â€œMy dealer is acting weird,â€ a friend from New York said to me recently. â€œWeird, how?â€ I asked, starting to work on my probable list of dual sided offenses and defenses between the two parties. â€œWeird like, I can never tell if she likes my work. She keeps putting off studio visits and some other stuff. I donâ€™t know what she wants from meâ€
â€œâ€¦other stuff…â€ Okay, so I can surmise that one of two things is happening.
One: this dealer is fixinâ€™ to screw my friend. The dealer has lost interest, found something better, is disappointed in sales. The dealer probably got an early pass to the MFA exhibition at one of the local Young Artists Vocational Schools of Instant Success and has replaced nearly half her roster of artists with youngsters whose installation work revolves around their â€œlike, umm, genuine interest in Hip-Hop cultureâ€.
Then thereâ€™s option Two, which is just that thereâ€™s a very benign slow spot and the dealer is doing everything she can, and theyâ€™ll wait it out and end up happily strategizing for the full blossom of my friendâ€™s career over a couple of Stellas at the Half King. Great. Phew.
Either way, it reminded me of the tense and difficult relationship artists often have with their gallery representation. It seems always to be a vague replica of every high school relationship I ever had: one person liked the other person better than the other person liked them. Many gallery artists are constantly worried about whether their work will be on the booth walls at the next fair, and the dealers are often worried about the artist moving up and out when the first better opportunity comes along. Artist: jockeying for pole position within the harem. Dealer: fawning over the first draft pick she just discovered.
These people are famous for their insecurity. It seems impossible to find a stable understanding between artist and dealer and healthy relationships are as rare as a Very Hard to Find Thing. Why canâ€™t the artists and dealers situate themselves comfortably in a happy 50/50 exchange of mutual career furthering and wholesome fostering of the betterment of art? I canâ€™t figure out if itâ€™s a problem with money or with ego. Is it a simple lack of paperwork? What are the rules and reasonable expectations for this relationship, and can we all get a damn handbook?
In my recent life, I was an art dealer. So I know something about what some artists want. But itâ€™s actually complicated. Some of them want artfame, and some of them want money, and some of them are just content to be named on the list of gallery artists. And I too wanted different things from each of them. Some of them inspired in me a professional quality drive toward museum collections and a place in the most important survey exhibitions, and for others, I knew we werenâ€™t going to make it there, but still had something good to offer one another. In the meantime, they all loved it when I sold work.
Hereâ€™s the thing to know from a dealerâ€™s prospective: I want to make money off of you. From the wellspring of your gleaming talent, that which you have honed ever since you were nineteen, that which you slaved over perfecting in the studio for loâ€™ these last two years. You ate nothing but pitas and hummus for 36 months and now I want to take money for the fruits of your labor?!
This comes as a surprise and great offense to many young artists. But hereâ€™s the thing: I want you to make money off my work too. From the wellspring of my talent, that which I may or may not have honed, through various preparator gigs and gallery internments, I mean â€œinternshipsâ€, that which I have slaved over perfecting, and eaten hummus only, etc. for.
If a dealer/ artist relationship is balanced, it should be symbiotic (you can decide whoâ€™s the whale and whoâ€™s the lamprey). It isnâ€™t a free service to artists and it shouldnâ€™t be a free ride for dealers. You make the art, and deal with all the sacrifices that come along with it, and Iâ€™ll do the dealing and accept all the sacrifices that come along on this side. For my 50%, I will hang my face over a computer for hours a day, researching museums and collections, turn my ear red and sweaty from making uncomfortable phone calls, pay the monthly bills, design, print, stamp, mail, pack, stay in terrible hotels, and sit in a booth waiting to tell people about you until my ass is numb. You, for your half, will work two jobs that you donâ€™t love, sketch, draw and haul all over the city to find materials for your sculpture. You can hang your face over the canvas or table saw or whatever it is you hang over and then weâ€™ll sell a piece and divvy up the profits. The better you do, the better I do, and vice versa. On the face of it, it seems so simple, so easy to be bitterness neutral.
Too bad some shit always goes down, and soon enough the lamprey isnâ€™t keeping the whale clean enough. And then your dealer starts acting â€œweirdâ€. So you considerâ€¦ â€œWhat has that snatch done for me lately, anyway? Maybe I donâ€™t need a dealer. Maybe I need a better dealer! I deserve a better dealerâ€¦â€ and so on and so forth. It may all be true. It may be the other way around. Either way, a basic litmus is that everyone should feel like theyâ€™re earning their fifty percent. If the formula falters, reassess. But between an artist and a dealer, itâ€™s a perpetual battle of underestimating one anotherâ€™s sacrifices.
The only truth Iâ€™ve uncovered in witnessing a mass of misunderstandings and a long run of dubious dealings is this: if youâ€™re waiting around, an artist relying solely on your dealer to make something happen for you, or a dealer, resting on the laurels of your artists, you will be waiting a long time, babies. Neither of you have anything coming to you. So youâ€™re just going to have to go out and work for it.