Monday, January 20, 2014

A Critical Difference Between a Rock Star and an Art Star

I expect this post to go over like a lead balloon in some quarters. So be it.

A friend who works in a high-profile gallery talked with me the other day about an exhibition they had by an up-and-coming art star (who only recently joined their gallery) that had been soundly panned in the press and "on the street" in New York. I'm not naming names. There have been a handful of such exhibitions over the past two years, so take your pick. The response, though, was an embarrassment to the gallery and no doubt to the artist as well. 

I pushed this friend on what the gallery did or could have done to have brought about a different exhibition than the one they presented. Had the artist liaison failed to keep tabs on the work as it developed? Had the installation discussion not considered this or that alternative presentation? I've been in this industry long enough to know that if you ask the gallery, you'll get one set of explanations for such debacles (pointing the finger mostly at the studio), and if you ask the studio, you'll get another set of explanations (pointing the finger mostly at the gallery). In this instance, though, knowing people as I do in both the studio and the gallery, it strikes me that while the gallery might have delayed or cancelled the exhibition, overall the fault this time lies with the studio. (And make no mistake, the artist is responsible for what happens in their studio. Full stop.)

Indeed, like far too many young-ish artists in this one's position lately, the years and critical months leading up to the big exhibition were frittered away playing the rock star. With more focus on the trappings of stardom than on ensuring this big break was the single most carefully planned and executed exhibition in the history of humankind, the artist let themselves and everyone rooting for them down. The setback is certainly addressable. The artist is indeed an important voice of their generation. But this wasted opportunity to live up to the reputation that got the artist this show stands as an important cautionary tale about the difference between being a rock star and being an art star.

In the Q&A portion of the panel I participated in the at the 92nd Street Y the other day, a "seasoned" artist noted how after art school he choose to "live the life," hanging out in the studio, drinking beer, chasing women. It was part of the appeal of being an artist, and certainly as valid a life choice as any other in my opinion. So I'm not suggesting visual artists need to be as sensible as bankers or accountants. But unlike rock stars, who between writing new albums perform the same set of songs over and over again each night they have a show (and so have greater leeway to perhaps not only party a little hardier while they're "working" but also to let the accumulative quality of their tour stand as the measure of their artistic success), visual artists need to approach each new exhibition as if it were their MoMA retrospective. Exhibitions come too far apart. A rock star can overcome a particularly bad performance by bringing the house down the following evening. An art star doesn't have that same timely luxury.

The friend at the gallery, who was clearly frustrated by the studio's lack of commitment to the exhibition, couldn't help but compare the youngish artist with the more mature artists in the program. Those artists, this friend noted, were consummate professionals. Even with more exhibitions going on worldwide, they approached each aspect of each new show in the gallery with military precision.

Perhaps it was the realization that the older one gets, the less time there remains to bolster one's legacy. Perhaps it's merely that they've sown their wild oats and are more interested in the formal dialog within the art world than the casual, often sloppy one in the art world's watering holes and dinner parties. Or perhaps it's the simply accumulated experience with producing exhibitions that has taught them how to do it all more easily. 

Whatever it is, the gallery in question, burned badly, seems much less in love with this rock star wanna-be than they had been.

Another conversation I had at the Y (I apologize, but I can't recall whether it was part of the formal panel and Q&A or a conversation I had was all a blur), involved a young person who decided to get their MFA, get a gallery, make a ton of money, and then (once rich) set off to do what they really wanted to do with their lives. This completely absurd life plan (seriously, if money's the prerequisite to the freedom to do what you want to you with your life, get your MBA, not your MFA), struck me, though, as part of why a younger visual artist might approach an exhibition in a major gallery less seriously. They're not taking it seriously.

Indeed, this narrative (being an artist = being a rock star = "money for nothing, and your chicks for free") is worming its way into the mythology and setting a wide range of wildly unrealistic expectations. I'm not so worried about the rock-star-wanna-be's who have their fantasies dashed upon the rocks of real life. Silly goals meet silly ends. But for the BFA students out there debating whether or not to invest in an MFA, I think the industry as a whole owes them a much more realistic set of expectations. How on earth this young-ish artist at the big gallery thought they could essentially phone in their first exhibition at this major space astounds me. What signals were sent through the system to enable them to approach the show so lazily that they'd end up dropping the ball so badly? The spanking they got in the press will hopefully set this talented artist back on a more satisfying (for both us and the artist) career path.

In the meanwhile, party like a rock star in between shows...seriously, have a blast. But make damned sure you reserve the mental and emotional energy to approach each and every exhibition you have like it's the only time the public will ever see all your hard work. Unless you do, it just may be.


Anonymous Terry Ward AKA GrumpyVisualArtist said...

you're said before that artists must really wow the gallerists --blow them away. it is true and good advice. it was worth repeating as it was here --the bit about preparing as if it were a MoMA event. thanks for sharing your sage services.

