.”  Cobb suggested the gallery front the shipping costs on the next shipment.  

As a gallery representative, I know that shipping costs are one of the larger line items in our budget.  While that cost is shared by our clients who pay shipping and handling in their purchases, a gallery does maintain a healthy stock of bubble wrap, peanuts, newsprint, boxes, tape, fragile stickers, branding logo stamps, and includes supporting documents about the artists and exhibitions in every package.  Still, Cobb’s point was taken.  How can a gallery work to better reward its best sellers?  Especially if the intention of a gallery is to support the livelihood of its artists as well as keeping the doors open.  Hmmmm?  Again, the words from O’Connell’s Red Clay Rambler interview came back to me, “…good for no one.”  Cobb’s proposal didn’t seem at all unrealistic to me:  invest more in the artists who present proven product.” (emphasis mine)
 

To be fair, Jill follows my comment to her post with the disclaimer that “Everything I wrote is an ongoing conversation about questions we look at everyday. We don’t always have an answer, but we are keeping an eye out for new ways to do what we do better and to continue supporting professionally minded ceramic artists who make quality work.” So keep in mind that this is not actual policy but the threat of policy.

Here’s how I responded:

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Be careful of the slippery slope!

While it does seem justified that artists who are guaranteed sellers not have to pay excessive shipping for some of their larger pieces, by making exceptions for these artists you are saying that not everyone represented there is treated equally. You pointed out that: “the core tenets of the mission statement, ‘…provide a place for professionally minded ceramic artists to develop…and share the importance of art in everyday life.’” And that “When we invite an artist to be part of an exhibition or to be represented by our commercial gallery, we are asking said maker to buy in to that mission statement as well.” But what it now sounds like is that some artists get preferential treatment and you are asking people to buy into that.

Maybe that’s simply the way of the world, and galleries are more an organ of commerce than actual ‘support for artists’. But if that’s the case we should be more honest that the mission statement reflect the priority of its commercial successes. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it can only perpetuate the hierarchies and discriminations within the field. Plenty of professional minded artists will simply not qualify for the ‘kickbacks’ and ‘junkets’, and rather than actual honest good work and professionalism being rewarded we reward the celebrity of the star system.

As a business, that may make sense. The bureaucracy tends to look out for its own interests, and that means it needs to take care of the goose that lays the golden egg. But as so often in the business world, where exactly does that leave the small fry? Neglected and prejudiced against, most often. Its a world all too ready to take advantage of the little people. The inequities are often startling. And its not always their fault for being disadvantaged. The system is set up to reward the heavy hitters. When the ‘Haves’ need not pay their own way for things it often looks like the ‘Have Nots’ end up footing the bill. It ends up looking a lot like tax-cuts for the rich…..

And so, we need to ask whether we are comfortable being part of an elitism that fails to treat all art of reasonable quality equally. If that’s the case then the mission statement needs to read something along the lines of “provide a place where established professionals can develop”. And there may be nothing wrong with that attitude. But once you start to discriminate on some basis its usually not just one preferential outcome but a cascade of slights and prejudices that get leveled against the unfortunate.

And like discrimination and inequity in the rest of our lives we often take our beatings in the hope that one day we will be standing on the other side of the rod, that we will be the ones driving the Porsches, living in mansions, dining at the finest restaurants, with all the trophies lined up on our mantle-place. The dream of winning the lottery helps keep the downtrodden in their place. And the hope of a different future is what seems to justify the inequities in even the minds of those on the wrong end of the rod.

If art is a business, maybe its simply necessary for institutions like galleries to just look out for their own interests. Right here, right now. Nothing as vague as the future or more global consequences. Just like big oil companies and megacorporations…..

But if galleries claim to be a service to artists, it can only be either ALL artists equally, or just some who fit the criteria. Maybe we do need to keep the riffraff out. But is that discrimination significantly rigged and self serving? Are we comfortable with the lack of equity and support for artists who are not “the best sellers” with “the proven products”? Who may actually need our help more than the ones who’ve already ‘made it’?

Again, I’m not saying it needs to be one way or the other. Its just worth thinking through the consequences of making these decisions. Thanks for at least raising this discussion. Its clearly something we need to talk about.

(end of comment on blog, slightly modified.)

—————————————————————————————–

What I’d add here is that one of the consequences to the commercial game of making-business-ends-meet is that we often end up playing it safe with the bottom line. This encourages an outlook on ‘business-sense’ that we take the safe way, to trust in proven winners, and to prefer all proven recipes for ‘success’. Its not a call to experimentalism or breaking the rules or challenging the way things are done. Its not a call to the freedom of expression that lies at the heart of all creativity. Rather, its the bleating trumpets of conservative consumerism and product branding. It ends up being the unimaginative field where we shelter the winners from change and we protect the status quo.

