Marketing Mondays: The "Difficult Artist"

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Dismantling Training Ground for Democracy at Mass Moca in 2007, the out-of-control project by artist Christoph Buchel
Image from The Boston Globe

“Count me out if you include him in the next one,” said an artist friend, stunned by the unreasonable demands of a particular artist during a collaborative project.
“She would have had a different kind of career if she weren’t such a whiny pain in the ass,” said a dealer I know.
"Never again,” said another dealer recently, reeling from the extra work a difficult artist caused her at a time when she was already overburdened with a project.
As always I’m not naming names, but I guarantee these comments are 100 percent true and pretty much verbatim
What Makes a Difficult Artist?
Well, of course there are degrees of difficulty, but here's an extreme: Swiss artist Christoph Buchel, who worked on Training Ground for Democracy for Mass MoCa in 2007. Commissioned to create an installation in the museums's vast, former-factory space, Buchel amassed an unmanageable 150 tons of stuff—including, according to Geoff Edgers in The Boston Globe,  "a 35-foot oil tanker, a two-story house, a carousel of bombs, and an old movie theater, rebuilt down to its water-stained ceiling tiles"—conceived to reference war, poverty and consumer culture. The exhibition, which reportedly went several hundred thousand dollars over budget, was neither completed nor shown. Suits and countersuits followed in a year-long legal battle. Buchel was described as "difficult, demanding and temperamental."
I think it's reasonable to say that most artists don’t come close the kind of behavior described, whether or not we have access to projects of that scale. (Also, in fairness, let's assume the artist has a different take on the situation.)
So what makes the average artist—that would be us—difficult?  
Here’s a list, drafted by a few friends and myself during a casual conversation:.
. Lack of attention to protocols set in place
. Disregard for deadlines
. Disrespect for peers, whether dealers, curators, collectors or colleagues
. Unreasonable demands that create extra time, trouble or work for the institution, gallery or people the artist is working with
. Someone who’s never satisfied, never says thank you, never seems to appreciate the effort expended on his or her behalf
. The coupe de disgrace: a personality that's obnoxious: loud, rude, sexist, racist, vulgar

An Unreasonable Demand
Megashows aside, here's an example of a difficult artist with unreasonable demands: At a recent project I happened in on, one artist created extra work for his already overworked colleagues because of the way he had managed his part of a collaborative project. He did not communicate with his colleagues or return emails; consequently, as plans evolved, his colleagues didn't know what or how much he was aware of—or even if he was still in. His oversize work was delivered late and to the wrong address. On the day of installation he arrived several hours after his colleagues and then started suggesting (“demanding,” clarifies one of the group members) changes in placement because his work was fragile, required special attention and, well, was just more important than everyone else’s. Never mind that they had moved his work into the space for him and that the show was mostly installed by the time he’d arrived.
A collective sigh was breathed when Mr. Self-Important Artist received a call on his cell and dashed out, leaving the rest of the group to finish the job they'd started without him.
Standing our Ground
As artists we sometimes find ourselves finessing a difficult balance. My assertive request may be seen as aggressive. Your quiet request may be dismissed for not being forceful enough. We don’t want to create problems—we have worked hard to get into a gallery or included in a curatorial effort—but we labor mightily to create our art, and we want it to be presented in the best possible way.
For a solo show there are many issues about which an artist should reasonably speak up: selection of the art, the design of the postcard, the information on the press release (provide a good artist statement, because that's where the info is going to come from), the installation itself, the date of the opening, the ad, the catalog. For a group show, exercising the same kind and degree of request would likely be seen demanding, since a curator is considering the best way to represent many artists in an institutional context.
A Double Standard
Women, in particular, can be at the receiving end of considerable scorn for asserting our needs and intentions. While a male artist may be seen as rightfully attending to business, the same attitude in women is often seen as bitchiness. Damn, how does one finesse that?

The Opposite of Difficult
On the other hand, there are the artists everyone responds to warmly and positively.
“She’s so professional, I love working with her,” says a dealer I'll call Juan Smith, about an artist he has been working with for some years. What makes her so special? Smith listed several qualities: “She’s easy to work with. Her paintings are dependably good. She delivers them on time—dry and ready for hanging. She provides the materials I need to promote her and responds quickly to my requests for information. She gets that I’m working hard on her behalf and she meets me halfway. It’s always a pleasure to do business with her.”
Smith says in an aside: "You wouldn't believe how much time can be wasted chasing after artists for information, or following up for better versions of what they send."  [He's talking about good images and appropriate information about them, updated resume and statement, and clips of or links to recent press.]
You never disagree on anything? “Sure we do,” says Smith. “This is a relationship, and like all relationships, we have learned how to give and take. But it's a professional relationship. Our livelihoods depend on it working well. Maybe I'm lucky, but I have relationships like this with all of the artists I represent.”  
So, is it fair to say that the personable, responsible, easy-to-work-with artist has a greater shot at the  gallery roster?
“All things being equal, yes. I would prefer to work with talented artists who don't make my job more difficult." 
And the talented artist who’s a pain in the butt?  
"Listen, running a gallery is not easy. Over time I've learned to identify and avoid the personality types I think will make my job harder—and believe me, I do my homework," says Smith. "There are many talented artists out there. I want artists I can work with, not fight with.”
Artists, dealers, durators and other art professionals: Your comments are welcome here.


