Marketing Mondays: Speak Up. It's Your Career

 Image from Urban Cowboy

A couple of months ago I posted about The Difficult Artist. Today I’m posting about the other end of the scale: The artist who doesn’t take enough control. Whether out of fear of ruffling the feathers of colleagues or a gallery, or not being aware of their own power as artists, these are the folks who just don’t speak up.
Item #1: A Midwest artist told me that his local dealer pressed him to enter a juried show because of the caliber of the juror—not an unreasonable request (though, frankly, the dealer should be cultivating those curator connections). Knowing things the dealer didn’t about the organization hosting the exhibition, the artist had reservations about entering. Against his better judgment he capitulated to the dealer’s request. The show was "a solid average," according to the artist, and the juror was not in attendance. Both artist and gallery gained nothing from the experience.
“Why didn’t you tell your dealer you didn’t wish to participate in this show?” I asked.
He replied, “I didn’t want to piss him off.”
Item #2: A West Coast artist curated a show with a great concept and wonderful artists and secured a regionally prestigious not-for-profit venue. Sounds good, right? The problem is that the opening date conflicted with an established annual event in another city. This might sound like apples and oranges except that the curated show sprang directly from the original event in terms of mentorship and artists involved. Even the artist/curator was conflicted. Why didn’t she tell the gallery director that the date squared with the other event?
“I suggested it, but the director wanted it on the date she wanted it,” replied the artist.
“But it’s your show,” I countered. “ You have every right to say, ‘I cannot make the opening of this show. We need to reschedule,’”
“I didn’t know I could do that.” This from a person whose chutzpah level is normally over the moon.
Item #3: An artist organized a show with a prestigious curator as juror. Curiously, when the postcard was printed, the name of the juror—the most prestigious aspect of the event—was omitted, while the artist organizer, unknown to all but a small circle of friends, was prominently noted.
When asked why the juror was omitted from a show she’d organized, this artist placed the responsibility in the lap of the hosting institution, demurring, "I didn’t necessarily agree with their decision.”
Well for godsake, if you don’t agree with their decision, make an issue of it. Do something about it! It’s your show!

The list goes on:
. An artist/curator ceded installation to the non-profit gallery staff. He was mortified to find that a painting was placed in a space with storage racks that doubles (badly) as an adjunct exhibition space. When he asked the director to move the painting, he was told, “We always place work there." Translation: "We're not moving it."  He was mortified but didn't press the issue because he didn't want to “rock the boat.” Dude, that ship has hit the rocks. 

. An artist arrived at the opening of a group show in a small-town commercial gallery only to find that her triptych had been separated and its panels placed around the gallery among the other artists’ works. “That way we can sell them separately,” she was told. The artist was aghast, crushed, furious . . . and silent. Because she didn't want to be "difficult,” she said nothing.
But there are success stories in this mix, too.
. When I arrived to see the installation of my solo show at a gallery I work with, I found a large sculpture by another gallery artist in the same space. It is not unusual for that gallery to place an occasional sculpture by a gallery artist in a solo painting show, and in fact I like the way a dimensional work can charge the energy between and among the paintings. However, since my paintings in that room were small, I felt the particular sculpture overpowered them. There was some discomfort on both sides when I asked the dealer to move it, but mutual respect carried the situation. The dealer accommodated my request, relocating it to a second gallery where I had large horizontal painting. The vertical sculpture was an effective counterpoint. 

. When B, a savvy new York City artist, received no response from a consultant after almost six months of waiting for money from the sale of her work, she did some research and found out that the consultant had been paid almost immediately upon placement. She left this phone message with the errant consultant, “I know you have already been paid, even while you continue to stretch out the payment time to me. I am prepared to let the acquisitions committee [of the corporation that had purchased her work] know exactly how you have been treating the artists you work with.” A check was Fed Exed overnight. (I know this is an effective strategy because one of my dealers did pretty much the same thing with an errant consultant she'd been working with--and, it turns out, the consultant was one and the same.)
. Jhina Alvarado, a San Francisco artist, talks in a blog post about When it’s Time to Jump Ship. Alvarado learned, rather quickly, that if it isn’t working for you—if the gallery requests are unreasonable, if their treatment is less than respectful, if they cancel the opening even after they know you’re planning to drive seven hours to attend it—it’s time to commandeer a lifeboat. She spoke up. And then she  found another gallery. That is how you rock the boat.
Finding your voice
I know it's not easy for some artists to speak up. You think that by doing so, the opportunity you've worked so hard to attain will be taken away. But if it's not worth having, as Alvarado's story underscores, you have nothing nothing to lose.

Speaking up is an acquired skill. No one would call me reticent, but I've learned to articulate what I need. That story about the artist whose triptych was separated? I was that artist, a long time ago.

Over to you: Are there times you wish you'd spoken up? What was the situation? Have you spoken up? What did you say?


Ben Stansfield said...

