Marketing Mondays: Open Mouth, Insert Foot, Lose Out

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Some years ago, a friend called to say she was coming into town and could we meet that evening. I had a ticket for a performance at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea--a dance company was performing to the music of Philip Glass--which I was not about to give up, so I offered to see if I could get her a ticket. She agreed, and I secured a primo spot for her in the center of the orchestra.
I enjoyed the performance from my side aisle seat in the M row. When the performance was over, I waited there for my friend to exit her row.
"The dancers were good,” she boomed as she shuffled along the row, “but that music. Ugh, dreadful! There was an audible gasp as theatergoers who had been sitting nearby turned to look at her.
Guess who had been sitting in the seat directly in front of her and who was at that very moment walking parallel to her on his row? Yes, the composer. If he was affected by my friend’s comment he didn’t show it, but he certainly heard it. .
But sometimes our comments, overheard or directed at someone, can have dire professional consequences. And that's the topic of today’s post.
At an art fair a few years ago, an artist was displeased where the gallery had placed her work, which she felt was a less-than-prime spot in the booth. Outside the building she ran into a friend and let her anger and disappointment out. Fair enough. Unfortunately the disappointment included some serious dissing of the gallery. Unknown to her, the gallery assistant was around the corner having a cigarette and heard the whole tirade. The assistant told the dealer, and when the artist returned later to the booth, she was let go from the gallery right then and there.
While that artist was left to rue the consequences of her remarks, the following artist has no idea what his comments cost him. Recently a curator friend mentioned that he had been thinking of giving a particular artist a solo exhibition as part of a larger prestigious event, but that the artist had been so rude over another matter that he, the curator, decided to offer the exhibition to someone else. “I’m not going to put myself in the position of being verbally abused by this artist. My job takes too much out of me as it is,” said the curator unapologetically.
Marketing Mondays is usually about the nuts and bolts of getting yourself and your work into position in the art world. These anecdotes illustrate what can happen once you’re there. You work too hard to get yourself in the enviable position of being on a curator’s radar, of getting into a gallery. Why let a stray remark drag you off course?
As always, your comments, stories and--especially--cautionary tales are welcome.
Images from the Internet


Catherine Carter said...

I remember once remarking to a Boston gallerist how much I particularly enjoyed the work of an artist she had shown recently. (We were walking down a street not near her gallery at the time of this conversation, BTW.) She responded that yes, she too loved his paintings, but that he had been so unpleasant to work with that she would never show his art again. She said that a good part of what made her continue a relationship with an artist was the consideration of what it was like to work with them on a personal level.

LXV said...

Great stories, Joanne! I think a lot of artists are so insular and isolated and feel put upon by the enormous struggle of trying to make themselves seen & understood, that they often have the manners of complete troglodytes. I have been guilty of this sort of thing myself. Ever since I managed to get representation though, I have developed a sort of warning instinct not to mouth off at the first opportunity. Yes, it cramps my style a little, but really, each one of us lives in our own little universe and making contact requires a small amount of reserve. And if the people in question are part of our business relationship (or potentially so), it behooves us to try to understand their point of view even if we don’t agree with it. Graciousness goes a long way, and it paves the way for making your real opinions known in a more receptive context. Plus you might even learn a thing or two about the other person.

Unknown said...

Any business person needs to understand that there are times and places for everything. You have to know when to speak up (and to whom and how) and when to shut up. It goes both ways however.

Nancy Natale said...

It doesn't always have to be rude or dissing talk. Gallerist Miles Conrad talks about bad manners from artists in his workshops for artists at the encaustic conference. He describes the "artist fatigue" that he gets from artists who are so intent on talking about or promoting their work that they become pests to be avoided.

Joanne Mattera said...

All of you responding get this topic. You;ve all been there one way or another.

@ Nancy: You raise an interestng point. Sometimes it's not just the dissing and bad behavior, but the inopportune approaches. A long time ago, I edited a textile arts magazine, and when I attended events, I was not seen as a person but at this entity to be pitvhed to. I'd be at a conference and people would try to give me slides wherever I was; the most egregious was while I was on line waiting for a bathroom stall. And there was no downtime. Even during a quick five minutes in a chair to gather my energy I'd get an "Excuse me . . . "

And yet as an artist I totally understand why and how those artists were motivated.

@: LX: You've stated in far more concisely than I. Thanks!

Nancy Ewart said...