In other words, its not the romantic kiss of wet clay, but the sullen embrace of lucre. Which, at its heart, seems symptomatic of class strife……

In Jill’s response to my comment she asked the further question “Would it really be so bad to reward (established) folks if we continued to provide a national venue for less established artists who might have a difficult time getting their work included elsewhere? Doesn’t continued fiscal success enable a commercial operation to reach down the ladder and help more because of the loyalty of the like minded “elite”?” And while business pragmatics may suggest this trade-off as equitable it also sounds a bit like the Trickle Down theory of Economics.

Incentivising contracts to lure the top sellers may just be good business practice. But if we are prepared to treat some artists differently we can see where this might end up going. Discrimination never seems as blatant until you are on the receiving end.

Of course I am relieved that this is not actual policy but part of an ongoing conversation! And since this discussion seems to have much in common with political issues, wouldn’t it be interesting to suggest ‘tax relief’ for ‘the poor’? Give THEM the shipping discounts? Not just occasionally reaching down the ladder in a paternalistic offering of a solid meal instead of crumbs, but actual institutional support for the ‘Have Nots’. (An art Welfare system?)

Its a tricky issue for sure! And galleries may not be the place to ask that question. Its hard to argue that we should “reward failure” or that we should “penalize success”, but sharing the burden for the continued survival of our field and its institutions has to be spread somehow. Who can afford it and who can least afford it? A tricky question. If we are not going to treat everyone as equal, that everyone pays the same, pays their own way, at least that equality is justice of a sort.

But maybe it evens out. Maybe the occasional hand-outs for the ‘poor’ balance out with the tax-breaks for the ‘rich’. I’m not the one to offer an opinion on that. I just know what it looks like to me. And obviously the hand-up to less established artists is a positive. The question is whether we can only do that not as a mission, not as a matter of policy, not as a simple matter of equity, but only as the result of further preferential ‘rewarding’ of the folks already eating high up on the food chain.

Its an interesting question! Personally, I’m not a big fan of Reaganomics, what little of it I understand. But I can see why those in the position of sustaining an institution would favor a hierarchy. The often hidden thing is that hierarchies are not always universally ‘good’ for those at the top. There are costs to playing the game and ‘winning’.

One of the things that troubles me about our field is that it makes a point of Classism. It thrives on the celebrity status of those who have ‘made it’, which only deepens the divide between the ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots’. It often makes art a game of playing the branding card, and I only see that as bad news for actual creative freedom. But that’s a whole other can of worms!

Only from the perspective of ‘the winners’ the plight of the disadvantaged never looks unjust or unjustified. But we should make no pretense of a level playing field. That is simply a happy illusion of privilege. Institutional power has a way of reinventing the narrative in its perceived own best interests: “History is written by the winners”, and all that…. Those on the inside of the system simply look at things very differently from those on the outside. And for perhaps too long the interests of the art field have been represented by the unalloyed commercialism of its gallery institutions……

Something to think about, at least…..

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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4 Responses to The potential for classism in gallery discrimination

  1. I certainly enjoyed your post. Being a 66 year old gallery in the mid west – I feel the same way – just replace the lesser known artist with an out of the way gallery. We carry a great deal of pottery – and art glass and paintings and jewelry. But 99% are not consigned. Why? Because we aren’t in a large city. We don’t have the ‘name’ recognition. Our cost of doing business is incredibly high – since we have to purchase all of our inventory – that makes the return shipping issue moot. Name artists and artisans don’t see the value in having work in our gallery on consignment. We have several in the gallery – but they are only represented here because we wrote a check. Others are fully involved with larger market galleries who take up their production. Who can blame them? But it does feel very much like your notes above. So I suppose in the world of commerce classism could be a two way street.

    • Agreed! The ‘aristocracy’ are all in it together. They know the stakes, and on which side their bread is buttered. They have a vested interest in the status quo. Which is why ‘success’ seems to have such drawbacks for the art itself, at times. We tend to reward artists for protecting their careers rather than for the risks they take. Kind of seems the opposite of ‘art’, if you ask me…..

      Thanks for chiming in! I hope you do well!

  2. This just came across my inbox from the great Createquity blog, a leader in arts advocacy:

    “The arts labor market has been called one of the oldest examples of a “winner-take-all” economy, a term popularized by Robert Frank and Philip Cook in their 1995 book, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. The hallmark of this kind of market is extreme income inequality, whereby a small number of the bright, talented, and fortunate generate the majority of economic value. Case in point: according to the New York Times, 56 percent of all concert revenue in 2003 flowed to just a handful of pop music stars like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. That left less than half the year’s proceeds to be divided amongst all other performers.

    (….)

    In “Artists in the Winner-Take-All Economy,” sociologist Mark Stern surmises that income disparity in the arts is representative of overall trends in our society, and we ignore it at our own peril. He also paints a rather pessimistic picture of an economy that perpetuates the culture of superstars ad infinitum once it takes hold. The outcome is a country wholly divided by income and accessibility, a depressing thought. However, if the arts are in any way representative of the rest of the system, then working to transform its micro-economy into a healthier and sustainable one may provide clues as to how to pull our society out of the superstar spiral.” Jena Lee

  3. Never knew Ashton Kutcher was this smart. Now I do….

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