1.24.2011

Marketing Mondays: Burning Bridges

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Warning: Burning bridge behind you.

Some years ago I worked with an eager young art dealer in a major Midwestern city. She had very little experience, but she was well financed and ambitious for her gallery. A red flag went up when I arrived at the gallery and saw how she’d hung my paintings: The inner cradle was placed on one small nail rather than suspended from the wire I’d attached. (I asked for and got a more stable two-nail rehang.) A second flag waved vigorously when she exhibited a cavalier attitude about a painting she’d damaged slightly. I repaired the work to good effect, sales were made, and I was temporarily assuaged, though still apprehensive that this was the right situation for me.

For a second show, a brochure was published with typos and misinformation, and with images of work shown sideways or upside down. I’d asked to proof everything, but she was so late getting the material to the printer that there was “no time” for me to see it in advance of its going to press. This was after the full page ad in Gallery Guide was printed with my painting oriented incorrectly. The resulting brochure was useless to me—too mistake ridden to send out.

I was so pissed over the way things had been handled that I didn’t fly out to the opening. After a modest post-exhibition period (in which sales were made), I asked that my work be returned. I felt the dealer was too inexperienced to represent me. The bridge was burned.

Turns out that as the young dealer matured, she developed a good roster of artists, a strong exhibition history, a new and better location, and a sustaining collector base. Looking back, I believe I did the right thing, but I could have done it in a more politic way—one in which the bridge was temporarily closed, rather than burned to a crisp.
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On the other hand, after a recent debacle with an educational institution—what I believe to have been be a willful misrepresentation of my efforts—I rescued my project and then burned the bridge behind me. It's still smouldering, as am I. I have no regrets.

Metaphorically speaking we’re islands working alone in our studios, so bridges are the way we get our work and efforts out into the world. We build bridges through networking, through exhibitions, through what we say and to whom, through what we do and with whom. Burning bridges, then, is a radical act. Sometimes it's a foolish act, based on hubris or anger. Sometimes it's a desperate act, when other measures have failed. And other times it's a necessary strategy to put a distance between you and those who do not have your best interests at heart.

So today, I’d like to know about your bridge burnings. What were the circumstances and what were the results? If you had a do-over, would you light the metaphorical match or find another way to deal with a bad situation?

19 comments:

annell said...

Sometimes it is the only way. Experience is probably the best teaches. And you have brought up good things to think about, as an artist goes forwards.

Amanda said...

Hi, Joanne! I really enjoy reading your blog. Great work.
My experience is a semi-bridge-burning one. A contemporary furniture studio in my city contacted me to have an exhibit in their storefront space. They wanted to be more involved with local artists, rotating main exhibits every couple of months. So, I agreed.
However (red flag #1) the exhibit coordinator was not at the space the day I was scheduled to drop off my paintings (and didn't bother to tell me she wasn't coming in that day). And (#2) they didn't have an artist's contract at all (but I had brought my own, just in case). But, I dropped off my paintings and we scheduled a reception for the next month. Then (#3), they did hardly any advertising for the reception- only a tiny description on their monthly calendar, and one update on Facebook an hour before the reception- although I had sent them new photos to use in PR efforts, and included a provision for advertising the reception in the contract. Finally (#4), when a painting did sell, they accidentally didn't send me a check until I brought it to their attention. At the end of the exhibit, they wanted new work to show in the store, but I declined and picked up my paintings, saying politely that I would to seek other venues for my work.
Throughout everything, they were very friendly (and apologetic about the check and other missteps), but not very professional with my work. While I didn't end my relationship with them on an (outwardly) angry note, the bridge is definitely burned in my mind, and I won't show with them again. Definitely a learning experience!

Mary Zeran said...

As a business person and as an artist, there is a part of me that never wants to be thought of as "difficult to work with". That said, I don't want to be taken advantage of.

When you are new to the biz it can be really easy to get freaked out. Especially if you can feel like you aren't getting the respect you deserve. As someone who has worked in the service industry, I think it is good to take a deep breath and then act.

Ultimately, it comes down to handling the situation the best you can and feeling okay with your decision.

Now I am off to make one of those calls. Cross your fingers that things don't get too hot! Talk about kismet.

Anonymous said...

I was invited to participate in a large gallery group show in my home town city. The gallery owner was incredibly disorganized and very open about her reservations + 2nd thoughts about including me in her exhibit. To make things worse, I was not crazy about other artists she represented, and the physical condition of her gallery. I put the experience behind me, figuring possible sales and a line on the resume are worth the entirely managable hassle. I was surprised to recieve a call from her some months later, inviting me to show in a 3 person show. My first thought was "why don't the galleries I like ever call?". I participated, the 2nd show was fun and an entirely good experience. My initial reservations about this gallery where overstated, most of her artists are serious and have ok to strong exhibition histories. My desires to burn bridges here was probably more fueled by wanting to be courted by someplace "blue chipish" (and/or the old suspician of any club who'd accept me) than the gallery itself.

mariandioguardi.com said...

