Art Problems: Difficult Dealers, Difficult Art

(Graphic Paddy Johnson/Hyperallergic)

My gallerist alienates colleagues, friends, collectors, and critics and then complains, without filter, on social media. The gallery does not represent me, but it’s hard to leave regardless because the gallerist is a friend and seems to have abandonment issues. I feel guilty about leaving. I tried to discuss it but got dragged publicly on social media. What can I do? — Feeling alienated.

Let’s start with the obvious. It’s not good for business or friendships to air personal grievances over social media. Your gallerist shouldn’t be doing that, and it’s best if you don’t continue in an abusive relationship. 

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But let’s also acknowledge that emotional blackmail makes it harder to leave the relationship, and the art world has few resources to deal with such situations. There’s no human resources department to report this to and no union to support you. 

In a business relationship, we make decisions based on the benefits to the business. If I hire someone to help me with Photoshop and learn they can’t do the job, I find someone who can. In a personal relationship, well, maybe I put up with a shoddy job because there’s a social cost to levying criticism. I may damage my friendship. In more severe cases, self-doubt and anxiety — mental health costs — can make extracting ourselves from these situations even harder. 

When we work with friends, we must balance the difference between the cost of doing business and the social costs that inevitably occur when we have opposing needs. 

Your job is to lower the social cost of your departure to such an extent that you can leave the gallery with little to no damage to your reputation. The best way to achieve this is for your gallerist to believe that your departure demonstrates their success. 

But does such a scenario exist? 

Possibly. You have a couple of options. 

Since the gallery does not represent artists, the gallerist can not reasonably expect to retain artists for long periods. Ideally, their shows raised your visibility to the extent that you gained representation. In that business model, your moving on would, by definition, signal their success.  

Your first exit strategy is to explain how much you’ve learned with this dealer, and that thanks to their support, you’re ready to grow into other galleries with a representation model. You should probably acknowledge the work of any gallerist you’re leaving, but if you’re specific and earnest enough with your praise with this person, it should go a long way toward smoothing over tensions. 

A dealer with serious abandonment issues may not be appeased by this though. The second strategy is to lay low and spend every waking moment looking for representation until you secure it. Once that’s achieved, the opportunity allows you to prioritize the business decision of leaving your gallery because the alternative is no longer feasible. Thank your gallerist for making your success possible, and, again ideally, they happily promote the news of your departure because it builds their authority and reputation as a venue for artists.  

There are, of course, caveats. One, there’s no guarantee your gallerist would see your departure in a positive light, even if it benefits them to do so. It’s always hard to lose an artist, and that reality will be felt more acutely by those navigating emotional issues. Two, there’s no guarantee you’ll find representation. It’s a difficult task on its own, and if you’re navigating any damage from the current relationship, you may feel nervous about embarking on a new one. 

The unfortunate reality is that your gallerist has made a host of interpersonal and social media blunders and will likely continue to do so. This behavior is not the norm. You can find better gallerists and venues to show your work. The bar is set low, so the job may be easier than you might think. Eventually, though, you may be forced to make a decision with or without the cover of representation. 

I make difficult art. The gallery owner who represents me asked me to rename a piece of art because she feared it would offend audiences. I explained the context of the title, and she understood but has refused to show the work. Do I compromise my work and integrity to make audiences and gallery owners comfortable? Miffed and misrepresented.

If you believe retitling your art work means compromising the integrity of your artwork then, of course, the answer is not to show it with this gallerist. Knowing what motivates you to make art — the specific message you have for the world — has to be the center of your practice. You can’t compromise your purpose. 

But, you also can’t be mad at your gallerist for refusing to show the work. If she determines that she doesn’t have buyers for your art, she can’t show it. Most galleries have between three to five staff members, rent, software, shipping, marketing costs, and more to consider. An unsellable exhibition is not a financially viable option for a commercial gallery. 

Is there a title that will meet both your concerns and hers? If you want a show with this gallery, it’s an option you have to consider.  

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Editor’s Note: If you have a problem you’d like advice on, send your questions to [email protected]. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.


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