A HUGE GROWTH ON THE ART WORLD
Maybe it’s just because I’ve been paying more attention over the past few years, but it seems one side effect of the recession and cuts in arts funding in Britain since 2008 has been a huge growth (yes, like a tumour) in cutthroat practices by ostensibly “commercial” and reputable galleries, and even more so in nakedly parasitic businesses that seem to exist primarily for the purpose of enriching a single person by exploiting the naïveté and desperation of numerous artists. From my research and experience, and thanks to numerous informants, I present this checklist of warning signs that your gallery is dodgy. I hope it helps artists identify the galleries that are more interested in the contents of their bank account than in any highfalutin concepts like artistic merit or contemporary art practice. While the advice is generalised, the examples presented are all based on the shenanigans of multiple real (so-called) galleries that have either come to my attention directly or been reported to me by artists.
Dodgy galleries have:
- Terrible, sloppy website and promotional design, which may be the reason for vital information being hidden away in illogical places. Sometimes there’s a touch of the Dunning-Kruger Effect; in short, they’re not quite clever enough to understand how stupid they are. Probably more often the patent stupidity and lack of realism in what they’re offering is a feature, not a bug. If somebody is setting themselves up as a dealer in art or an arbiter of taste, then surely they should have some basic aesthetic sense? Or maybe they just don’t want you knowing any vital information? Perhaps they don’t credit artists with very much intelligence or discernment, and they think the minimum effort is quite enough for the likes of you. You decide. It’s absolutely certain that no reputable gallery has jumbled link bait pages full of ads for semi-related or entirely random products, or only links to and from other dodgy galleries.
- No names, no provenance, no connections to credible artists, galleries, venues or professional organisations of any kind. Just vague, generic, rental-agency-quality pictures of anonymous white spaces that could be anywhere or not even meaningfully related to what they’re advertising. Bad snapshot photography of sparsely attended gallery spaces that could also be anywhere, or indeed nothing to do with the current opportunities on offer. A bare address or a PO box in somewhere cool-sounding like Amsterdam. They may have actually paid for a masking service on their WhoIs internet registration records so nobody can track them down too easily. Again, there are sometimes good privacy reasons for doing so but in this kind of context one would not be unjustified in fearing the worst. You should always be able to find out who you’re dealing with and what they’ve done before.
- Broken English, even in the sections that are supposed to be about (for example) London. Not being very good at the English language isn’t a crime, of course. The UK– London in particular– is one of the world’s primary destinations for foreign artists to learn and to build their careers, but bad spelling, odd grammar, random CapitaLisation and misused punctuation! do all seem to be invariable hallmarks of these scammy, spammy sites.
- Vague offers of tantalising, exotic locations that an artist might reasonably want to visit and put on their CV. Or obscure locations that they downplay, gloss over, or pretend are art world hotspots.
- Evasive, non-committal application processes that aren’t even clear about what one is applying for, what the decision making process consists of, and what kind of dialogue or support one can expect whether selected or not. And of course no clear or upfront mention of what exactly it will cost you, or even that it will cost you anything at all. It’s usually there somewhere, but never in such a prominent place that a person might see it right away so they know exactly what kind of a business they’re dealing with. A professional relationship between a gallery and an artist does not involve the artist paying to exhibit their own work. You should be paid to show or make your work, not paying other people for the privilege. Legit commercial galleries make their money be selling your work and taking a commission.
- Examples of work by artists that most people would agree probably shouldn’t be shown in a professional context, and almost certainly wouldn’t be shown in any reputable gallery anywhere in the world unless the artist had paid for it to be so.
- Poorly attributed, deliberately vague and suspiciously fulsome testimonials from people who remain nameless, or of whom you’ve never heard.
- Lengthy, gushing, positive yet bland and generic (“Dear Artist”) email solicitations to join them, without ever directly mentioning that you pay them. Often they won’t take no (or being politely ignored) for an answer. As sad as it may seem, reputable galleries rarely scour the internet for artists to work with, and almost never conduct en masse harvests of artists’ email addresses so they can offer opportunities out of the blue. Few of them have the time, and even fewer have the inclination because they already have their own established networks and ways of working with new artists. This system is acknowledged by all as being incredibly tough to break into, but I strongly recommend that artists do themselves and all of their colleagues or peers a favour by not putting money in the bank for dodgy galleries. It won’t get you anywhere and no credible professional in the arts has any respect for them, nor for anybody who deals with them. Organisations who send out opportunity listings to artists bear some responsibility too. They usually compile their mail-outs in good faith from information that’s made available to them… but it only takes a few minutes to check out a listing and see that many of the places offering them are probably not legit. For the sake of the artists they’re meant to be serving, these organisations need to spend those few minutes in order to exercise at least a bare minimum of diligence and discernment instead of just hitting copy, paste and send.
A gallery that makes you pay for the walls or charges an exhibition fee for artists to exhibit their work is, in all but the rarest and most specialised of cases, an amateur’s vanity gallery. I repeat: A legitimate gallery will usually charge a commission on sales, but they won’t expect you to pay for your wall space by the metre, or trump up other ridiculous charges. The fees for vanity galleries are usually extortionate and arbitrary. In any case, once they’ve got your money they have absolutely no incentive to genuinely sell or promote your work because they make their money from you and your bank account rather than from sales of your art work.
Paying for services– services that you actually receive– is fine if you have all the necessary information to make a sensible decision. Running a commercial gallery or being represented by one is also fine, if the deal is fair and everyone involved makes a reasonable living. Entry fees for competitions, Opens and whatnot are fine, if it’s clear where and to whom the money’s going and that the project is credible. Some so-called Open Competitions, for example, accept an application fee from everyone but engage in “pre-selection”, i.e. most of the submissions are never even seen by the judges because the majority have already been binned by a bored and overwhelmed admin worker who doesn’t necessarily have any qualification or expertise in judging art.
British artists can also find legal information relating specifically to their profession and arts services at www.artquest.org.uk and www.a-n.co.uk. Obviously neither this blog nor any other online resource is any substitute for common sense and keeping your wits about you, or for consulting a proper legal representative where necessary. Some vanity galleries have threatened legal action to stifle dissent and bad publicity, against me and against artists who have broken off relations with them in disgust. Many of these vanity galleries also tell barefaced lies, bully and browbeat artists, or actively, systematically and deliberately deceive people. But knowledge is power and you are certainly not powerless in the face of bad practice if you know your rights and assert them fearlessly. Artists deprive themselves of power and agency by being naïve, desperate, uninformed, isolated, etc. There are many artists who have good, fair, productive relationships with galleries/gallerists, and don’t get abused or exploited. Anyone who won’t give you a straight answer to a simple question does not have the interests of artists at heart. If you’re paying for a service, you are a customer. It doesn’t matter if you or somebody else calls it mentoring, a residency, or whatever. If you’re paying, you’re the customer and you have a customer’s rights.
In Britain the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 provide a legal framework and pathways to legal and/or financial remedy when a company subjects customers or clients to misleading actions, misleading omissions, or aggressive sales tactics. The rest of Europe, the USA and most other developed countries have very similar systems of legal redress for customers wronged by service providers. Wherever you are, I strongly suggest that you start using them.