Here is a little off the path story. There was a guy in the building where I worked. He was always treated with derision because he was full of himself, strange looking and obnoxious. One day, he asked me for a date. And in the nicest way possible I told him that I was very flattered and appreciative but unable to freely date him at that time and if the situation changed, I would let him know. A couple of months later he found out he had terminal cancer. Boy, was I glad that I was nice to him. No regrets. Burning Bridges ..a last resort.

Anonymous said...

I believe I could write a book on the subject of burning bridges...

I always advise my younger friends not to do it, but personally, I can't keep my mouth shut...I don't know why--maybe it's genetic. In any case, I have burned bridges for many reasons, most often without realizing that the consequences would be so damaging. I'm regretful that I didn't learn to marshal my anger and resentment over either perceived slights, or actual ones...

In recent years, the most common mistake I've made is not taking young curators seriously...not thinking about where they'll be in 5 or 10 years. Curators didn't use to move around so much! Now, they're gone after a year or two, moving up and out at such a fast pace, creating huge networks of potentially helpful people! Life would be much easier if they'd left town with a higher opinion of me!

Mery Lynn said...

It's a delicate balancing act between taking oneself/one's art seriously and acknowledging that everyone has a learning curve. Today I found out an unframed paper piece in a large traveling group show was damaged by one of the curators. I could have gotten justifiably angry but this guy is smart, careful and accidents happen. He apologized and I told him not to worry about it. Shit happens.

Kathy said...

This is a great post! You touch on something that all of us professional artists face: the occasional incompetent gallery director. It's so important for us to protect our work and reputations and when someone else, who's supposed to be responsible, is careless then we must stand up for ourselves. But, as you point out, it's like walking on a tight-rope. The art world is vast, but the community is small and burning a bridge in one area can actually be equivalent to burning a lot of bridges all over the place because of the connectiveness in our art community. I'm not aware of bridges that I've burned, but I have taken the reins when my work wasn't properly displayed or represented. Perhaps others have resented me for doing this, I don't know. But, if we don't politely stand up for ourselves then who will?? As artists, we have only our reputations to back our work. That's worthy of protection. I truly appreciate your willingness to share this event.

Anonymous said...

When do you think you will ever take responsibility for what happened at Montserrat? This conference is "your baby" as you call it. If that is so, why did you leave it unattended? You knew there was going to be interviews. It was up to you to set those guidelines before you left the baby unattended. You left this baby with amateur inexperienced sitters. Shame on you for that. And now, look what has happened. Burned bridges everywhere!! The fact that you are still smoldering says you haven't yet let it go. There is a great book out there titled "Letting Go" by author Johanna Atteram that you may want to explore. Time to douse that fire don't you think?

Joanne Mattera said...

Anonymous 9:44,
You are writing from the point of view of someone who doesn't have the facts. Identify yourself publicly and I'll be happy to respond publicly.

Anonymous said...

What are those facts? Does knowing who I am really matter? Are you saying you will not state the facts
if I don't say who I am?

Joanne Mattera said...

Anon, the facts have been well stated in numerous other places. Copy and paste these individual URLS into your browser.

http://joannemattera.blogspot.com/2010/08/marketing-mondays-standing-up-for.html

http://artinthestudio.blogspot.com/2010/08/wheres-joanne-person-who-is-encaustic.html

http://artinthestudio.blogspot.com/2010/08/rashomon-or-hound-of-baskervilles.html

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=145095148849247&ref=ts

http://fusedchicago.blogspot.com/2010/08/montserrat-no-longer-epicenter.html

If you want a more specific comment from me here, identify yourself. You can't hide behind a curtain of anonymity while asking me to bare all. So quid pro quo, or no-go. Your choice.

Oriane Stender said...

ps to Anon at 9:44:

I should probably not even engage with an anonymous disgruntled commenter, but even if I completely accepted what you say at face value (which I don't because I know and respect Joanne while I don't know diddly about you), "why did you leave your baby unattended?"
Really? Was Joanne supposed to spend every waking (and sleeping) hour on site ahead of time? Putting on that conference was and is not her full-time job. She is also an artist, writer, teacher and blogger, offering this forum for people, including you, to discuss these issues.
And when working with an institution, one assumes a certain level of trust and professionalism in those around one ....