: )

1/20/2014 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger mrpillis said...

what a pleasure to read. While I don't side with either side, (the studio or the artist), I would argue that the infrastructure of culture at large is partly responsible for these attitudes which end up producing so many dilettentish dilemmas. The "art star" concept has been given to a younger generation as an unfortunate ultimatum for attaining a career in the arts, and as such, the larger implications of making art and conversing with culture are often not arrived at until, if lucky, an artist is enabled to grow into their career in adulthood. Our cultural pre-occupation with youth, the idea that young talent is more important that informed wisdom, as well as the issues surrounding student debt, a financial crisis, and an ever expanding culture of exploitation often prevent true maturation. I can only imagine that this "artist" in question was too young and too underdeveloped for this type of debutante ball, and the worst is, once this career is blown up by the gallery, unfortunately resulting in poor reviews, the artist is likely to have a hard time continuing to mature, that sort of failure isn't easily recovered from. This won't affect the gallery, the press, or the art world at large, but it will make it difficult for the person in question to fully come into their own.

1/20/2014 01:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sounds like an established gallery tried to shake things up by signing an art star without much depth, and it blew up in their faces.

1/20/2014 03:58:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I wouldn't agree that the artist has no depth or was underdeveloped. Both the artist and gallery had excellent track records before this show, and so I think the blame lies beyond talent or potential and more in misunderstanding about how each exhibition must be approached as seriously as possible by the artist, and how, perhaps, if the gallery isn't convinced the show is ready they have viable options for rescheduling the exhibition until it is.

1/20/2014 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Jeff Jahn said...

Ed, I wrote a companion piece in response:

1/20/2014 06:07:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Hey Jeff,

I can't get that link to work.


1/20/2014 06:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In business, communication is key. There's a dance to it, not emailing/texting/calling more then need be, but it's crucial to success. Too many younger artists that I know disregard the importance of effective communication.

Secondly, I think being a professional artist is akin to being a rock star, the difference being that artists get one or maybe two concerts a year, if that. We both work in the studio, quietly, for many months to prepare something new and wonderful for the one concert/exhibition. We bask in the glory of it, the accolades, the press. Then, 48 hours after the show opens, back to the studio for more months of solitude and work. Sometimes there's an interview, a talk to give, or a studio visit, but mostly it's pure work. This is my life, it's irrelevant to how others choose to work. That said, I don't understand how any other artist succeeds otherwise.

1/21/2014 10:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post. As a gallerist who has a staff of one - myself, I found that when I got too busy (mostly doing art fairs), I dropped the ball on monitoring the progress of an artist's body of work for a show. Generally, these would be 11th hour shows that I truly regretted. But it was too late to cancel. Miraculously, the press was not horrendous, and we even had a couple of tepid sales, but my curatorial instincts were not satisfied.

In the new iteration of my gallery, this will NEVER happen again. I feel that the fault was shared by studio and gallery. I see artists sometimes spending more time marketing and talking up a show on social media, etc., than focusing on the work in the show.

Let my mistakes serve as a cautionary tale for any other young or small gallerists out there.

1/21/2014 01:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Jeff Jahn said...

Ed, link is fixed...

1/22/2014 07:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bwhahaha Blame the Spun out Artist. Look ,, a gallery is a company , That's how you fucking run it . To make money. Any great company starts with a top notch owner , not weak hands who lets a miscreant run roughshod over your lively hood.

If I was a gallery owner and you were a artist who worked for me and didn't produce or sell you would be fired asap, until I found the winning combination of Artist,

1/23/2014 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's hard to know out of context of the actual artist and work, but I'm very curious about them and the reviews. I know you can't share, out of respect for both the artist and gallery (and I appreciate that - I'm being anonymous here myself, for similar reasons), but my curiosity relates to the questions at hand, and can be incorporated into the discussion well, even without being "fed".

I agree with the notion of older artists as generally being more professional, etc (I'm in my mid-thirties, FYI), but I've never personally been one to not treat any show with a lot of care, even when I was younger (the drinking and stardom profile, for example, were never really why I became an artist, nor the money - that story seems ridiculous to me!).

Still, along with what I think of as moderate success, I've had a few failures, as have several of my most talented peers. Most of those failures, however, were because of taking big risks with the work, rather than a lack of effort (or however one categorizes what you write about in this post). My and their biggest successes were also from taking risks, though, so I see it as still worthwhile. Based on your story, I doubt this was the case in the work above, but I thought it still worth mentioning as part of this discussion.

These are questions I always ask as part of the dialog between myself and my galleries when embarking on a new series that takes risks, and I often bring fellow artists and gallerists into such discussions, to get different kinds of feedback - on the situation, on the work, on how they interrelate. What kinds of risks? For whom? To what end? Will they be worth it regarding scales of success and failure? This question of value can span the potential impact of the work itself - whether politically, conceptually, aesthetically, etc - but also potential impact of the artist, of the gallery, and on sales, among other things. Long- and short-term goals, for gallery and artist alike, should play huge role here. My galleries and I (I work with two regional ones, in different cities/countries) are often involved in such discussions. I've had confirmed shows cancelled (due to a realization that my work didn't fit a new gallery I might have worked with), or postponed and/or transformed, sometimes drastically (with my current galleries). I honestly respect that level of commitment to quality work, even if it smarts a bit at times...

1/23/2014 12:47:00 PM  
Anonymous zipthwung said...

galleries suck. the. life. out . of . art. Or defang it.

1/29/2014 12:49:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home