Friday, June 22, 2012

To Show or Not to Show : Open Thread

One of the hardest issues to deal with as a gallerist is telling a represented artist who is expecting an exhibition that you, the dealer, don't think their new work is strong enough and you're not going to exhibit it. This becomes even more difficult when the artist has had a number of solo exhibitions and has come to rely, either financially or reputation-wise or both, on them happening as scheduled.
I'm personally not dealing with this issue (at the moment), but a friend of mine who has a gallery is. Let's call this friend "Xavier." He's had a gallery for well over ten years, and one of his artists (let's call her "Madge") has had exhibitions every two years for the last decade. This upcoming January would be the fifth solo show for Madge at Xavier's gallery, except that Xavier is convinced the new work isn't up to Madge's usual quality. Moreover, Xavier has been working very hard to lift the gallery up a level and benefit all the other artists in the program in the process. 
To Madge's mind, her new work is strong enough, it's her turn, and she's angry that Xavier doesn't want to show it. To Xavier's mind, the mediocre show won't do Madge's career any favors, won't do the other gallery artists any favors, and won't do him any favors either. The notion of Madge demanding "her turn" also chafes Xavier's neck a bit. He views each show as an agreed-on production, not Madge's birthright.
The agreed-on part is a critical component here to my mind. I have been talked into shows where we not only had nothing at all for sale but actually gave away thousands of dollars of treasures for free, where we turned the gallery over to a month of lectures and performances and invited the public to tell us why galleries and the commercial art world suck, and one that I couldn't bring myself to tell my mother about. Mind you, I am very proud of each of those exhibitions and each brought the gallery tons of press, but my point here is that I agreed to each of them as well. Moreover, the artists and I negotiated certain timing issues and production costs for each of them. 
In other words, it was a joint effort, and we respectively compromised on what we could.
There are certainly times when an artist believed in something so much (even though I was skeptical) that I agreed to present it. Sometimes I was pleasantly proved wrong. Other times I was proved correct. But there have been times when I simply said no. I won't present that. Let's figure out some other exhibition. It pained me to have to tell the artist no, but I have never regretted doing so. The reputation of the gallery and the other artists who show in it depend on the dealer's ability to say no when they simply don't believe in the work.
Moreover, dealers consider it their job to not let any of their artists exhibit less than their very best work. The artist may not like to hear that the work's not up to snuff, but the possible consequences of not telling them (horrible reviews, loss of faith among collectors, damage to the artists and/or gallery's reputation) are far worse than their temporary disappointment.
But then this is all from the gallerist's point of view. I present it as such so that artists might better understand that it's both difficult and essential for the dealer to "figure something else out" when they don't believe in a new body of work. I'm quite sure there are considerations from the artists' point of view, or experiences, that it would benefit dealers to learn about as well here though. So consider this an open thread.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could never be a judge because I can see both sides equally. I think an artist is in danger of becoming *stagnant* if they do what they've done the past 10 years. However, new directions are sometimes wrong ones.

And, let''s not leave out the fact that while artists' work may go in new directions, so, too, does the gallery. Taste changes. This is true for everyone.

Good topic but I don't side with the artist (I'm an artist) or the gallery. Sometimes, it's time to part - amicably, if possible.

Everyone changes.

6/22/2012 09:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Stephen Truax said...

Without a written contract, Xavier the art dealer is not obliged to show anything he doesn't deem worthy to show--and he is under an economic and ethical obligation to only show good work.

That being said, Madge should be able to depend on Xavier--but should not, under any circumstances, compromise her artistic vision for anyone else, even her dealer.

Why can't they find a compromise? A nice drawing show, perhaps? Surely Madge has some preparatory work to exhibit. OR, why can't they postpone for 6-8 months? Why is Madge so impatient?

And, if Madge is as great as she thinks, why doesn't she have other galleries vying to show this work that Xavier finds so unappealing?

Neither party should be rigid, however, neither artist nor dealer should compromise their vision.

And PS, Ed, the shows you mention as loss-leaders are what made the gallery stand out (as you know).

6/22/2012 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Denning said...

Galleries are running a business (like it or not) and they're the ones taking the greater financial risk. I've presented new work to galleries who've not liked it and I've consequently taken it to other galleries with a different audience. Madge should defer to the gallerist's experience of his audience and customer base - if there is a valid challenge to be made then the gallerist should be given a pile of supporting evidence justifying the new work. It's not just galleries that are wary of a new direction with an artist - it can send the established collectors running for cover too sometimes. Whenever I've presented a gallery with a new body of work I'll also supply a written piece explaining why I've done what I've done. Not to justify the work to the gallerist but to give them some potential ammunition should the work be shown and should it be challenged by critic or collector.

