Sunday, August 15, 2010

Vanity in the Visual Arts

A few days ago, I had a high school student spend the day in my gallery, watching me paint and working on her own art class summer assignments. That same day, a bus tour stopped in the gallery as well and one of the people recognized me from over 20 years ago when I was a high school art teacher and she had been a student, though not one of mine. Talk about a reality check! It got me thinking as to what my role is now within the art community. I am not a student unless re-certifying for my license. I am not a teacher with a regular classroom. I am not a mentor as I don’t have any “students” to oversee. I am not a community activist or active volunteer as of now (outside of my devotion to Scouting and the countless hours I give to that organization). Don’t get me wrong, I am overwhelmingly happy to finally just be spending time on my own projects, in my own space, working on my own ideas, and seeing where life finally takes me now that supervisional motherhood is coming to a close. With that thought in mind, maybe I can use this blog and this post today, to discuss the issue of vanity.

Not the vanity of self, but the vanity that permeates the art world and takes advantage of those who don’t see it lurking just beneath the surface, too be specific, vanity galleries, vanity shows and vanity memberships. Yes, I have been victimized by all three at one time or another, and choose to still indulge in a couple of them on occasion, but in this economy, artists need to be careful.

Vanity galleries are the most recognizable circumstance but often don’t get uncovered until too late. It is a gallery, exhibition space, or organization that advertises for artists to submit for shows. They run ads in major trade magazines. No cost to submit! What happens next is that you get a letter confirming your acceptance for a show in their prestigious space (usually NY or Berlin or Toronto) and you just need to send back your agreement to participate. A letter will follow with your allotted amount of space, about 12 linear feet in the group showing, and an exhibition fee (for their time and labor of course) for up to $3000. You read that right. Thousands of dollars for a few feet of space and three weeks on the wall in what is probably a 5th floor walk up space in a poorly lit building off the beaten path. To those in the Midwest, it sounds wonderful to add a NY gallery to your resume, even an international one, but when that bill comes, you are a bit “screwed” shall we say. Chances are you shipped out your work already and your signature of agreement is a legally binding document. Kiss those paintings goodbye for the most part. Always get full financial obligations before sending any work to any location and in this day and age of Google, you can most likely weed out the bad ones. Even Facebook a friend in the city of the show and have them check out the address for you.

Vanity shows are those juried shows which promise solo shows for the winners in major museums or are juried shows that promise hundreds of trade people in attendance at the opening. Send in your three images for about $50 and wait for the results. Rejection of course is most likely. Why? Well the letter will state that 700 or so entries arrived, all were so fabulous that the juror could hardly make a choice but decided on the best 22 images for the show. 22? Are you kidding? Most juried shows on the national level at reputable galleries take 50 – 80 pieces. Look up the 22 accepted artists later, and you may find that about 15 are local to the gallery in question. Figure how much money that place just made on those 700 entries. Choose juried shows carefully. I do quite a few but check out the location, the juror, the show’s record, other shows the juror has done and any other factors which could affect my selection. Juried shows are a great way to gain “exposure” (though I hate that word) but I have been offered shows, made sales, and won prize money from many of them so it is worth the entry fees to me.

Vanity organizations are the most difficult to decipher. The choice to belong is based upon what the organization can do for you and how much it is worth the fees to be a part of it. I belong to one whose membership I question each time the yearly dues come due. It is very expensive for not getting much out of it, but the circumstances under which I was granted access remain dear to my heart so I pay the bill and curse the mentor every time. The organization grants me access to national shows but those shows have a fee for entry even without a jury, a fee for the delivery of the work to an agent who transports it to the venue (no direct shipping allowed) and a fee for us who cannot spend 3 hours of our time as a volunteer gallery sitter. Being 3 states away, I can’t go sit there for three hours; it is easier to pay the fee. Those fees for one show add up to the yearly dues. Somebody is buying a Lexus on my dime, but it is a choice I make to claim the letters on my resume. Of course it does not make a hill of beans difference to anybody that I belong to it, but sometimes that is just the way it is. My beans are my business. Just take this advice to evaluate what you really want and need to get where you wish to go as an artist. The new social media makes it much easier to weed out the bad apples and check into potential risks before taking one. However, scammers are smart people and artists desire plenty of reassurance and confirmation so beware of what happens to your work and your wallet before seeking any attention from those whom you don’t know.

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