A few notes on the business of art

June 30, 2010 at 11:05 pm (art)

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.


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6/22/10: Kate Pugsley

June 22, 2010 at 9:57 pm (art)

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?) :

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6/20/10: Embroidery project teaser

June 20, 2010 at 9:53 pm (art)

Tiny needlefelted Campbell’s soup cans.

That’s all I’m saying.

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UPDATED! 6/17/10: Beta testers urgently needed!

June 17, 2010 at 10:00 pm (art)

Arghhhh… I was so tired last night, I screwed up the file.

Download this. It will work. I promise. My apologies to all who tried to make this work last night… I am totally mortified.


You know what it’s like when you work and work and work on something to the point where you can’t see it anymore? I’m at that point.

I am trying to make a working phenakistoscope. It is driving me insane. So I had the idea that I would make a working copy available free for download for a few days, to see if I can enlist your help in getting it to work.

Note that the drawing is rough and there are definitely little things that need to be cleaned up. But what I need to know is: Does it (at least vaguely?) look like the girl is doing a very grand somersault?

If you’d like to help me, I would appreciate it immensely. Here’s what you do:

1. Download the file.

2. Print it out on 8 1/2 x 11″ paper, preferably in color, and preferably at work (because it’s free there) and preferably on heavyweight paper. Note those are all preferences and this whole thing should work if you print it out in black and white on lightweight paper… it will just be better with the above preferences.

3. Cut around the border of the phenakistoscope (the hard, black line) as well as the super-annoying slits that ring it (also hard, black lines).

4. Put the phenakistoscope face down in your lap, and poke a dowel or chopstick through where the dead center is (you should be able to see it a bit through the paper).

5. Go to your bathroom (trust me).

6. Stand and face the mirror. You will be looking directly into the mirror and holding up the phenakistoscope so that you see the reflection of the girls somersaulting coming right back at you.

7. Now, stand behind the wheel (it’s still facing the mirror) so that it’s like you’re hiding from your reflection by ducking behind it, and you’re going to peek through those annoying slits and spin it on your chopstick. When you’re peeking through the slits, you ought to be able to see the image reflected in the mirror and it should look like it’s moving (within reason; this is based on a very old optical toy, so it will be a little choppy).

If you’re still reading this, you deserve a medal. But, if you are, and if you actually do all the above steps, email me or leave me a comment telling me if it worked.

I have to go to sleep now.

Special bonus video for putting up with my mistakes: what to do in the bathroom mirror after you’re done watching everything spin:

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6/16/10: Almost gone…

June 16, 2010 at 9:39 pm (art)

Seriously, if you’ve hesitated to get a tote because you’ve been waiting to see what they all look like before making your decision, you need to buy one now. There’s only one more upload left, and any day now a fancy Italian fashion magazine is going to be coming out with a story on them (I’m not making this up – it’s true!).

Anyway. I just sent off a bunch of images to get printed up so that we can get to work on a new edition of artists books, and I have a whole slew of funky, cheap, fun stuff coming out. We’re in a bit of a holding pattern while we finish up the very last of the totes and then move on to the next project. But soon! Very, very soon! Like, next week! (at least for an update)

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Reminder: Totes!

June 16, 2010 at 9:51 am (art)

It’s our next-to-last upload of totes! A few more will be added next week and then… that’s it!

Check out the store for the latest.

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6/15/10: The Jersey City Museum

June 15, 2010 at 3:35 pm (art, culture, jersey city)

Rumors are circling again that the Jersey City Museum is now closed for good. I hope they’re not true, and in fact I think there’s very little reason for them to be true. A few years ago, the Museum was a pretty hopping place, and very easily it could be again.

From where I’m sitting, watching the museum fall apart is a very frustrating thing because it simply doesn’t have to be this way. I can’t understand why the hell we’ve gotten to this point, but to me the solution seems rather simple and direct.