6/22/2012 11:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Andy Dialogs said...

Im an artist that hasn't had a gallery show for 7 years, yet I totally agree with the Xavier. The reason is, I love doing what I do first, second is the validation, hoopla, money, glitzy gallery opening, snazy review, etc.....

6/22/2012 11:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I blame the Dealer for letting things get out of control. Artist are like children they need to be monitored. Running a buisness is serious shit, wasted time and movements can never be retrieved.

6/22/2012 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a practicing artist with over 26 years of advanced exhibition history, awards, residencies, national, and some international recognition, there are times when the tables are reversed as well. I mean, sometimes it is the gallery who exhibits work well below the standard of an artist (or artists). These exhibitions can be damaging to the artist working with said gallery. I am currently in this situation. I am seriously considering withdrawing the work, proposed fall exhibition, and formal representation because of it. What do you think about this possibility, Edward?

6/22/2012 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I found this post very helpful. I can see both sides of this issue but as an artist I never take anything for granted. I know a couple gallery owners and how hard they work to sell art so if they think work will not sell or benefit the gallery for whatever reason it doesn't seem unreasonable to reject the work for exhibition.

6/22/2012 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What do you think about this possibility, Edward?

This question popped up immediately in response to my Facebook mention of this post as well.

What I think about it is that artists leave galleries because the context is no longer right for them all the time. It's a separate issue.

6/22/2012 11:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Lock the two in a room until one convinces the other. I side with the artist here because they are the visionary and the dealer may not be open minded enough to see this. That said, the dealer holds the key, not to the locked room, but to the gallery and should not show the work if they cannot be convinced.

6/22/2012 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger DB said...

Génial. Je suis en d'accord avec ses commentaires: Andy, Bernard Klevickas et Stephen Truax par exemple.

Great post Edward W, it's nice to get this perspective as I'm an artist who has mixed feelings about art galleries. I do think a compromise would be ideal (unless I was the artist, ha!) but if the gallery is really against showing the artist's work and there was no written agreement, c'est la vie. I just hope it doesn't happen to me!

6/22/2012 11:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is always the possibility that the gallerist is wrong about the quality of the work. Perhaps trusting the represented artist would pay off and the show ends up being a surprise hit.

I think that gallery representation implies a little more than "each show as an agreed-on production" - this might mean standing by the artist, even if there are questions about the work. This should not mean that the artist gets a show automatically, but there should be some level of support offered, other than "no show for you."

I do see both sides, but it seems like the artist is getting a little bashed here.

6/22/2012 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think that gallery representation implies a little more than "each show as an agreed-on production" - this might mean standing by the artist, even if there are questions about the work.

This is where this topic requires getting into specifics. I apologize if the description (obviously obfuscated to some degree) suggested that Xavier was abandoning the artist. He's not. He simply feels strongly that presenting this particular body of work will harm the artist's career and not help the gallery either.

Why this is such a delicate issue is underscored by the artists in this thread who, even without seeing the body of work in question, align with the Madge and feel she's being "bashed."

More than likely the dealers reading this thread are likewise, without seeing the work, align with Xavier.

The thing is, Xavier has 20 years experience assessing the quality of art. His opinion has value too, not just Madge's.

More than that, though, Xavier has a vision for his gallery and for the context he's building for it (which is why Bernard's comment seems off base to me, the artist is a visionary, but that doesn't mean the dealer doesn't have a vision or at least plan of his own as well).

Without seeing the work in question, it seems everyone is simply retreating to their own personal experience, burrowing into their default position, so to speak. What I would hope this thread could get to is suggestions like Guy's brilliant advice above for bridging the gap in such situations.

6/22/2012 12:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why this is such a delicate issue is underscored by the artists in this thread who, even without seeing the body of work in question, align with the Madge and feel she's being "bashed."

I meant that the artist seemed to be getting bashed here in the comments section, not your original post.

This is not my own personal experience, it was my intention to present another side. Xavier's 20 years of experience does give him expertise, but does not make him infallible. His opinion has great value, after all he decides who gets to show.

Great topic, thanks for posting it.

6/22/2012 12:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Patrick Collier said...

I've been on both side of the fence and now talk to a lot of young upstart gallerists about their vision and hopes for the gallery, and relations with artists in that regard. Time and again, those who can say no have superior programs. It's not a circle jerk, kids.

6/22/2012 01:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Is everyone an artist? Is the gallery dealer an artist in focusing their gallery's chosen vision? Is a curator and artist not too dissimilar to Duchamp choosing what found objects to display? Where does the "art" end? Is the gallery there to serve the collector's, the art market, art history, art's future or the artist?

