Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The art fairs and the unethical artist

I started to sell other artists' works while I was an art student at the University of Washington in beautiful Seattle. As I've noted many times, while I was there, I sold my own works at the Pike Place Market, helped to start a Student Art Gallery, and helped to connect buyers with some of my fellow artists. Then in 1996, my then wife and I opened the Fraser Gallery in Washington, DC and subsequently a second Fraser Gallery in Bethesda, Maryland. I left the Fraser Galleries in 2006 and the same year Alida Anderson Art Projects, LLC was created in Philadelphia, and in 2009 moved to the DC region, where it remains.

In all those years I've worked with hundreds and hundreds of artists, and I can count in one hand the number of artists whom I would call unethical due to their behavior in a business gallery relationship. I thank my lucky stars for that, but I also think that a vast majority of artists, for whatever artistic genetic reason, are good people.

But we are humans, and in any "industry" there are also bad apples, and my own 2-3 bad experiences with artists, plus the dozens of anecdotal stories from other dealers all add up to the fact that just as there are some unethical galleries, there are some unethical artists.

The art fairs' paradigm gives these artsy deviants a powerful new way to use their lack of decent ethics.

As I noted yesterday, for your average, independently owned, commercial fine arts gallery, signing up to go to an art fair not only opens up the gallery to a whole new set of predators in the art fair scene, but also requires a significant financial environment, which, if not returned by sales at the fair, often causes a gallery to close its physical space.

Most good, ethical and decent art galleries are more often than not run by the skin of the dealers' teeths, often financed at times by Mr. Visa and Mr. Mastercard, and nearly always a labor of love on the part of the owners.

You drop $10,000 to $15,000 bucks on an art fair, and come home with little or no sales, and an empty bank account... that often means that it's lights out for the gallery. I've seen and heard this happen multiple times in the decade that I've been doing art fairs.

As I've also noted before, there is a curious after effect to art fairs; I call it the "wake effect."

A ship leaves a wake on the ocean as it moves through the water; that wake can sometimes be hundreds of miles long and discernible for days.

I define an art fair's "wake" as events that happen days, weeks, and even years after an art fair has taken place.  These events can be sales, exhibition offers, curatorial interest, press, etc. The "record" for this is currently held by DMV area artist Judith Peck, who was recently approached by someone who saw her work at a Miami art fair four years ago and recently got in touch with Peck. As a result of that fair four years ago, Peck made a sale and was also included in a forthcoming art exhibition in Puerto Rico.

That's a heck of a long-assed wake!

The wake effect is important and nearly always present after a fair closes. It is part of a gallery's business prayer plan to survive the economic investments in attending an art fair.

In the Google age, the art of buying a piece of artwork has been Googlified and in any art fair one sees a huge number of people taking photographs of the art being exhibited (a tiny minority of these photographers ask permission first... cough, cough...) and then (here comes the "new" part) they take a close up of the wall text card with the name, price, media and title of the piece.

Potential collectors, art students, art teachers, other gallerists, and nearly every fair visitor from the People's Republic of China does this - it happens in every art fair.

Within minutes, a potential buyer can then Google the artist, even the piece, discover related works, other dealers representing the artist, etc. Minutes later, direct contact with the artist often begins, closely followed by emails to other dealers and/or the artist requesting price quotes and availability.

Some of this is very smart, as there are unethical art dealers who inflate artists' prices at art fairs in order to then offer huge discounts to potential buyers. An ethical buyer armed with good information is an informed buyer, and ethical art dealers have nothing to fear when dealing with them.

Approaching an artist directly undercuts the gallery's investment in the art fair and in promoting the artist's work. However, one can make the case that some novice buyers do not understand this relationship and thus their "direct" approach to the artist, rather than working with the gallery where they saw the artist's work, can be somewhat excused and attributed to a simple lack of understanding... cough, cough.

Experienced collectors who know and understand the commercial fragility of most art galleries, and how the artist-gallery relationship generally works, and yet bypass a gallery and go directly to the artist, should know better, but what can I say?

I know that this happens because I am nearly always one of the artists being exhibited at the fairs, not only by AAP, but also by multiple other art galleries in multiple art fairs. And I get emails from people who tell me that they "saw my work at the such and such art fair and love it" and want to know "what else I've got?" or what's "the best deal" that they can get on this or that piece.

I also know this because I've had our represented artists pass the emails back to us; this is what an ethical artist must do.

Our contract sets an arbitrary time limit on how long a commission exists after an art fair for a direct sale made by the artist as a result of someone seeing their work at the fair. It is all on an honor system, and I am happy to report that as far as I know, no one has ever screwed us out of a single shekel in "wake effect" sales.

I also know this because I work with multiple other galleries, some of which represent the same artists whom I work with, and they too understand the "wake" effect and let us know that someone has been requesting price quotes on an artist that we share.

Enter the unethical artist.

By know I am sure that you know where I am going... The unethical part comes when an artist is approached directly by someone, during or after an art fair, and associates the query with "seeing the art at such and such art fair..." and the artist does not pass the contact to the gallery and makes an independent and direct sale and excludes the gallery from its fair commission (pun intended).

Or the artist is suddenly approached directly by someone, during or after an art fair, and that someone is from the city/area where the fair is being/was held. And the artist does not pass the contact to the gallery and makes an independent and direct sale and excludes the gallery from its fair commission (pun intended again).

Real life example: A gallery exhibits artist Jane Doe in an art fair in Santa Fe. It is the first time that this artist has been exhibited not only in Santa Fe, but also the first time that Jane, who lives in Poland, has exhibited in the USA.  Suddenly Jane begins to get direct queries from people who live in New Mexico.

Hai Capito?