I remember when I worked in the corporate world (aka Evil!Medical!Empire). I quickly learned that the walls have ears and it seems that the same thing applies to the art world as well. Still, here in SF, we have situation where a very well-known gallery was co-opted by a slick operator when the original owner was quite elderly. The situation between Mr. Slick and family/friends of the original owner became so tense that they had to call in an outside arbitrator. Mr. Slick was surely bad-mouthed, is disliked and distrusted by many but he's still around, has opened a new gallery and is continuing as if nothing happened. So, I think that the "lose out" part of your opening line pretty much pertains to those who have the least amount of real power in the gallery world (i.e. the artist) and not the gallery owner, etc. That being said, I would never condone rudeness or self-centered behavior. I've seen that in many a work shop and it makes me cringe.

Pamela Farrell said...

This post dovetails nicely with your 4/12 post on ethical dilemmas.

I do think most of us, from time to time, need reminders about discretion, how to approach people, and about listening.

The art journal Paper Monument has a zine out called "I like your work: art and etiquette". It's a rather interesting read. Unfortunately, I imagine that most people who would go out of their way to read this are probably not the ones who could benefit from it most...

Mead McLean said...

Every time I have problems similar to those you've described, I usually talk to the gallery people directly. I figure that they're equipped to deal with the problem, so they should know about it. Sometimes, if you complain to your friends, you forget to tell the gallery, and you don't move up in the world. I'm always careful though, when I deal with this stuff. You have to let people know what you want, but you have to know that your rights end where the rights of others begin.

If you get a bad space at a booth or in a group show, you can't go shuffling other artists into that space--that's unjust. You just have to deal with it, talk to the gallerist after the show, and agree on better placement next time.

There are times when you can be firm though. If the walls aren't prepped and ready to go for installation, if they're slacking on getting promotion done on time, if they're delaying on sending payments from sales, etc. Those are times you have to crack the whip because those are inexcusable mistakes.

Overall I think these things are better said directly than overheard. That way any negative emotion can get used to promote positive change.

Bernard Klevickas said...

Diplomacy is almost always a good thing. But your last statement about the curator shows where the power currently exists and it is a rather hopeless predicament for the little to unknown artist out there wanting to reach a larger audience that they must kowtow to this selective process. Powerlessness is left with no voice and art suffers for it. If an artist sees fault with the "system" they should be free to say so. I am NOT implying that rudeness is acceptable but that some figures in the art world are elevated to positions where they can now dictate the terms and doing such limits an artist's opportunities.

Joanne Mattera said...

@ Bernard: My last statement about the curator: You work too hard to get yourself in the enviable position of being on a curator’s radar, of getting into a gallery. Why let a stray remark drag you off course?

I am not for a moment suggesting that artists kowtow. I'm merely pointing out that rudeness usually works against an artist, especially since there are many other smart, talented artists who could be tapped.

As an artist, I can say that rudeness goes both ways. There are certain dealrs and curators I won't work with because I know them to be unreasonable.

If I were writing from the curator's point of view--and I suppose I can, since I have curated exhibitions and print projects--I can tell you that I have not selected artists I know to be difficult. I may love their work, but I know they're going to make my job harder. So . . .the power goes to the artist who is professonal: delivers good work on time, is reasonable in her demeanor, is a pleasure to work with.

Bernard Klevickas said...

Picasso, Pollack, DeKooning, Rauschenberg and outsiders like Darger are renown for their personalities being monstrous or odd at times yet they got through the "system" of their day. (Darger, a different case though). Subtle difference though it may seem refusing to deal with someone unpleasant is denying that artists' talent to be seen by others. In the most extreme cases (serial killer, rapist, etc.) it makes sense to avoid danger, but a little inconvenience with striking personalities should not be counted against their art. Isn't it about the art, not the artist?

Joanne Mattera said...

The artists you mentioned came up in a different "day," as you note. The art world was much smaller. The players were mostly men. I think it's a mistake to use those artists as models for 21st century.

Darger, I have no explanation for, except that he fits conveniently at the edge of the envelope.

Debra Ramsay said...

This post had me remembering and cringing at my bad behavior several years ago. Invited to participate in a 3 woman show at a small gallery in my neighborhood...I was aghast when I received the postcard for the show with the opening line something like, "We open our season with the work of 3 beautiful ladies" I went ballistic at what I read to be sexism, while the gallerist explained he was coming from a totally different perspective in his word choice. Long story short, it's still awkward when I see him on the street. I would handle this situation differently today. In the 'big picture' these things don't matter all that much, as was pointed out in a previous post about errors in reviews. In throwing ourselves at the details we may somethimes miss the larger issue/opportunity.