Seems to be an elaborate power play in which the artist (the one creating the art object) has a diminished role.

6/22/2012 01:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in this situation now. I have been working on two bodies of work that my dealer does not like - one body of work he actually hates, he calls them gift shop items.

I however love the work, but not because I believe it is good or bad. I love it because it represents growth to me.

My dealer has encouraged me to explore these bodies of work, and we have had some intense critiques about them. He is adamant about not showing any of it though.

As the work has progressed, I can see now that his inital harsh opinion was valid. The work was to unformed to be exhibited. After two years of working on it, it is only now getting to a good place.

Luckily, I have had a lot of work in reserve, so my exhibition schedule has not been affected.

6/22/2012 01:46:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

I think the most appropriate answer is that the gallerist and artist should have an understanding of each other. Madge should be showing the work to Xavier long before the show and Xavier had plenty of time to let his opinion be known then.

If the art falls short, perhaps Madge is going through an artistic phase and in a year or two this new look will make sense. Perhaps Xavier should have said something sooner to understand why Madges art is changing. Transitions in art and style are nothing new, but without context can seem strange.

Back to the issue; you cannot expect anything in life to be given to you. Madge doesn't deserve this show. If she really believes the work is strong, she needs to prove it, if that takes months so be it. As an artist I'm sure this isn't the first time she's experienced rejection. As a business owner I'm sure this isn't the first time he's had to make an unpleasant decision.

If Madge needs cash, that's no fault of Xavier and shouldn't be a consideration for showing subpar art.

6/22/2012 01:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A dealer should never direct an artist's work or cancel a show because they don't "like" a body of work. That is a) totally subjective and b) extremely lazy. Representation means believing in the artist, as a person, not as an employee. If a gallerist gets on board, he/she should be prepared to ride the ups and downs of the artist's career.

As history has proven, it's anyone's guess what is good or bad for an artist's career. You've got to let the chips fall where they may, and let the larger public decide if a show works. So much can happen in an installation, too, that seeing the work in the studio is not always a fair assessment of how the show will play out.

6/22/2012 02:11:00 PM  
Blogger Jerry Saltz said...

Edward; You are wise. And open.
Thank you,
Jerry Saltz

6/22/2012 02:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have heard many examples of stories that corroborate the theory that this kind of thing happens to women artists in a disproportionate manner.

6/22/2012 02:21:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

For those who are his friend, please note that Jerry has kindly expanded this thread on Facebook. Great comments over there as well.

A dealer should never direct an artist's work or cancel a show because they don't "like" a body of work. That is a) totally subjective and b) extremely lazy.

I completely agree with the first notion (a dealer should never direct an artist's work), but completely disagree with the second (a dealer should never cancel a show because they don't like a body of work). As someone pointed out on facebook if a gallery is not 100% behind the new body of work, collectors can smell the skepticism. It does neither the gallery nor the artist any favors to present the work if the dealer is seriously not in favor of doing so.

6/22/2012 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point I'm trying to make is that it the dealer's job to be 100% behind THE ARTIST, not just one body of work.

With all due respect, the fact that you chose to repeat "collectors can smell the skepticism" in your retort pretty much shows that you care about selling first and the artist's career second.

Dealers are always masking their market fears with feigned concern for the "artist's rep."

6/22/2012 02:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

OK, it feels like you're getting emotional about this, so let me try another approach.

It is the dealer's job to promote the artist, not to be 100% behind the artist (what does that even mean? Giving the artist carte blanche even at the cost of damaging the context of the gallery? There is an impact of that on the gallery's other artists? Sorry, but no way. One artist cannot be allowed to bring down all the others.)

Moreover, promoting the artist means offering tough love at times. In the case I use above, Xavier truly believes it's in the artist's best interest not to show that body of work. Xavier has supported Madge for over 10 years. He's not only in it for the money (there hasn't been much of that for the past 5 years).

6/22/2012 02:51:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

One other point should be made here. An art dealer needs to take care of two sets of clients: artists and collectors. Their individual interests don't always align, though, so the dealer must do the best he/she can to reconcile them.

This means that the notion of being 100% behind either (the artist or the collector) is impossible.

It's childish to cling to that expectation as an artist.

6/22/2012 03:06:00 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I think Madge is being short-sighted. As an artist, I always want the presenter to not only like, but love the work they show. This enthusiasm radiates outward, and is worth waiting for.

I am usually most excited by my newest work, but I know from experience that this can change in hindsight. It may not be easy for the artist to hear, but getting a frank evaluation from a gallerist is a wonderful priviledge that helps sustain a strong reputation.

