I want to say upfront that this is just one story from my life, and not a commentary on the gallery system as a whole. My personal experience with “traditional” galleries has ranged from lackluster to unethical (and possibly illegal, but I’ll get to that in a second.) I do not believe they’re all like that. I’m very open-minded about galleries. I’ve simply had great success and enjoyment representing myself, and doing so is not a reaction to anything negative as much as it is a belief in doing something positive.
When I was starting out professionally, I heard from a number of people within the local art scene that I was ready for my own show. So I went out and got one. The gallery I’d found was up and coming, an offshoot of a more successful gallery nearby. The owner (we’ll call him Shawn) was an artist himself, and sold a great deal of work, all at higher end prices, with a pretty significant and growing following in the area. He liked my work, and immediately offered me a show. After securing a date, I heard from fellow artists that although his art “was a bit formulaic,” he seemed to be a fantastic businessman. The openings I attended in the months leading up to my show were lively events.
When I arrived at the gallery the morning of my own show to set up, I could sense a weird and unexpected attitude from Shawn. He was cold and unhelpful. He abruptly announced that I couldn’t use blacklights, a fairly integral part of my art, despite seeming enthusiastic about them a few weeks prior. He further informed me that I wouldn’t have access to half the space I was promised, because another artist was using it. When I firmly explained the necessity of the blacklights, he finally told me I could use a small room through a hall and in the back for this purpose.
I was determined to keep a good attitude about things.
The show itself ended up being quite successful. It was packed with people well into the night. Crowds gathered in the back room with the blacklights, oohing and aahing over the effect, and requesting that I switch out paintings around the gallery so that they could see every single piece under blacklight. Everyone was very encouraging about my future in art. I even sold a few of paintings, thousands of dollars worth. How great is that? My first show!
Except that the gallery owner didn’t exactly speak to me all night, and according to those around me, he was rude to almost everyone. One of my earliest collectors had spoken with Shawn and left the conversation so upset she refused to purchase a painting through him, lest he be the recipient of her (and half of my) money. Wow. That’s not good. She asked me when my contract was up, and said she’d be in touch then.
We left the night on as best a note as possible, and I was just happy that for the most part, and for appearances’ sake, it was a downright successful opening for me. The hard part was over, I debuted well, I sold work, and now my art would hang in a gallery for the next month for more people to see.
Or so I thought.
As more of my friends, collectors, and new fans who weren’t able to make it to the show trickled into the gallery, I heard ongoing stories of rudeness. After 2 weeks, half the time I was contracted for, I received word from various people that my artwork was on the floor, in the back room, replaced by the owner’s work. They took pictures of this, in case I might need them.
I was understandably pissed. I had lost sales because of this. How many more were lost that I’ll never know about? How did this gallery’s disrespect for artists and art collectors reflect on me?
I emailed Shawn to express my frustration. I emphasized that the contract we both signed stated that my work would be hung for a certain period of time, that he broke this contract, and that sales were lost as a result.
He wrote back to inform me that my “behavior” was ruining any chance I had for another show in his gallery.
I told him he was mistaken if he believed I had any intention of working with him again.
He said to pick up my artwork the following day, and that he would decide whether or not to pay me for my sold work after he returned from a trip to Mexico.
I kid you not.
A friend offered consultation with her lawyer, which I gratefully accepted. The lawyer agreed that the facts of the situation weighed quite heavily in my favor. Contract Law is an amazing thing. Cut and dry. It would go on his business record for 7 years.
It would, however, be very expensive and time-consuming for me. Much more than was feasible at the time. The question, said the lawyer, really came down to what I wanted to do with my life regarding this. I had choices. Ultimately he recommended a certain course of action that would preserve both my money and my sanity.
The following day, a friend and I waited outside the gallery for Shawn’s assistant. We could see all my artwork through the window, stacked up on the ground against the walls, including the sold paintings. When the assistant showed up, he made us wait outside for a few minutes. We knew exactly what he was doing.
After being let in, I went immediately into the back room to collect the sold paintings first. Not so mysteriously, the highest priced one was now missing. My friend began loading artwork into her car while I followed a hunch through the back room and into Shawn’s bathroom, where I fished my painting out from behind a stack of boxes in the shower.
He hid my painting in the shower.
When everything was collected, I told the assistant I had removed my work from the gallery, including the sold paintings, and especially the one he had hidden in the shower. I wish you could have seen him flinch. He made excuses for Shawn, said he’d dealt with his “crazy behavior” for years. I told him I would forward him the email trail I had collected.
After Shawn briefly threatened to call the police on me for “stealing artwork,” (I told him he should definitely do that) the assistant (having now read the emails) called to say it had all been a misunderstanding, and that they absolutely wanted to pay me. Per the lawyer’s advice, I didn’t return the call or engage in any further discussion with them about the matter. Shawn called a day later, said he was stressed out due to business, and reacted poorly because he was upset that I hadn’t “enjoyed” my experience.
Eventually they stopped contacting me. About nine months later, this gallery closed. Later, he opened another one. Over the next few years, I heard many rumblings around this beloved art scene, in which Shawn was clearly not very well liked. Apparently many people have had negative experiences with him. I’m not at all surprised. For him, ultimately, art is just a business, and artists are cattle. He’s got his painting slinging deal down pretty good, and although it’s a bit sad for the unsuspecting collectors he reels in, I guess it’s worked out for him.
For me, I think I came out okay. I certainly learned something, and ultimately I made more money from the situation than I would have if everything had gone according to plan. My collectors were more than understanding, and fully supported me through this awkward process.
It’s not a situation I care to repeat, but I’m very proud that I stood up for myself. In the scheme of it all, a pathetic, egotistical gallery owner won’t be more than a blip in my personal history. At this point, it feels like a distant memory. I’m doing great things.
And I have a much bigger life ahead of me. It only gets better.
—Written by Shayla Maddox for Art & Musings