This post is a little different from the kind of thing I’ve been writing lately, but I thought it might be helpful to young artists out there. Some of my absolutely favorite students have graduated over the last couple of years, which means that I’ve been getting pleas for advice on how to navigate through this crazy art world of ours. I can’t say I’m an expert by any means; it’s one big learning process and you have to sort of make it up as you go along, adjusting and adapting all the time.
What I’ve written below are a few things I have learned from either bad experiences of my own when I was starting out – and they’re exactly the sort of thing I hear my students going through. And if there’s any way that by my going through some shit I can prevent you from going through some shit, well, that would be just great.
So, I’ve tried to write this in open enough language that it can be applied to freelancing or showing your work, or even other situations, but here are some red-flags that should let you know to be cautious. Obviously, you have to judge every opportunity as it comes to you and there are no hard-and-fast rules. But that’s why it’s a red-flag – it’s an indication that maybe something is wrong, so you need to find out more before you blindly proceed on faith:
1. You are asked to work for free, or to participate in an exhibition you normally wouldn’t, or to pay for something you usually wouldn’t, under the theory that “It will be good exposure for your work.”
Whenever anyone uses the expression “it will be good exposure for your work,” alarm bells ought to go off in your head – it is probably the phrase most overused by sleazeballs in the art world. It is entirely possible that the person telling you this is correct; on the other hand, a lot of disreputable people hide behind this very vague assertion as a way to screw over young artists. Artists are known for doing anything to get exposure to their work, including but not limited to paying people to represent them (yes, this happens) and appearing in really crappy reality tv shows.
If someone says that your participation in something would be “good exposure,” you should ask them how and inquire about the specifics. No one worth working with will be intimidated or put off by your questions if you ask them politely (even if they’re pointed questions); most people looking to rip you off will find their stories falling apart under scrutiny. Think about what sort of audience you want for your work, and what sort of audience you will get in exchange for this opportunity.
2. You are asked to accept less money than you would reasonably expect for your work, under the assumption that if things work out, you’ll be working together a lot or “this could lead to future gigs”.
Right. See, the thing is that this is a really crappy way to start out a business relationship. Instead of starting it out with everyone being really honest with what they need and want, you have a situation where the artist is bending over backwards to help out the businessperson who, in exchange, has absolutely no obligation to help out the artist long-term.
Think of it this way: Would you ever start out a romantic relationship with someone where you tell them, “For our first date, we can do whatever you want to do, as long as you promise me you’ll keep me in mind for other dates?”
(Now, bear in mind that young artists do have to build up portfolios and client bases and do have to be flexible and supportive of other young people out there trying to make a go of their businesses and that sort of thing, but the good rule of thumb to use is this: Does this situation make you feel gross? Like you’ve been used? Because if it does, don’t do it. No amount of future work will ever make that gross feeling go away. Do you feel good about the project; is it the sort of thing you genuinely want to do and you’re just bending a bit to help out someone who you know well and have a real connection to? In that case, it might be ok to do this.)
3. You ask the gallery/dealer/client for some kind of written-out agreement for what has been discussed between you two, and the gallery/dealer/client either: A. rolls his or her eyes and sighs deeply; B. exclaims, “That’s not how we do business in the real world!” and makes you feel incredibly awkward for even asking; or C. refuses to do it.
If any of the above options (or a combination thereof): Run. Run as fast as you can from that place and don’t ever look back, except to warn your friends.
The truth of the matter is that contracts and written agreements are rarely used in the art world. This is not a good business practice, but it’s honestly what happens. However, if you want to have a written out agreement of what has been discussed in terms of pricing, commission, and so forth (and you should want this, at least early in your relationship with the person you’re working with), it’s your right to have it and no one should make you feel crappy for requesting it. It’s 100% reasonable and the whole thing should take about five minutes to do. And do you really want to work with someone who can’t be bothered to give you five minutes of their time?
4. The gallery/dealer/client goes way out of his or her way to point out what a favor they are doing for you by working with you.
Again, to put it in dating terms, would you ever date anyone who says, “Sure, I’ll go out with you – but just to be clear, I’m doing you a huge favor because you’re really beneath me”?
The truth is, galleries put a lot on the line when they take on an artist, but the same is true about artists who join a gallery (substitute dealer or client for gallery as you see fit). What we’re talking about is a mutually beneficial situation for all parties, or it’s one that’s highly dysfunctional – it’s one or the other, period. Either both you and the person you’re working with get something good out of the deal or you should both walk away.
I’m spending the morning trying to get this place together a bit. I stripped the couch and I’m washing the pillowcovers and, erm, this happened:
Hey, I’m writing a longish article about questions that are frequently asked of me by recent grads about art business practices. Hopefully I will post that later tonight, once my other tasks are out of the way.
Alas. My post-a-day thing came to a crashing halt yesterday when I fell asleep without blogging about… something.
No matter. I think it’s time for me to go back to just blogging when I have new stuff to put up. I am so close to being done with about a dozen new projects and I’m psyched to show them to you. I just don’t really have anything else I want to talk about or think about right now.
So, stay tuned. I’ll update this at least once a week, probably more.
Oh! One last thing! I’m trying to bulk up my mailing list a bit. If you’d like to be on it, click here. I will only send out 2-3 emails a year tops, so don’t worry about being overloaded with spam from me. 🙂
I swear, my parents and I did this when we lived in Houston, sans foil. The video says you can’t, but I remember that we did (I was maybe five, so I was pretty impressionable at the time and I wouldn’t trust my memory).
Anyway, it was so hot out there today I was ready to fry a piece of tofu on the sidewalk. (Or something.)
