Rejected in favor of dreck

If you can buy something similar at TJ Maxx/Home Goods, it’s not really art.

Spring Mountain Lake, Carol L. Douglas

Earlier this year, a young artist asked me about a gallery she was approaching. I gave her what advice I could and wished her well. This week she sent me a note telling me they’d chosen to represent another artist instead. One could accept that with equanimity, but she also sent me some images of the other artist’s work. Frankly, it’s schmaltz. It’s no more complex or insightful than the ‘art’ they sell at TJ Maxx/Home Goods. I can see why my friend was upset.

What the other artist has is breezy, light patter on Instagram, and cute graphical pictures to match. Like shoes, these are easy to market on-line, but they have no depth. That doesn’t mean all online paintings have to be shallow. In fact, I can help my young artist friend develop her online presence. First, she’s got to get past her disappointment.
Small boat harbor, Carol L. Douglas
There are roughly 19,000 galleries in 124 countries and 3533 cities worldwide, according to the Global Art Gallery Report 2016. The vast majority of them are in the US, Britain and Germany, with the US being the far-and-away leader. That means that my correspondent has lots of options, but she may have to leave her town to find them.
The gallerist’s primary job is to cover his or her nut. Generally, galleries do this very badly. They are risky revenue generators, even in good economic times. 30% of them are running at a loss. Only 18% make a healthy profit margin of over 20%. This means there’s lots of turnover. Only 7% of galleries are 35 years old or older, and almost half have opened since 2000. (These are international figures; the US has a healthier gallery scene, but it’s certainly not easy even here.)
The gallerist who rejected my young friend’s work was thinking about what he could sell, not what’s insightful or brilliant. Or perhaps he’s not thinking acutely at all—remember that almost a third of galleries are losing money.
Keuka Lake Vineyard, Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Kelpie Gallery.
Rejection itself is a sign that the relationship wouldn’t go anywhere. There’s no future with a gallery you have to woo aggressively. The gallerist has to understand and appreciate your work. “I have a perspective worth sharing,” my friend said, and she’s right. But if the gallerist isn’t on board with her message, her work will languish on the walls, or, worse, in a storeroom.
One advantage of old age is that you’ve experienced rejection enough that it generally doesn’t hurt so keenly. You realize that the difference between success and failure is picking yourself back up and pounding your head against the door… again and again.
Sentinel trees, Carol L. Douglas
When I said my correspondent might have to leave her town to find better options, I was speaking of both geographically and online. The Art Gallery Report asked gallerists to rank their key competitors. They said:
  1. Other galleries
  2. Dealers
  3. Artists
  4. Auction houses
  5. Online platforms
Their heads are in the sand. Online selling is a far bigger threat to gallerists than artists’ occasional studio sales. It’s an area that my young friend can exploit, and I hope she does.

Toxic relationships in the art world

Bad business partners are everywhere, but you don’t have to work with them. That’s your secret weapon.

Packing Oakum (Isaac H. Evans), Carol L. Douglas

I was talking to a fellow artist recently about an arts administrator who only seems to know my friend when he needs something, and who isn’t reliable. “You can’t afford to alienate him, and you need to work with him,” I said, “so keep nodding and smiling and remember that his word is worthless.” (No, you don’t know them; they’re not from here.)

I haven’t had what your granny might call a “real job” since I was in my twenties, but I’m married to a salaryman. Our kids are all gainfully employed. I’ve listened to their tales of woe, and to equivalent tales of woe from the art world. They’re no different. Machiavellianism—the idea that any means to an end is acceptable—is not limited to the corporate workplace. It’s alive and well anywhere people work together.

Setting Blocks (Heritage and American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas

How do you know you’ve met a Machiavellianist? He will:

  • Lie and cheat on his contracts;
  • Spread rumors;
  • Find ways to make you feel bad;
  • Not meet his obligations;
  • Blame you for failure.
The Machiavellianist sees himself as more sophisticated than the rest of us, but to observers, he’s like an overgrown toddler having a hissy fit to get his own way.
“You can just refuse to work with these people,” my husband objects. He’s right; that’s the artist’s prerogative, and it’s an invaluable one. You may think the sun rises and sets on the ‘best’ gallery in your town, but there are thousands of galleries across America, with revenues in the billions.

Coast Guard Inspection (American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas

There’s no value in a bad relationship, anyway. That toxicity to you spills over to others, and won’t result in sales of your work.

However, there are situations in which you just can’t avoid a toxic personality. Perhaps you work in a gallery with an unethical owner, or you are tied to an event with a toxic chairman. Often Machiavellianism takes the form of male gallerists condescending to women artists.
Recognize that you will be miserable for a time, until you can straighten the problem out. But know also the limits to which you will be pushed. That alone often stops the abuser, who usually has an incredible sniffer for weakness. Just as deep calls to deep, the weak call out to abusers and vice-versa.

Striping (Heritage), Carol L. Douglas
Can you head off the problem by recognizing a toxic personality before you engage in business? I doubt it, because there’s no real correlation between pleasant manners and fundamental goodness.

I’ve learned the hard way that the time for a lawyer is when you sign a contract, not when problems appear. But if you forgot that step (and we all do), consult an attorney when things start to go bad, before you make them any stickier.

And when you’re pushed beyond your tolerance, stick by your guns. There’s nothing quite so powerful as intractable resistance. Then make a plan and get outta there. Bad business partners, in the end, always cost you more than you will ever gain.