Just saw this video on Dan Ariely’s blog.
There’s plenty I would quibble with, but the idea of commitment devices for cabbies and boyfriends alike seems worth thinking about from an art point of view. It seemed like a good intro to what I wanted to talk about, at least.
Maybe some of you can relate to my experiences with galleries. An artist trying to sell work through galleries is often required to make certain commitments to the consistency of their work, that they won’t send work of lesser quality, or work that doesn’t fit the ideals of the gallery space. In order to bed down with galleries we artists are often required to show our commitment to the relationship on their terms. To be in that relationship the gallery wants to be sure we can be trusted, that we are not simply aiming at a one night stand, that their commitment to us will be rewarded by faithful service, that we will make the necessary sacrifices to keep things going. Blue bowls sell better than the yellow ones? Send us more of those.
As an artist you may be in it for the love of making, you may be trying to live a life of your own choosing. But the gallery wants something deeper. It wants a demonstration of your unswerving devotion. It wants sacrifice. It wants you to be exclusive as much as possible. Consistent and predictable. And it wants to know that you will be around when the baby is born.
All of which seems justified and entirely reasonable from their point of view. Jumping all these hoops is simply what it takes to be in a relationship with some galleries. Reputable galleries are an invitation to sophisticated clientèle, and they hold this gateway often at our expense. Its different than just being your lover. Often there can be affection and genuine professional respect. In the healthy relationships. But sometimes its more like a contract with an upscale pimp. They always get their cut. Its a business partnership, after all. The question is, how much do we give up and what are they really entitled to.
When I was just starting out I walked into a local gallery and after looking at some work and even buying a pot or two I told the owner that I also made pots. They said they were interested but that I’d have to commit to selling only through their store locally. Maybe that was fair, maybe not, but I decided I wasn’t ready for that sort of commitment. Over the years friends got me in touch with people they knew who were in the gallery business in the region and I put some pots in different shops around the Southeast. I refilled stock as needed, and then some of these places closed their doors or changed owners. Pots I still had out there mysteriously disappeared without me getting paid. Sound familiar, anyone?
Relationships sometimes end. That is the nature of things. But you’d like to think that in the divorce you’d at least get visitation rights. Or that the cat you brought with you would be returned. You’d hope that in their Final Will and Testament the things that belonged to you would find their way back. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen…..
So that’s a lot of negativity on a ‘love’ inspired holiday. Let me also state the flip side, which is that despite my own misfortune in my affairs with galleries there are plenty of fine galleries who are fully committed to their artists and who give them all the encouragement they need. It can be, and sometimes is, a relationship of equitable mutual advantage, each making sacrifices for the other, and not a one way street. It can be a good relationship for both partners, with the right attitude. Its not as hopeless as my own frustrated romanticism might make it seem.
Or maybe it is. Maybe the gallery system is designed to bring the worst sort of predatory abuse out in gallery owners, and the exceptions are the upright gentlefolk who resist the temptations to go down that dark road. But I’m not the only one worried about the gyrations that galleries put artists through. Coincidence runs throughout my world, and Carole Epp just posted her latest gallery misfortune on Facebook, and Brandon Phillips just posted his own gallery debacle on his blog. These are must reads, folks.
Carole puts it this way, and the discussion that follows on fb is eyeopening:
what? you want to represent me as a gallery? great. it’ll only cost me $3850 over the next 18 months to pay you to do this on top of your commission, and me paying shipping costs? wow steal of a deal.
how do galleries get away with this?
I responded like this:
The relationship of artists to galleries is way out of balance. In some cases it seems to parallel the position where artists are asked to make donations to worthy causes just to get exposure: The service provided by galleries is to take your work for their profit and to hopefully exchange that for more stake in the art game. You get another line on your CV, your reputation now includes that you sell at such and such reputable venues, and the reward is that you can possibly take those things to the bank for your own profit. Just not at their gallery. Its called paying your dues, and it sucks. It reminds me of indentured servitude…..
So what’s the lesson in all this? I started off with the idea that commitment devices are important in affairs of business as well as affairs of the heart, that committed relationships have certain things in common. But you might hope that the commitment goes both ways, and is not abusive in nature. Artists are too often taken advantage of as it is. And the question eventually comes as to whether we really need galleries in our lives. Or certain ones.
Galleries serve this defined career purpose for some of us, but only secondarily to their own profits on our hard work. Artists are always the blue collar servants that prop up the posh establishments and whose actual work decorates the houses of the aristocracy. We feed off the scraps from their tables. In even the best of gallery art worlds is this enough for our entanglement?
Good gallery representation is a great hands up in career advancement, and yet you hear so many horror stories. If galleries can’t make their living on the honest equitable interaction with artists what is their point? Is their existence driven from below by the artists, or from above by the art patrons? Can we sensibly cut out the middlemen? Or are galleries the necessary gatekeepers that build reputations and serve to inform art patrons of the investment opportunities which make some few artists rise above the herd? What about the ‘have nots’ in this scenario? Do we condone these practices just so that a few will rise to the top?
I would suggest that the art market itself at this high end is a disaster. Its a system that is sold to artist and customer alike as a necessity. Its like the lottery, almost, but it seems fixed. Artists buy their tickets and hope for the big payoff. They sacrifice their meager earnings, bend over backwards, to play the game in the belief that its the best path to riches. Sometimes they are required to give kickbacks and other inducements. Its like the ‘Casting Couch’ all over…..
And Art collectors play the game too. The winning tickets are things they can purchase for their own prestige, and possibly even for the ability of cashing in for a greater payoff. The appreciation of winning tickets is a driving force in the high end art market. Once the ticket is proved a winner the odds of it performing better in future are enormously increased. Its only the poor struggling ‘undiscovered’ artists who hold losing tickets…… Is this rigged lottery the only game we can play? If we hold a winning ticket its hard to argue against, but for the rest of us its only the dream of scoring big that seduces us and makes us buy in.
Ugh….. Not much of a Valentine’s Day post after all…..
Maybe the lesson is that some relationships suck, and that some commitments are not worth giving. The best thing to learn from this is possibly that you have to have the right partner, and that some sort of equality is necessary for things to work out mutually. That sounds a bit like love, at least. If your boyfriend is a prick, ditch him. Maybe the right relationship to be in is not the one you were banking on. The idea of a relationship is not always the reality. And the quest for true love rarely looks like what galleries have to offer artists….. A lesson in there somewhere, I hope…..
Make beauty real!