6/22/2012 03:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Someone boiled it down perfectly on facebook. The artist and dealer work best when they're on the same side. That advantage is worth waiting for.

6/22/2012 03:16:00 PM  
Blogger musicista said...

what if a collector sees the work (at the artist's studio, online, or whatever) and wants to buy ? if the dealer has already said that he doesn't want to show (sell) the work, is the artist obligated to give him a commission? or, say in the future the artist shows new work in the gallery, but a collector wants to buy a piece from the previous body...

the dealer has the right to not show, of course, but does the artist then have the right to sell that particular work w/o paying the gallery for the very same reason?

6/22/2012 04:10:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think that's a good question to put the dealer, Musicista. In fact, it's a rather compelling way to get the dealer to focus on what they like or don't like about the work.

You might hear a dealer still say, I'd recommend you consider not letting this work get out there (which will tell you they hate it), or they'll remind you that your agreement is all work sold out of the studio will x, y and z (whatever your agreement is).

But if they say they won't show it, and yet they don't hate it so much they recommend you don't sell it, well, then I'd say you have a strong argument for not sharing any of the proceeds.

Other dealers? Your opinions?

6/22/2012 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous mark said...

I have been wrong about specific pieces and general directions in my own work. The stuff that seems promising in the moment sometimes does not work so well after reflection, time and additional work. Having someone invested financially and emotionally in my career sounds like a good thing. While Xavier may or may-not be missing something about Madge's new work, I envy her predicament.

6/22/2012 04:46:00 PM  
Anonymous K.I.A. said...

re: artist selling work independently if dealer doesn't want to sell that body of work... i would like to think a (sub)-contract could be proposed (dealer gets 0% on particular works a,b,c) -- or perhaps a small percentage recognizing the dealers past & future efforts in building the artist's career...

somehow though, i think a dealer would be either moved to drop the artist, or request the usual %.

6/22/2012 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

One thing to remember in all this is that over the course of 10 years, the works in question represent only a fraction of Madge's total output and what Xavier has exhibited and/or sold. As Mark points out, even artists look back on certain previous works and later feel perhaps those were not their best. Sometimes right after creating it, they're too close to it to be entirely objective.

Not always, obviously, but it's not unheard of.

6/22/2012 05:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Maritza said...

If the artist was in fact dialing it in (that may have been on another thread of this discussion) then I'm not sure the dealer will have a satisfactory response to taking this stand, at least not for a while. If the artist wasn't challenging herself, why would she be ready to be challenged by someone else? To show or not show... like a lot of other artists have stated, I am sympathetic to both sides. Also I think the public or those that frequent a gallery, they deserve to see work that is at its best, too. All this happens with these kinds of great discussions, so hopefully Xavier & Madge will keep the discussion going.

6/22/2012 07:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I first started working with my gallery, she was in the process of doing this with one of her artists - turning away a show once she saw the work. It scared the shit out of me, but it also impressed me. It shows a lot of integrity. Since then, she has made money on most of my shows, lost money on one, and once, decided to only to show a few pieces from a body of work she had actually published, but then not liked as much as she thought she would. Another time, we got into a heated debate about whether I could reprint a digital print that was damaged in shipping (she said no, that I just had to collect insurance and call it a day - and I had only insured it for replacement value, since it was on its way to being sold and I thought I could just reprint!). I backed down on that eventually. My point is, we often disagree, but the mutual respect leads to a willingness to make for better work, better business, and a better relationship all around.

6/23/2012 06:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Randi T said...

Just as a dealer should support and trust his/hers artists, the artists should trust and support their dealer. If you do not trust the views of your dealer, then maybe you should not work with that dealer. A gallerist has to consider both the interest and careers of each and one of his artists, but also the totality of his program. I know of galleries that might have a few good artists, but then some really bad artists, and that make me not trust the judgment of the dealer, and that reflects back on the good artists of the gallery.

Madge might be developing in a new direction, maybe Xavier is right she needs more time for this development to mature and evolve, or maybe Madge is evolving in a direction that does not suit the program of the gallery. If Madge pushes Xavier to exhibit something he does not believe in, she is not doing herself a favor, as Xavier is unlikely to present her new works in a way that does her work justice (if her new work is as good as she thinks), and he is jeopardizing the reputation and program of his gallery. To me it is obvious, Madge should continue her work, allow it to evolve further, and maybe the work matures, or Xavier's views on them mature. And maybe they end up making a show, though some months or a year later than Madge expected or hoped for, but with Xavier fully supporting and believing in the works, or perhaps Madge and Xavier are moving in different directions and it is time they separate. But if they have both been happy with the work of the other up until now, they should give it time to see if this is just a phase where they are not aligned or if it goes deeper; the gallery and Madge's works are no longer compatible.

