(IT’S THE TASTE OF BEING SLIGHTLY SICK INTO YOUR OWN MOUTH)
Note, November 2013: I’m republishing this from the
currently unavailable Market Project site*, where it was first posted about eighteen months ago. I’m doing so on the occasion of Samir Ceric from Debut Contemporary being named by the Hospital Club and Guardian Culture Pros as one of the most “innovative, interesting and influential people” in the arts in Britain.
* It’s now un-unavailable. Read the original here.
Even leaving aside that all these top ten or top hundred most influential/powerful/richest/whatever lists are absolute fucking bullshit and they say very little about a person’s actual merit or achievements but a great deal about them having the right kinds of friends in the right places, I would venture to suggest that if anybody wants to turn it into a contest then I’m more influential than he is, because sometimes in a week I’ll have more readers here than I would if I wrote for Frieze or any other art magazine every month for a year. And who do people come to when they think they’ve been fucked over by the likes of Debut Contemporary? Me. His desperation is palpable to anyone who isn’t wilfully blinding themselves to it.
I’m definitely more “interesting” and “innovative” than him, if only because my expressions of personality aren’t entirely reliant upon having a wacky wardrobe full of clown clothes. Read more about Debut’s recent shenanigans and their (dis)information catalogue here.
When I initially wrote the article, I was just annoyed by the fact that people were actually falling for what looked to me like obvious bullshit, and by the general air of insufferable arrogance, pretentious snobbery, smugness and greed that I think hangs around the entire enterprise. I had no idea it would go viral and attract hundreds of comments, many of them from former Debut clients sharing their horror stories of bullying, intimididation, lies and threats. In a wider sense it acted as a lightning rod for concerns from real art professionals (i.e. not the likes of Ceric) that the exploitation of young and naive artists was out of control. Regular readers of this site will know that Debut are not the only culprits, but in my opinion they are probably the worst– and the reasons why they are the worst are not just because I say so or express an opinion about it. They were and are very well documented if anybody bothers to look, or listen to all the people who feel they were deceived. I suggest you start by Googling the artists Charlie Tuesday Gates and Theresa Bruno for a start. You can also very easily check Ceric’s track record of limited companies and other business ventures, which for now it suffices to say is nothing to be proud of.
As you will see, I and my colleagues were also honoured to attract some patented Debut Contemporary-style intimidation for daring to oppose them or say anything bad about them. What follows is not the original article verbatim, but a digest of the most cogent parts.
I have not edited anybody’s comments, not even the crazy-sounding lady who a reliable informant told me is the mother of Sophia Victoria, Associate Director (i.e. an employee of) Debut Contemporary. Anybody who cares can verify this and read all the original comments in full at https://web.archive.org/web/*/www.marketproject.org.uk
This commenter (Jane Firman, not Sophia Victoria) referred to me as a “jealous loser”, “utterly sour”, etc, and started a nasty secret email campaign to my professional contacts in an attempt not only to shut me up but also to damage my (fairly successful, thanks, and I didn’t even pay anybody for it!) career. Firman’s comment should be read in light of this information, so readers can decide for themselves who’s really using “bitter and parochial tactics” and being “unprofessional”. Interestingly, Sophia Victoria’s LinkedIn page gave a slightly different (higher) costing of DC’s services to that of her bosses: £75-£145/week: they say £125 is the top whack.
When we see comments like Firman’s (especially hers, but also mine, and everybody’s) and with opportunities that are offered to us, we should always follow the ancient and superb practice of asking ourselves “cui bono?“- who really benefits from what’s being said or done or offered?
In any ecosystem, a surplus of prey leads to new opportunities for predators
Thanks to one of our ever-growing digital scrapheap of tip offs about horrifying art world practices- seriously, we are collating all of these and someday we’re going to publish the ultimate directory of art world wrong ‘uns- I am not at all proud and indeed somewhat disgusted to introduce the SUPER-CONNECTED, GLOSSY-MAGAZINE-HAUNTING, RELENTLESSLY SELF-PUBLICISING, CAPS LOCK-LOVING SAMIR CERIC AND ZOE KNIGHT, AND THEIR DEBUT CONTEMPORARY.