And so, I submit to you, my three-step plan to keep the JC Museum in business, thought up while I was getting dinner ready:

1. Request money from people likely to give it to you. If you were to total up the number of people who have shown in solo or group shows at the museum, plus those who have given money to the museum either in memberships or by participating in programming in the past, you would easily have a couple of thousand people that you could email and hit up for donations. Emailing people is free, and I can’t understand why you haven’t done this already. For many people, sending you $10 or $25 is totally doable and easy, and not the kind of thing they really expect anything in return for, other than to see you survive and keep your doors open. Again, emailing people to ask for money is a possible way to raise money completely for free. You need to make it known that small donations are not only welcome but actually crucial for your existence. 

2. Talk to the press. I know, it’s hard to interest the press in covering a story in Jersey City because we always have what goes on across the Hudson as our competition. But you can try. And an excellent way to get people interested in helping you is to actually tell them you need assistance and to remind them of the great work you’ve done in the past. But you’re going to have to reach a little further than the Jersey Journal or the Newark Star Ledger to get the word out. Those newspapers are fine and are a great place to start, but you have to keep going and try and get places like the NY Times to write about you. I know, it’s crazy that there are people who live in JC and don’t read the local papers, but… well, hey, I happen to be one of those people.

3. With the money you have raised from Steps 1 and 2, actually do some programming. Having the museum open one day a week is not a great way to convince the community that your museum is the vital institution that it is. And I understand that fully staffing up the museum and keeping it open 6 or 7 days a week may not be an option. But it’s summer now, and there’s tons of people wandering around, looking for stuff to do in the evenings and on the weekends. Film screenings, panel discussions, performances, how-to demos, kids projects…. these things should all be very, very cheap to put together and will generate you income and interest. Super easy example: The Lowes Theater just did its last screening of the summer; wouldn’t their audience be awesome to tap into? The equipment and space is all there at the museum already; with just a little money raised it seems that you could very quickly generate more if you were creative.

I don’t think this should be so hard. I think it’s still savable. So, what do you say, JC Museum?

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6/14/10: Yes and also no

June 14, 2010 at 10:36 pm (art)

A thought I keep coming back to is that this is a confusing time to be an artist, a time when it seems like so many contradictory things are true. An article in today’s NY Times about the Guggenheim pairing with Youtube to find (dare I say it?) the next great video artist is a great example.

The proposed exhibition/contest is all about reaching out and trying to bring in new audiences. However, I love what Robert Storr has to say about it:

“Hit-and-run, no-fault encounters between curators and artists, works and the public, will never give useful shape to the art of the present nor define the viewpoint of institutions.”

“It’s time to stop kidding ourselves. The museum as revolving door for new talent is the enemy of art and of talent, not their friend — and the enemy of the public as well, since it refuses to actually serve that public but serves up art as if it was quick-to-spoil produce from a Fresh Direct warehouse.”

Woo hoo! What an awesome couple of quotes – smart, culturally literate, and a little nasty at the end. Love it.

But then the other side of the story is this: If there is this thing (say, Youtube) that is out there and engaging people and encouraging them to create stuff (art? maybe?), isn’t it foolish for a museum to completely ignore it? Wouldn’t it be smart for a museum to at least try – try, as in an experiment, maybe just one time – to bring it in under its umbrella, just to see what happens? Weren’t weird experiments like this one the kind of thing the New Museum would have done when Marcia Tucker was still alive, and now we all seem to be in agreement that it’s gotten way to stodgy and boring and sold out? Isn’t it sort of cool that the Guggenheim, of all places, should be giving an idea like this a whirl?

So on one hand, I think it’s a terrible idea, one that is cheap and gimmicky. And then on the other, I totally think it’s worth a shot and that it would be silly for some museum somewhere to not give a project like this a try. And artists are really stuck in the middle – if you’re a video artist, no matter how you feel about this project, you’d be crazy for not entering in your work just in case.

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June 13, 2010 at 9:05 pm (art, personal)

I think this is my new default thing when I don’t really have anything to blog about: a shot of my work table:

I have a doctor’s appointment/physical exam tomorrow – my first in 5+ years. I have no reason to fear; I eat well, exercise a lot, and really don’t engage in any sort of bad-for-you behaviors. And yet, I’m terrified. This is why I haven’t gone in 5+ years. Blech.

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6/12/10: Working on artist’s books

June 12, 2010 at 9:01 pm (art, books, culture)

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