Madge's new works might be good, but maybe Xavier's gallery is not the right context for them, and maybe Madge's new work will weaken the program of Xavier's gallery, though maybe strengthen the program of an other gallery more compatible with her new development.

6/23/2012 07:55:00 AM  
Anonymous David Novak said...

have been in this business for over 50 years; first commercial exhibit in LA area 1959. This experience has revealed to me that, like the movies, art galleries are a director's medium. It is that simple. Contracts help to clear up detail in a gallery relationship, but all of my artist-gallery contracts were either handshake or very simple opening, insurance, area coverage, etc.; sometimes the two-year solo clause. Usually the solo thing was left to negotiation. Solo shows happened when both the director and the artist (me) was ready and in agreement, the solo show happened. Also the director supported the artist and the artist supported the director and directly the gallery. If either of this situations changed, so did the relationship. This is life!

I have been let go by almost every gallery that I have connected with; instigation by both sides. Usually because one us made a change. Almost 99% of the time, I changed galleries when my work went through a major change. Again this, to me is a no brainer.

In the end, if a director really likes the art work, then he/she will beat the bushes to find clients. Change is good for both artist and gallery. It keeps the business side of this game fresh and alive.

When an artist engages in the commercial art business, success usually means to leave the ego in the studio. Art making is art making. Art selling is art selling. They are two separate business and involve two separate paradigms to navigate.

6/23/2012 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

my comment is in response to musicista, who wrote:

the dealer has the right to not show, of course, but does the artist then have the right to sell that particular work w/o paying the gallery for the very same reason?

I would suggest that cutting the gallery in on the studio sale would be a great way to get the gallerist to consider the work in a more positive way. Especially in Madge's case since it sounds like her work has not been selling, even though the gallery has continued to represent her. Partnerships are partnerships, and sometimes it's worth it to give a little. It shows commitment and good faith. I think that would be the proper thing for the artist to do.

6/23/2012 02:21:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I think Xavier needs to look at his hands and Madge needs to soak in it.


6/23/2012 06:12:00 PM  
Anonymous graupe-pillard said...

Xavier should not show the work just because an artist has the 2-year time period. Had the artist not been ready with a body of work that she felt was worth showing, she would have posponed as well.

I think a good compromise is to test the work is in the context of a group show and see if the dealer Xavier and his collectors respond with time.

Otherwise I am an artist and know that I have to do what I have to do, but also am a realist and know there might not be a market AT THIS TIME for my work. Artists have to change when they need to and sometimes they are in a "gap" period.

6/23/2012 11:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Donna said...

When this happened to me, there was no discussion, just a quiet retreat. It's important for gallerists and artists to be able to talk about these things so thanks Ed for putting it out there.
Looking back, I had hit a wall. We all knew it.
My response was to fully immerse myself with other artists and take classes. Now I'm off to grad school in September.
In hind sight it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I'm so much more informed and evolved. I feel like everything has opened up. My work is back to being about digging for the nuggets.

6/25/2012 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for that additional perspective Donna. I've shared your comment over on Jerry Saltz' facebook thread on this same topic.

6/25/2012 09:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Cole said...

Of course Xavier is within his right to show or not show whomever he wishes. Running a gallery is an art in itself. Just as an artist has a "vision," so too does the gallerist have a vision about what art is and what ought to be seen. I've always felt that every relationship is a two-way street. No artist should feel entitled to a gallerist's fawning, unwavering representation. No gallerist should expect unabashed loyalty from an artist. Based on the info given here, I'd say Madge needs to step back and probably defer to Xavier. Find out what about the new work is missing and see if they can somehow address it. Get to the heart of it. If she truly feels the work is up to her own standard, then it's time to move on. Also, some artists have multiple galleries. They can always go elsewhere and return later. John Currin wasn't always with Gagosian.

6/25/2012 09:56:00 AM  
Blogger Stefano W. Pasquini said...

Excellent post, Ed. And yes, I can see people getting emotional on this, which is natural of course, after all, as artist, our work is what we keep most at heart. All I can say is listen to your gut feelings... I worked (greatly in the past) with a gallerist who all of a sudden started playing tricks and challenge my work and my decisions all the time, and it hurt. It took me quite a while to let him go, but now I work with a higher level gallery - and realized his reputation wasn't going down the drain also because I (and others followed suit) was still hanging in there...
People change, and so does art.

6/26/2012 06:41:00 PM  

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