I know we should play the ball and not the player, hate the sin and love the sinner, hate the game and not the playa, etc… but seriously, what the hell? This picture (NOTE: er… slightly modified above) and the fact that it’s one of the first things you see on their site, a site that’s supposed to be about developing the careers of artists, and the fact there’s pages and pages of other images of them and their press clippings, certainly tells me a lot about them.
But instead of speculating about the creative possibilities of shop dummy wigs, plastic surgery, Photoshop and still choosing all your own clothes even though you’re red/green colourblind, or even asking “Debut Contemporary what?”, let’s hear from the “TOP TASTEMAKERS” themselves. Note that the blaring, almost unreadable ALL CAPS FORMAT, clumsy English and grammatical errors are in the original text:
“DEBUT CONTEMPORARY IS AN INNOVATIVE PLATFORM AIMED AT TALENTED AND AMBITIOUS ARTISTS INTERESTED AND EAGER TO TURN THEIR ART PRACTICE INTO A SUCCESSFUL CAREER AND A VIABLE BUSINESS. DEBUT IS THE ONLY PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND CAREER EMPOWERMENT PLATFORM OF ITS KIND IN THE UK AND FOLLOWS ON FROM THE SUCCESS THE FOUNDERS SAMIR CERIC AND ZOE KNIGHT, HUSBAND AND WIFE DUO, ACHIEVED THROUGH THE LAUNCH OF SALON CONTEMPORARY AND WOLF & BADGER.”
I wonder which one of them is the wolf, and which is the badger?
“USING THIS FLEXIBLE PLATFORM DESIGNED TO PASS ON THE INDUSTRY KNOWLEDGE WITH THE AIM TO INCREASE A SUCCESS RATE OF ARTISTS STAYING IN BUSINESS. IT WILL ALSO TEACH ALL PARTICIPATING ARTISTS HOW TO LOOK AT THEIR PRACTICE AS BUSINESS. ENABLING THEN NOT ONLY TO LIVE OFF THEIR WORK AND MAKE SOME SERIOUS FINANCIAL GAINS IN THE PROCESS. “YOU NO LONGER NEED TO BE DEAD IN ORDER TO SUCCEED’. COMMENTED AN ESTABLISHED AND HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL ARTIST. DUE TO THE RECESSION AND RISING UNEMPLOYMENT.WE BELIEVE IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER THAT THESE CREATIVES ARE PROMOTED AND NURTURED AND DEBUT CONTEMPORARY OFFERS A SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION TO THIS PROBLEM. WE WILL ENABLE EMERGING, TALENTED ARTISTS TO SHOWCASE THEIR ART IN A PRIME LOCATION AND WITH A FULL SERVICE OFFERING THAT REMOVES ALL THE DIFFICULTIES OF SETTING-UP AND RUNNING AN ART BUSINESS. OUR SIMPLE AND AFFORDABLE “ALL-INCLUSIVE LICENCE FEE” ALLOWS TALENTED ARTISTS TO TAKE THEIR FIRST STEP INTO THE PROFESSIONAL ART ENVIRONMENT WITHOUT LONG-TERM COMMITMENTS; ARTISTS MAINTAIN COMPLETE CONTROL OVER THEIR CREATIVE LICENCES, PRICING (WITH OUR PROFESSIONAL ASSISTANCE) AND PROFITS. DEBUT CONTEMPORARY NOT ONLY OFFERS EMERGING ARTISTS AN AFFORDABLE OPPORTUNITY TO SUCCEED IN THEIR CREATIVE CAREERS, BUT ALSO LOOKS SET TO DELIVER A DYNAMIC AND STIMULATING GALLERY EXPERIENCE THAT HAS NOT PREVIOUSLY BEEN SEEN, IN THIS PARTICULAR FORMAT.”