Oh, never mind. You're a jerk.

Sincerely,

Oriane Stender.

(I may have just burned a bridge to a snarky anonymous commenter. Eh. I can live with that.)

Joanne Mattera said...

Thank you, Oriane.

Dan Young Impressionist Artist said...

Don't think I want to get on a bridge with some of the actors in this tragedy!!!!!!!!!!

Art is a business....Sorry....... If it's about money it's business.....

There is damage in every business..... you will lose some artwork due to gallery closures..... or people leaving town.....

Every gallery owner I have met is different has different skills and house keeping preferences...... It's just can you live with it.....

Suggestion.... Before you leave artwork with a gallery ask for credit references..... That should tell you something about the condition of the gallery.... An honest gallery owner will be happy to give you a list and respect you as a business person...... You are giving them a loan for $5000 -$10,000 Where can you get money with out references? The only time I have been burned is when I did not get these references!

Call the other artists in the gallery to see how the gallery pays, if they pay on time and are they trust worthy..... It doesn't take much effort to find artists these days... don't be surprised if it is 60 day pay ....most businesses are in that mode today....

And never sell out of your studio if you know where the customer saw the work originally...... I have actually sent galleries checks for 50% because I knew the customer found me because of a gallery's effort..... If you sell a gallery's client you are very short sighted and possibly burning a bridge..

And life is too short to deal with jerks.....

I love my gallery owners past and present...... they have been mentors, friends and a major source of encouragement...... so never treat them with disrespect.......... It is a tough business..... I had one gallery owner who spent all of his retirement money trying to keep his gallery open..... He never screwed his artists..... That is loving dedication!

Dan Young Impressionist Artist
www.danyoungartist.com

Nancy Natale said...

Joanne, this is a great topic. Although I have been fortunate in usually not having situations or relationships reach the point where I decide to burn bridges, recently I had two situations where I lit the flame. One relationship was with an artist friend who disrespected me in a way that I could not tolerate in an art situation. When I brought it to her attention, she did not recognize or minimized what she had done and would not apologize to me. This revealed her true character or inability to assess her actions and empathize. If she had made an effort to talk about what happened between us and try to rebuild the bridge, our friendship might have been salvaged(although my regard for her was badly damaged). She did not do so and the bridge became charcoal.

In another recent situation, I decided to resign from an organization where I had donated a huge chunk of my time and attention. A contretemps proved to me that most of the members were not able to assess a bad situation correctly and/or were unable to express themselves about it or take action in a constructive way. I decided that I was wasting my time working for this organization where most members failed to meet my expectations in this test. Who were these people that I was working so hard for?

I decided to resign and when I did, I was surprised to find that, in fact, the rest of the managing board wanted to resign themselves. The contretemps proved the last straw and we resigned en masse.

I am not hiding behind anonymity in posting this comment. The opinions expressed are my own, as are the decisions.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I chose two opposing scenarios in my essay because there's never one clear path. When faced with a difficult situation I often "get Italian," as my (non-Italian) friend Hylla Evans describes it. That's cultural shorthand for me in I-will-not- stand-for-this-shit mode. But over the years I have learned to to be somewhat more politic. So now I'm more likely to respond with a metaphorical, "Thank you, but these feces are just not for me. Perhaps another time."

Still, sometimes a bridge burning can be as productive in its own way as a barn raising.

Re anonymous comments: I understand that sometimes you can't take a position using your own name. But accusatory and demanding comments are another story. There the conversation has to be person to person, face to face, or as my Italian self would say, a "quattr'occhi--at four eyes. Your two, my two. In other words, nothing hidden.

Cath Sheard said...

I put work, by invitation, into a curated exhibition, and travelled overseas to the show. The invites were sent out too late, the opening night was poorly attended and started late, the paperwork was a shambles etc. I decided not to burn the bridge.
I am in a show being organsied by the same person next month, in my own country, and am attending. If they are well organised, the bridge stays open. If it's the same hassles, and it's shaping that way, I will close the bridge behind me with no public burning. NZ is too small for open fires...

Joanne Mattera said...

Cath makes a good point: Sometimes quietly closing the gate can be preferable to lighting the match.

Amanda sums up that thought as: "The bridge is quietly burned in my mind."

Dan: Lucky man you are that you have such wonderful bridges. His comments are worth repeating: "I love my gallery owners past and present...... they have been mentors, friends and a major source of encouragement...... so never treat them with disrespect.......... It is a tough business..... I had one gallery owner who spent all of his retirement money trying to keep his gallery open..... He never screwed his artists..... That is loving dedication!"