Art/Work by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber
Post #1310 • March 9, 2009, 8:23 AM • 48 Comments
I have in my hands an advance copy of Art/Work: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber. I have been thinking about these career issues quite a bit lately, so this book by a director of Mixed Greens and an arts lawyer comes at an opportune time.
The gold standard for this genre remains How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist by Caroll Michels. But the fifth and most recent edition of Survive came out in 2001 and it's already showing its age eight years later. 2001 was two years before the first Art Basel/Miami Beach and the explosion in number and importance of the art fairs. It was before the proliferation of blogging and the decimation of the landscape of print criticism. An update seems in order.
First and most importantly, a book on this topic must do no harm. Nutty and useless assertions have appeared in advice books for artists, and Art/Work has admirably few of them. (My one moment of bewilderment came from the section on artist blogs. "Not all art 'needs' a blog, obviously, so you shouldn't feel compelled to start one, especially if you work in a more traditional medium." On the contrary, many people like to see traditional processes described in stages. One of the first financially successful artist blogs, until recently called A Painting A Day, features the traditional still lifes of Duane Keiser.) It provides a lot of practical and informative advice. The section on transfer of title edified me utterly on the subject, as did the clarification that one refers even to male persons tending the front desk of a gallery as "gallerinas." (Not long ago I mistakenly called one a "gallerino." Luckily I didn't do it in front of him.) Art/Work has helpful diagrams for crate design, well-conceived examples of a wide variety of paperwork (although printing some of them in triplicate serves no purpose), samples of budgeting forms, and several other details not well covered by Michels. On the other hand, it seems to have lifted some of the topics point by point from Michels: the problem of day jobs, the countdown checklist before an exhibition, dealing with rejection, and a few others. Obviously, it's a finite problem set. No one does a better job on the paperwork than Tad Crawford; both Survive and Art/Work cite him repeatedly.
Survive has one somewhat weak aspect: its discussion of dealers, for whom Michels has little regard. She entitled the germane chapter "Dealing with Dealers and Psyching Them Out." It reads like a pathology manual of duplicity, knavery, and contempt in the primary art market and how to avoid contagion. By all means, approach your dealer with prudence, but not body armor. The authors of Art/Work use a somewhat more humanizing but still problematic metaphor for the artist-dealer relationship: courtship and marriage. They apologize for it early on in a sidebar entitled "It's Just An Analogy, People!"
Every gallerist we interviewed made some kind of analogy to courtship and marriage when describing what it's like to bring a new artist into their program. We think the comparison goes a long way to [sic] explaining how gallery relationships feel, but in the end it doesn't explain everything.
Indeed, and it gets creepy after a while.
Oh - and don't forget that if representation is like marriage, you're getting hitched to a polygamist. No matter how much your gallery loves you, you'll never be the only one.
Perhaps I have had unusually good luck with galleries, but I find that if I act like I'm running a business (as opposed to indulging a hobby), and I treat them like they're running a business (as opposed to doing an elaborate favor for my artistic temperament), everything goes just fine. It seems like it would be enough to say so. But Art/Work does provide rich descriptions of what gallerists want from their artists and vice versa, and explains how to work out written agreements so that both are most likely to come to pass. It also features short quotes from conversations with Andrea Rosen, Ed Winkleman, Mary Leigh Cherry, and other critically regarded gallerists, so the advice seems commensurately up-to-date.
That said, I hope an editor has the opportunity to take an axe to the manuscript before it goes to production. First of all, I find the book overdesigned. Sidebar quotes, which fill the thing from cover to cover, are preceded by an odd, 8-em long middle-height horizontal bar. The designer has given whole pages to individual quotes twelve to twenty words in length. Sidebars switch between body copy and margin copy. Some of the effort to make the book look slick and contemporary is instead making it awkward and harder to absorb.
The book features charmingly drawn but inadequately droll cartoons by Kammy Roulner throughout, peopled with a stereotypical cast of art world characters: poseurs, scoundrels, megalomaniacs, perpetrators of nonsense, and airheads. The editor should cut them. A few of them are downright sad-making (in one, a little boy says to a little girl, "When I grow up I wanna become a performance artist and put everyday objects into my anus"), and they play to a conception of the art world as a romper room for self-important fools that doesn't need any more reinforcement than it already gets. Roulner belongs to the Mixed Greens stable, so I understand how her drawings got in the book, but aside from providing negative example after negative example of how to act like a nimrod, their presence subtly undercuts the presupposition of the book that the art world rewards professionalism. Frankly, for this kind of thing it's hard to beat our own Thomas Marquet here in Boston.
Probably nothing will date Art/Work faster than the repeated quotation of Shamim Momin, a Whitney Museum curator whose biennial last year singlehandedly reanimated the Why Is Art Writing So Bad meme, and who, even with the benefit of an editor, says things like, "How do you marry a more ideal scenario with the budgetary, physical, locational, and contextual constraints which are frankly the major players in what produces a show or produces work?" The selection of interviewees, references, and asides leans noticiably towards the Cool Kids set. The authors offer this caveat: "We're also not telling you that if you do everything we say, you will be the next Damien Hirst." You mean, even if I follow this advice, I may not find myself buying back my colossally overhyped work in a covert maneuver to save face? Pity, that. A discussion of the book's features, in the introduction, lists "a slash in the title, so it will look cool on your shelf." I appreciate the aspirations to insidery currency - the passage of years has made Survive look like it's erring in the other direction - but these fashionable details may doom the book to the remainder bin before its time. Too, while the authors make a point, to their eminent credit, of saying that the kind of art career they advise on may not be the kind that you want or the kind that suits your work, they provide almost no examples of what the alternatives look like. Survive does a much better job in this respect, with more discussion of exhibition possibilities and more advocacy for artists selling their own work. If only Survive was current enough to cover the new social media and the possibilities of the Internet, as well as the fairs.
This book makes a decent, substantial addition to the library on the topic, its publisher has priced it affordably, and despite the attitude of the authors that they're telling you things that you won't learn in art school, it would make an apt textbook selection for the increasingly common college-level art business practices class. Nevertheless, it only further whets my anticipation of the forthcoming book by Jackie Battenfield, due out sometime this Spring. Battenfield gave up her New York City gallery to devote herself to her painting and her art career. This subject really ought to be addressed by an artist with a healthy professional practice, whatever helpful thoughts a gallerist or a lawyer might contribute to a discussion thereof.