Clearly I was not meant to edition these artists books that I’ve been trying to edition for the last two weeks. Everything that could go wrong has, from my printer not working, to companies that I normally rely upon suddenly turning out really crappy work, and so on. I finally broke down and bought a new printer (hmm, a full set of ink cartridges costs $123, but a new printer with the cartridges in it is only $99? weird) and it arrived late today, only to have me realize that it requires some sort of bizarre USB cable that I’ve never seen before, that didn’t come with it, and I certainly don’t have. Awesome.
Well, tomorrow morning I’ll be off to get the damned USB cable and hopefully, after that, we’ll be rocking with the new books. Meanwhile, here’s the latest embroidery panel. I’m a few panels ahead, but I have been having problems documenting one of the panels. I decided in the end to skip it, and just move on showing you the rest of the series. There’s a brief break in the narrative, and that’s why.
Bah, the photo is a bit blurry! Today didn’t work out at all…
Somehow, I completely randomly wound up on Kate Pugsley’s website late one night, and I absolutely love her paintings, especially the ones from 2009.
Especially this one (gee… girl with bangs and glasses, I wonder why?) :
Katie and I (mostly Katie) have been working on putting together a catalog of my work from the last couple of years. This is a harder task than maybe it sounds – it’s amazing how many i’s have to be dotted and t’s have to be crossed in order to put a catalog together. I just got the first proof and there are definitely some things that have to be changed up, but here’s a sneak peak:
Tiny needlefelted Campbell’s soup cans.
That’s all I’m saying.
So, to recap:
Small crowd at first. By 7:00, there were plenty of empty seats. In fact, volunteers started making the rounds, giving out yellow wristbands to pleebs so that they could move up to the VIP section. We had great seats already, which was the only thing that kept me from chasing down one of those volunteers and stealing one.
By 7:10, Thirlwell starts making his way through the crowd, saying hi to friends. Now, look – this is my favorite musician on earth and his music changed my life and blah blah blah, but it’s clear that the guy is uncomfortable in his skin and not at all out to be a Famous Rock Star, so I’ve always thought it would be inappropriate to walk up to him and be all, “OMG! You’re so amazing!” The way I see it, he gives me incredible music, I give him the gift of leaving him alone. But the guy was making it really, really difficult for me by hanging out about six feet from where we were sitting for a good ten minutes, all the while my insides and my outside are having this war, where my insides want to rise up and go OH MY GOD THANK YOU FOR SO MUCH AMAZING MUSIC, YOU HAVE NO IDEA AND I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE ABOUT SIX FEET AWAY FROM ME WE ARE BREATHING THE SAME MICROBES and my outside is totally beating that voice into submission, forcing it to be polite and let him talk to his friends. My outside won; Thirlwell moved on to talk to other people.
By about 7:20, an older guy comes and sits next to me and Jeff. At first, it’s just polite chatting. And then he starts asking me things like, “How do you know him?” and I’m thinking, Him? Who? “Oh, the guy performing… he’s a blond guy, originally from Australia…”. Wait, JG Thirlwell?
Ok, to jump to the chase: the “older guy” was 88 year old painter Albert Kresch, who (I would only find out this morning by Wikipedia-ing him, shame on me) was one of the original members of the Jane Street Gallery (insert art history squeal of happiness here) and used to hang with, oh I don’t know, Willem de Kooning and Frank O’Hara. And now he’s basically the biggest Thirlwell fan on the planet. Do things actually get any more awesome than this? And the concert hasn’t even started.
Al and I sit talking about how awesome Thirlwell is (Al is not a Foetus fan, but loves his instrumental work). Apparently, the two have hung out together and Thirlwell went to Al’s last exhibition opening and all sorts of good stuff like that, so Al was on this very sweet, almost paternal mission to educate the crowd on all the wonders of Thirlwell’s talent. He was thrilled I knew his music, but downright horrified that so many people around us didn’t, so he kept striking up conversations with everyone trying to make sure that they knew exactly who they were going to see perform and how awesome he is. It was a little like seeing a school play while sitting next to next to the star’s parents who point to the stage and whisper, “That’s my kid!” the whole time, but only in the best way possible.
7:30 on the dot, Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio plays. Smith is the happiest man on earth and smiled throughout the performance, which was overall terrific:
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a performer quite so comfortable performing to a large crowd as Smith was; he was in equal parts soaking up the crowd and also ignoring them, just transfixed by his own music.
8:30-ish, the crowd is filling up, and Steroid Maximus takes the stage. There’s 16 of them (well, I thought 20, but Al insisted on 16 and I’m willing to give that to him), with Thirlwell conducting. This means I got lots of pictures of his back, which is… great. I guess.
Whenever he turned around to acknowledge the audience, he looked totally dour and miserable, kind of the absolute opposite of Smith. But when he was conducting, it was like watching a dance performance or something; he was totally absorbed and the whole thing was incredible. And the music – wow.
They played whole sections of pieces that sound like they’ve been lifted from old James Bond soundtracks and then – somehow, seamlessly – transitioned into something else entirely. You get sort of sucked in by the familiar, and then the whole thing gets completely mixed up with about a million different other sources and turned out until it’s not recognizable at all. I’m not sure how someone can quote (in a musical sense) such cheesy movie music cliches as he does, and yet do this magic on it where it gets transformed into something not at all a cliche, but rather something thrilling and real. And seeing it performed live? By an ensemble and not at all pre-recorded computerized whatever? OMG.
Ahhhh!!! So amazing. Al was on cloud nine and so was I. By 10:15 the whole thing was over and I practically skipped home.
So, just to review:
The file is now downloadable and I’m a jerk for putting up one that was all screwed up, but it’s fixed now (see post below for details).
Steroid Maximus is playing a free concert tonight and if you’re in the NYC area and not going, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.