The whole grisly, depressing site and what’s written on it pretty much hoists them by their own petard, but I will leave you with a few questions:
- From the list of DEBUT ALUMNI, how many have had a consistent record of commissions, sales, group or solo exhibitions, or other working opportunities subsequently? That they didn’t pay for our of their own pocket, I mean? Getting a brief mention in a sidebar of Marie Claire also doesn’t count as an exhibition… sorry. Unfortunately this kind of information is not available on Debut Contemporary’s site.
- Do you think their testimonials from ART EXPERTS are convincing or show any semblance of objectivity and/or credibility?
- “DUE TO THE RECESSION AND HIGH UNEMPLOYMENT”, do we think it’s appropriate that only those with money to burn can try to buy their way in to a profession that most of the people who actually work in it agree should be about artistic merit?
- Is an artist really an artist if they’ve bought the opportunity to “SHOWCASE THEIR ART IN A PRIME LOCATION AND WITH A FULL SERVICE OFFERING THAT REMOVES ALL THE DIFFICULTIES OF SETTING-UP AND RUNNING AN ART BUSINESS”? Surely this makes them a hobbyist, a customer, and not a professional artist?
SELECTED COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST
Jane Firman, mother of Debut Contemporary employee:
As someone who has run a business for a number of years and always maintained an interest in: business – generally; and also, art; artists; galleries; business development; opportunities; publicity and freedom of expression. I have read many scathing comments by over zealous, jealous ‘loser’ type organisations – but I have not ever come across such a distasteful vitriolic abusive article as this – composed by ‘someone’ at the Market Project Economical and professional research by artists; which I consider to be totally unprofessional and backbiting. If this article was written by an artist – maybe they should stick to art!
The swipe taken at Debut Contemporary is unprofessional on every conceivable level. Not only is it a childish and ill-advised attempt to draw criticism it has a tyrannical and oppressive style. It is one thing to place an account fairly for people to make their own decisions but quite another thing to condemn and sneer at an organisation attempting to draw a new model that will provide a forum for artists. Could it be that the has-been people running the Market Project are too pedestrian to move with the times and so utterly sour that their own outdated work is being sidelined? Whatever their reason for stooping so low – they should take a long hard look at what smallness they have reflected back on themselves and what meanness of spirit they have achieved in provoking responses.
Furthermore, can they hand on heart say that their organisation is so squeaky clean with the way they organise and run their own affairs that they can take time to criticise anyone else. Perhaps they should spend their time more productively tending their own financial affairs and mediocre attempts in trying to make a difference for the artists they represent rather than their current bitter and parochial tactics against other people in their own art-world.
My reply to Firman:
Thanks for devoting so much time to composing your response, Jane. Since we’ve stooped so low, you really shouldn’t stoop to our over zealous jealous loser, tyrannical, oppressive, has-been, pedestrian, outdated, sour and bitter level, though.
We’re all practising, working professional contemporary artists, each of us with between ten and twenty years of experience. We do reasonably well, are respected by our peers, and we have work on quite frequently or in the permanent collections of businesses, private individuals, galleries and museums throughout the world. Some of us also do a great deal of work in our local communities, with young people, with otherwise excluded groups of people, and with other artists and professionals in the hope of making things better and sharing the wonderful transformations or insights that art can bring into everyone’s lives. We also think that other people in “our own art-world”- especially our younger and less experienced colleagues- deserve not to be exploited or otherwise led to their own failure and ruin by people in whom they’ve placed too much trust.
How about you?
If it’s “our art-world”, incidentally, then surely we should be able to do what we want with it?
Along with the sour grapes gambit somebody else has already tried to use, tactic B for strangling all debate and criticism at birth is “you’re not perfect so you don’t get to criticise”, tactic C is “never mind what’s wrong, mind your own business”. Neither are an acceptable substitute for genuine thought, dialogue and progress. Don’t try these at home, anyone, unless you really want a divorce. If, as you claim, you value freedom of expression you have to accept that other people are free to express things you don’t like, in a manner you don’t approve of. You are either a student or work at Cambridge University, or at least you use a cam.ac.uk email address, so I’m very disappointed that you don’t seem to appreciate this fundamental corollary of the oft-used and evidently less frequently understood mantra “freedom of expression”. Don’t they teach debating, logic, ethics or rhetoric any more?