Philip Koch said...

Bernard commented:

"Picasso, Pollack, DeKooning, Rauschenberg and outsiders like Darger are renown for their personalities being monstrous.."

That may be so, though it might be those negative traits only emerged in most cases only AFTER they had become established (and less vulnerable) artists.

I remember seeing a valentine drawn by Picasso on display in a major East Coast art museum. It was dedicated to Gertrude Stein, had hearts drawn on it, and was flat out solicitous (if not fawning).Picasso could pull his horns in when he wanted to.

Joanne Mattera said...

@Debra: I would have gone ballistic, too. I've learned to discuss the content of the postcard and to ask to see the it before it goes to the printer. I left a gallery because of the typos and upside-down images in a brochure. My feeling was, if the dealer would do that to a simple brochure, imagine what she would do to my work. (I have since learned not to burn bridges, even if I do cross them.)

@ Philip: Excellent point. Sometimes bad behavior develops when an artist is empowered by success. (Then again, some people are just a-holes.)

Marie Kazalia said...

About a year ago, in an online discussion, a known art critic joined in and tore everyone's comments to shreds. The topic was gender inequality in the art world. This critic said if women were not shown as much it was because their art was not good enough.
The critic disagreed w/a comment that women artists receive less money for their work. Everyone scattered and comments were deleted. I am not afraid to say what I think, and so the critic gave me a hard time, sent me private emails calling me certain things and promised not only to never to review me, but to *tell everyone what kind of person* I was. Whatever that meant. I assumed I'd been black listed. The critic and I have mutual friends BTW. Recently, this critic popped into an online art discussion and behaved in quite a civil manner toward me and others. Perhaps the first encounter had been on a bad day for the critic, but I still don't know if I am on the critics shitlist or the first encounter forgotten...

Otis said...

It's one thing to slam strangers and folks of some power in public situations, but I've noticed artists easily trashing friends who receive a show, grant or some other good break. On an almost related note, a few years ago I went to an opening of a distant aquaintance hoping to run into mutual friends. Surprisingly, (or predictably) buddies I assumed would be around for congrats and support did not materialize.

Anonymous said...

To support my painting practice, I work as an art handler and get an inside look at how artists, curators and dealers address others and often talk down to "service" workers. Rarely do I advertise that I am an accomplished artist because that is not my role when on the company clock. One example of many....

While installing a large, commissioned painting in a private residence, the dealer and artist repeatedly made rude comments to me and my co-workers while cackling to themselves (like Cruella Deville). The painting was huge, we were installing it fifteen feet from the floor on extension ladders, it was hot, and the artist's hanging system was a joke (he thought it was genius). As we worked, the dealer mentioned how incompetent we were even though we did a beautiful job. I lost total respect for the artist and have quietly shared my experiences with artist-friends who are considering showing with this gallery.

Yes, artists need to be careful how they conduct themselves, but dealers should realize that accomplished/emerging artists are supporting themselves early in their careers with second jobs so be careful how you address everyone. You may be surprised who you are talking to. Comments can catch up with you later.

Joanne Mattera said...

Right you are, Anon 6:40. It's not just what artists say but what dealers say, too--and, let me add, collectors.

In a gallery where I was having a solo, I overheard one collector say to her friend about my work, "So big deal. It's color."

Indeed, you never know who's
overhearing what's being said.

Anonymous said...

Yes Joanne, to add to my story about art handling and your comment about collectors, sometimes what they say can be cluelessly harsh. When I was installing two Hung Lui paintings for a client, she was so impressed that I knew who the Hung Lui was because it validated her 40K purchase. She kept saying, "I mean, she is a REAL artist because she makes her money from her art. She doesn't have another job." If the collector had done her research, she would know that Hung Lui has been a professor at Mills College since 1990. I didn't have the heart to burst her bubble.

Collectors, artists, and dealers hire art handlers to do the in-between work. Generally, our range of contacts stretches across many states and it is our job to work closely with other dealers, collectors and artists. We sometimes spend considerable time with them. They begin to trust us and eventually ask for our opinions on people and places. We can't help but remember the clients that were extremely difficult to work with....all I'm saying is it never hurts to be friendly to those who are working or you.

Thanks for this post Joanne.