Nancy Natale said...

Since I have organized shows from time to time and also been on the receiving end of info and images from a large group of artists, I have experienced the non-professionalism that artists are capable of and how that can slow down completion of projects. It's also a real pain in the ass when you are trying to get something done and have to chase someone down to reply or comply for the third or fourth time. I can understand why such people do not get invited back and why the organization of juried shows is something I never want to be involved in ever again. Who needs the grief? Why don't such people get it that you have to follow directions, provide information on time and make yourself easy to work with if you want to get ahead in this world? And this is not mentioning the unpleasant personality aspect of getting along and getting ahead.

I think that a harder line needs to be taken with such people because if not, someone else ends up doing the work the artist her/himself should have done. Similar to what you describe, in one show I was involved with for an arts group, a large piece was juried in from an out-of-state artist. Despite a laundry list of transgressions, his work was hung in the show. At any one of these points, if someone had said no to him, his work would not have been included. Here's what he did wrong: did not provide his images/info on time, sent the wrong size images, had another artist pick up his work for delivery and didn't even wrap his piece for shipment, didn't wire his piece or provide any way that it could be hung since it was on a sheet of thick plywood - not a cradled panel, reneged on his promise to pick up his work along with that of the artist who had delivered his work to the gallery. At every step along the way, someone else had to do his work. Why did we all enable this unprofessional behavior/performance? We were complicit in his non-professionalism. Never inviting him again was not enough of a rebuke and did not allow him to learn where he went wrong and could step up to meet requirements.

Philip Koch said...

Excellent post Joanne. Your story is one that need telling and retelling. I love artists and believe generally they're among the most generous and intriguing folks out there. But there is always the danger of an artists being a complete noodlehead.

I've made something of a sport of watching art dealers and museum people for years. The good ones tend to be busy- very busy- and if you're not prepared to meet them half way it will just work against you.

Making art is a terribly personal thing. You have to love your pieces into being- sometimes it's like trying to carry a soap bubble in your hand without it breaking (I think I got that one from Corot). Once you've knocked yourself out for your "babies" it's all too easy to forget about what other people are going through. Hey guys, artists are supposed to be the people who are more open, more aware, who see more than most others. If we get stuck and self absorbed, we're not living up to our potential as artists or as human beings. And it will hurt one's art career.

Let's face it, there are far more good artists out there than there are places for them in galleries and in shows, Make the best work you can and then go back and make it better still. But then get as prepared and organized as you can when it comes to handing the work off to a dealer or a nonprofit art center or museum. If you are more methodical, organized, and diplomatic, your forays into the art world go better. The art world is challenging in the best of times. With this recession plodding along with no real end in sight the going in the art world is tougher than ever- for artists, for dealers, and for museum or people.

annell said...

Everything you said is reasonable. Sometimes it's not easy, why would a person may it harder?

Peg Grady said...

A recent example of unprofessionalism: I was in a group show where the curator asked those shipping work to include a return shipping label and postage. Perfectly reasonable and spelled out prior to artists shipping work to the show. A few days ago I got a group email from the curator saying that work would be returned this week and if you did not include return postage, she would send you an invoice via PayPal and please pay it asap. She was way more polite than I would have been. How could artists be such knuckleheads? Now the curator not only has to do her job and take the show down and repackage the work for return shipping, but in addition she needs to get online and create invoices because the artists didn't do what they were supposed to do. I guess that we artists are supposed to be creative types and thus unable to deal with mundane things like following simple directions concerning shipping our work...imagine what these people would be like to work with on a more than one shot basis...just horrible. I'm imagining the curator will remember the forgetful artists and neglect to invite them to other shows she's putting together. And, the forgetful artists will probably whine about how unfair life is.

Anonymous said...

I've recently had the experience you described where the artist was never satified, clearly didn't appreciate the hard work I put into the show (three hours hanging with the artist), had a catered party, and I never got a simple
thank you ...I was appalled by this persons lack of professionalism given their extensive exhibition history.

Eva said...

There is a reason why some artists stay "emerging."