In any case I’m sure Ceric and Knight are quite capable of defending themselves if they want to (or care about criticism). They seem to be doing very well, I’d say. They probably don’t need or even particularly appreciate people like you throwing yourselves onto the barbed wire for them.
PS: I’m making a badge that says OZJL (OVER ZEALOUS JEALOUS LOSER). Thanks also for that wonderful- albeit inadvertent- bit of poetry.
Rosalind Davis, artist and co-founder of (legit) artist-led group ZAP:
I thought I should probably mention that both ArtQuest and a-n have blocked Debut from advertising or adding opportunities onto their websites ( which on a-n any subscriber can add an opportunity – though of course Debut use an artist as they arent ones themselves). These well reputed arts organisations have ethical reasons for doing so and have a massive reputation for helping artists and being artists focussed. That says everything you probably need to know about these so called ‘opportunities’
Artist Emily Speed:
Absolutely agree – this is the worst kind of cynical and exploitative business that is using the naivety of some artists to make some crazy profits. After I wrote about it on my getting paid blog I’ve been emailed with numerous horror stories – both of experiences paying for a service that people felt was never delivered, and of bizarre interviews that seemed to use intimidation and belittling as hard sales techniques. Thankfully I also have people email who have been approached by DC asking my advice, which is to STAY AWAY. There is plenty of sound, free or subsidised advice and training for artists in this world that doesn’t involve lab coats.
Karl England, artist and co-founder of artist-led Sluice Art Fair:
In the sluice inbox this morning:
Surely you cannot wish to work with such an unparalleled unprofessional organisation such as Market Project. Aligning your name with theirs is certainly going to bring you into disrepute Please read an article they feel justified in publishing on their website:” [links here]
Sluice would like to confirm that we are indeed proud to align our name with that of Alistair Gentry and Market Project.
Theresa Bruno, artist:
I have nothing constructive to say to you at all. I neither have the time or energy to waste on telling you how much money time and pain this ‘organisation’ has caused me. I was in my first year out of art school, naive, competitive and saw that David Theobald was on it which made me think it could be legit because I looked up to him because he was a great artist. I was wrong. We were both wrong. From first hand experience this is not a platform which helps young artists. I was living on £11 a week for months because of them, out of my stupidity I have learned my lesson in being young and naive. I have spent enough of my time typing about these awful people but I do have to say something because I hate them.
I just cannot explain how awful this place is, and it was the biggest mistake in my career.
Artist Dean Melbourne:
I realise I am pretty late to this conversation. As you can probably see on the list of alumni I took part in the DC scheme fairly early on. (i havent checked to see if my name is on ) I thought about it for ages before signing up. I was dead against it when i first heard about it. I was also really wanting to move things forward with my practise and thought that just being a part of the conversation in London would be useful in terms of building a network. I am based in the mids.
I dont mind your article to be honest. I think that running a scheme like this puts you in the line of fire.
I would like to say though that the artists that I met were genuine , honest , hardworking folks who were just trying to navigate a career. I can only speak for myself but i think its true of the others that the intention was not to short cut as seems to be implied. I hope i am not unprofessional in my conduct either. Desperation , yea maybe a bit. I am hungry to create a life where I can paint full time so i may be guilty of a bit of that.
for transparence I paid for three months and broke even due to a sale where i invited the buyer. (i think it probably helped seeing my work in the context of the gallery a bit)
I didnt benefit in any other way ( I even broke a mirror on my motorbike commuting down!) I think i didnt really fit.
I am serious about growing as an artist and becoming a half decent painter, I am less hungry for “making it ” now but it was an itch i had to scratch.
I wont get into my personal opinions of the people involved as with all of us , they are multifaceted and shades of grey rather than the black and white of opinion we often get.
I will say that Sophia was nothing but lovely in my experience.
With hindsight i probably wouldn’t have got involved but i guess its part of my journey now and I met some nice people. I hope that I wont be thought badly of for making a wrong call.