I had my first, small but lovely, solo show. There was a piece, 2'x3', that a regular client of the gallery wanted to purchase, but they were going away to Europe for a few months, and would like to pay when they got back. I was prepared to wait, since this could mean a new collector.
Four months had gone by, when I contacted the gallery owner (again), and asked when the painting would be paid for, since they had been back in town for three weeks or so. It was at this point that the client mentioned to the gallery owner a 'payment plan' for the piece.
The owner and I had a tense discussion (I was not tense, but was firm ), where at the end, the owner agreed to pay me my portion of the sale now, but let me know how upset he was that I didn't 'trust' him to know that the client would pay. I pointed out that this was no issue of trust, but of respect. I had already waited four months for payment, and felt that it was a bad precedent to set. Surely good clients would understand that.
Anyway, it took two more weeks to get that cheque, with one more email to him as a reminder, and then a week's delay before he asked for my mailing address (again).
At first, I was disappointed that my first solo show was not going to have an encore, and that the relationship had been badly damaged by our wildly different expectations. It's taken some time to realize that there was no future relationship to damage, really.
I'm an up front person, and would never counsel someone to be otherwise, but after all these years, I can say that: directness is almost never rewarded, firmness, and knowing what one wants, and asking for it, are often grounds for getting a reputation for being 'difficult', no matter how sweetly it is said.
Unfortunately, the cost of indirectness is higher :-)

Peg Grady said...

Your triptych story rang a bell. My three pieces were placed so that they surrounded another artist's painting, thus ruining both of our work. Even worse, the title of my triptych made absolutely no sense unless the parts were lined up as they were meant to be. Did I say something? No, I let it pass, it was a fund raiser, blah blah blah. I could kick myself in the ass over it. I'm certain no one else remembers it, but I do and I will never let something like that happen again just because I don't want to be viewed as "difficult."

Eva said...

First story.

My show was installed and I went to check it out before the opening (something I highly recommend - let there be no surprises...). And I saw there was something similar to what you had - a group of sculptures not belonging to me in the space. In this case however the sculptures revealed that this gallerist didn't really understand what I was doing. Plus they were a distraction, a conversation on their own, especially as this was a small space anyway.

I merely asked her if the artist was on the postcard, were they having a show too. And of course they were not. The sculptures were gone.

Eva said...

Second story.

I had a body of work my usual gallery was not interested in showing at all. For at least a year I accepted this. But the more I shared it (and had it in a few group shows), the more I really wanted to show it. Then another gallery said they would show it. I thought long and hard about the whole thing and realized I had to make something move, one way or another. Eventually I said to my usual gallery: "I love showing with you and will continue to do so. But I also really love this work and think it is important. Someone else says they will show it, and I'll just be a guest. I just need to do this thing. It's all good."

And he then said "I have June open."

CMC said...

I say, Pick your battles. I try to be accommodating up to a point but you are the only one who is going to see after YOU and your career as an artist.
I don't think anyone would call me a difficult person to deal with but I will stand up for myself when I need to. I also try to look at things from the other person's viewpoint. Sometimes this is to my disadvantage LOL, but I prefer to like myself.
I do everything I can to check people out and then get as much as possible in writing. Hopefully, this will be enough most of the time.
Great post, Joanne....again!

Anonymous said...

I submitted images of 3 pieces for a juried show at a Co-op Gallery. One piece was accepted. I called the gallery and told them I would like to install the piece myself because it has a unique wall mounting system. I was told "We are professionals here, We will install your piece." I dropped it off with printed instructions as to how it is to be mounted to the wall. At the reception I saw that it was installed correctly, but being a sculpture that juts out from the wall the installer felt no problem installing it over a light switch, not covering the switch but overlapping it, like the switch was somehow a element of the piece. At the reception, seeing this I was disturbed. I left to go home, in the subway, before going through the turnstile, I realized I could not live with it there like that. I went back and removed it from the wall. Only one person asked me about it, though I did hear a few gasps (it was a very crowded reception) he happened to like the piece and was bothered that I was removing it. An hour after I got home I received a call from a worried gallerist. I said I had the piece, that I removed it and I felt the placement wasn't respectful of the piece. She said it was a strong piece and that I could bring it back to have it installed elsewhere. I said I am upset, call me tomorrow and we could discuss it. There was no call and I have no interest in showing there again.
I know that what I did by removing the piece is one of those cardinal sins in the gallery world.

Anonymous said...

I curated a large group show and one artist insisted upon having his piece be the first one seen upon entering. I explained it was a very strong piece and I wanted to place it at the end of the show to draw people into the large space. He kept insisting and I did not back down. The show was well received and everyone complimented the installation. His piece even sold. He still trashes me at every opportunity. So pick your battles wisely.

Anonymous said...

The breaking up of the triptych, the placement of another artist's work in your solo, and the "pay the artist when you get the money" are, to me, obviously things that should be addressed immediately. However, taking your work off the wall during a reception was the wrong option. I wouldn't work with you again either (I also would never partially hang work over a light switch).

No matter the slight or the lack of professionalism from the gallerist and/or curator, etc, always try to address the issue first with words, firmly but politely. 99% of the time, things work out this way. Taking the high road is more difficult then giving in to knee jerk reactions but you come out on the other end looking like the professional.