Demands and scenarios I've encountered as an artist who shows other artists and this is the tip of the iceberg:

- I want a different color story for your website while my show is up.
- The postcard needs a different design.
- Pay me a higher percent from the artist I am showing with - the one who helped me get this show by introducing me to you.
- Never mind that I lied on my exhibition history.
- How 'bout I send out Evites under your name about my show and not tell you?
- Here's a portfolio of work you didn't agree to show and I want it on your desk while the other work is up. Learn the prices.
- What do you mean you don't want this sandwich sign outside? I made it especially for my show. You need a permit? Petty details...
- I know we talked about only 22 pieces for this show but I brought down 61. Hope that's OK.
- Let me know when you can deliver my work back to me.....

Marjorie Kaye said...

This post is music to my ears. Or should I say, a reoccuring theme in the symphony of experience?

kim matthews said...

It seems to me, the more difficult, the less talented. I'm not involved in preparing gallery shows anymore but the artists I've dealt with have been very pulled together. In my commercial art job, though, I deal with a lot of amateurs who seem to have bought in to the myth that being an artist means being a rude, disorganized prima donna. Every time I have a phone conversation that starts out, "I have a great idea but I'm afraid to tell you because you might steal it," I know it's going to be awful. The bottom line: know your craft; be courteous and flexible; and don't get your work ethic from reality t.v.

Theresa Anderson said...

I've had a lot of experience on this one! I founded a well respected artist cooperative in Denver and have dealt with my share of male and female prima donna's. Artists if you care about your reputation, want to be included in spin off exhibitions, want recommendations for other projects- do your homework! First motto for any job: if you aren't on time, don't show up with the required tools, are rude, don't clean up after yourself- you aren't much good to anyone.
Simple job rules always apply.
And then I'd have to add that I've had artists with catastrophes that handled themselves with such integrity I'd work with them over and over.

Anonymous said...

Joanne, I agree 100% and what a good topic. To be fair, sometimes the "difficult artist" is working with a "controlling artist" and the "controlling artist" sets everything up, makes phone calls, sends announcements, etc. without contacting the "difficult artist". I saw this a lot when I was a member of a cooperative. The "controlling artist" then *always* complains that they had to do all the work. No, it's not me but I've seen it a lot!

Susan Schwalb said...

I sometimes think that the label "difficult artist", when it is used by dealers, means only that the artist stood up for themselves and wanted the dealer to work for them, make sales and pay for the work on time. I got that label from a dealer when I asked for my work back, work that had been in storage for two years! Also the dealer blamed me when "artist friends" approached the gallery while I had a show on. Then this dealer cancelled a planned solo show a few months into my cancer treatment. I would name names but he is such a creep that I would hate to give him any publicity at all. Sometimes I think dealers just don't like it if an artist pushes a little, especially during their show to get the dealer to make sales. Their are many artists I have heard of over the years who lost money because they didn't stand up for themselves to ask for checks. It is a hard business.

Ben Stansfield said...

I thought I'd wait to comment on this one, given that I was dealing with a new gallery and the results of my first solo show.
I've also been in cahoots with the controlling artist described by anonymous above, thought it wasn't exactly the same. The controller did much of the work, didn't ask for or accept much help when offered, and then proceeded to complain about how much work each show was. sigh.
The rest of the group weren't all noodleheads, but it always felt to me that this was 'her' group, even when I found the venue, dealt with the rental details, posters, advertising, graphic design, etc, etc, etc.
Sometimes, people can't help being control freaks.

Also, I agree with Susan to some extent.
I'm sure I've been labeled difficult by a couple of galleries, when: I (politely but firmly) expected to be paid in less than five months after a work sold/put on hold, objected when my work was damaged and I was offered no compensation, told off for showing up with no notice (though it was their rude receptionist who informed me I didn't need to do that, when I called in to let them know).
It works both ways, obviously.

Firmness and a businesslike attitude are not always rewarded, either.

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Anonymous said...

Artist are difficult because we pour so much emotion and energy into our work. We've created art that started with a vision and for the art to come full circle that vision has to come to life exactly the way it appeared from the start. Sometimes you have to be very tough and demanding in order to achieve that goal. You've hired that artist to do work so let the artist do it no matter how he/she acts. Let them be and recognize that the art they produce is much more than a simple brush hitting canvas...it's their heart and soul. I am an artist, albeit and video producer, and I run into people all the time who have hired me but then have a completely separate vision from what I produce. It drives me mad. It has come to the point where i am a dick to them because I am sick of people who know nothing about the work try to tell me how it should be. You think you know how it should be? Then you should have done it in the first place....the reason you didn't do it in the first place is because you aren't an artist, you aren't in tune with producing a vision because you don't have heart and soul to do it.