Jenny Leonard, artist:
I’ve come to this conversation late but have thoroughly enjoyed reading through this lively discussion! Dean Melbourne, couldn’t agree with you more. I too am ‘alumni’ of DC. I tossed around the idea for months because of the expense but decided to go for it, not because I was stupid about the scheme, but because I thought being showcased in a Notting hill gallery might give me an audience to show and sell some paintings.
I knew what I was committing to financially, as artists sometimes you do HAVE to pay out a chunk of cash, c’est la vie. I was just completely dissatisfied by their lack of knowledge, connections, clients or collectors.
I would like to add a few experiences of my time during Debut Contemporary to shed light for other artists:
1. In my DC interview Samir name dropped several blue-chip clients and names and commented how many people he knew and the sort of work I made would fit perfectly there, etc. He would introduce me to them, the projects would get bigger, and suggested several of my pieces already to put forward. My name. Would be. In lights. He made it sound like this time next year Rodney we’ll be millionaires and I would be dancing off into the sunset after his enormous stock of collectors had seen my work. So I went with him on that magical ride grinning as I came out of the gallery blissfully unaware. He also told me he had hundreds of artists trying to get into Debut. So when you’re ‘selected’ you can’t help but feel a bit chuffed.
2. For the money you pay you get a ‘measured’ wall space. But no matter how big your work is you get one piece hanging a month. Pretty much.
3. Whilst I was there they hosted a show at OCCCA which (thank god) I was NOT selected for, I believe because they had already sniffed my resentment at the ‘course’ . Each of the artists involved in the London Calling show had to raise around £200 each to get their work shipped out to California where it went in a show, I believe purely for Debut to brag about how they had now conquered America. About 3 weeks ago I received a fwd email– from the Director of the OCCCA (occca.org) to say how ridiculous the situation had got regarding the storage of work not arranged to courier back to the UK and no luck getting hold of Samir. (No surprises there)
4. Wolf and Badger have little or nothing to do with Samir. I called them because I was trying to hunt down Samir and eat him for breakfast chasing my deposit* (see number 5) The person on the phone at wolf and badger informed me Samir hadn’t worked there for over a year and the only affiliation was that he’d once done a little bit of marketing for them and that was it. So it was hardly his ‘brainchild’.
5. Yes thats right upon signing the contract they take one months deposit to secure your ‘place’ which you then have to fight tooth and nail to get back. FURTHERMORE… IN SMALL PRINT of the contract you have to give them a FULL ONE MONTHS notice if you want to LEAVE the scheme after three months, which lets face it, you do because you’ve been living off noodles and are malnourished after three months. They do not remind you of this at all, at any of the weekly workshops, mentoring meetings or private views. This led to several angry artists. A friend of mine was late by just ONE DAY and they said for weeks that they were chasing it up with ‘accounts’ because they may not have someone to fill her spot. She never got her deposit back.
In conclusion. Debut Contemporary was not a positive thing for my career, my soul, or my inner spirit.
However the positive thing that came out of it was the lovely artist friends who I hope I will continue to exhibit with as we have done outside of Debut. Joining the DC scheme gives you a bond like no other fuelled by resentment, negativity and skint-ness. As the weeks progressed we developed a mutual feeling of being mis-represented and ripped off while simultaneously trying to see the positives because you’ve forked out the cash for it. That’s life, I guess, and I shall learn from this mistake.
I was far better off without them, and would advise others to use their money elsewhere to progress. I only hope that my association with them doesn’t hinder my career and future prospective arts professionals and commissioners alike. We all make mistakes.
Maybe now I can get back to painting.
Joshua Raffell, artist
Thanks for sharing this article. I found it really interesting. I have been reading this debate. and just want to say well done Alistair for bringing these issues to light. It is a shame that naive and vulnerable people are being targeted. But there is another side to this, there are plenty of artists who can afford these fees, they make pretty, commercial work that is as artificial and hollow as the people who show them. Let the rich feed the rich. and make sure there is enough information out there for people to make informed choice, Keep up the good work, best wishes all