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.