Little White Lies: Why Artists should tell the truth

Sculpture

“I once was seriously considering taking on a young artist who sent me follow-up material claiming to have shown at the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney and other major museums,” said Louis Newman, director of New York’s David Findlay Jr. gallery. “When I called to express my astonishment that he did not tell me to begin with about these impressive credentials, he revealed that he actually never showed in these museums but at them,” such as on the steps of the Metropolitan, where he would set up a display of his work for tourists, visitors and other passers-by. Newman added that “needless to say,” this artist was “out the door as far as we were concerned.”

What should we call this? Fib, puffery, white lie, misinformation, half-truth, fairy tale, or just outright lie? It probably doesn’t matter, as a prospective dealer lost confidence that he ever could trust this artist to be truthful. Perhaps, the moral of this story is that you should always assume a worst-case scenario if you are ever caught not telling the truth.

Certainly, there are a lot of things that you might be reluctant to tell the truth about that don’t seem so terrible. For instance, one’s age. “I have had a few CVs cross my desk without a birth year or educational dates, although the exhibition history would suggest they’ve been around a few decades, so I imagine they were trying to disguise or at least not focus on their age,” said Manhattan gallery owner Edward Winkleman. Actually misrepresenting one’s age, however, might make him suspicious of what else isn’t quite the case.

It may be embarrassing for some artists to be older and starting out, or to have not ever sold any work or to not have academic degrees in studio art or to not have any real exhibition history. Sins of omission are better than making things up or even feigning ignorance of the truth. Winkleman noted that bothersome to him and other gallery owners “is an artist doing something that is a deal-breaker and then pleading they didn’t know it was against the gallery’s terms for representation or that this exception was so bad.” The most common example of this is an artist selling artwork out of his or her own studio without informing the dealer and pricing that art below what the gallery charges.

Then there are instances of what might be called “prize inflation,” an example of which is the bronze sculptor in New Mexico who told an interviewer for a daily newspaper there that “she won first place – two different times – at the National Sculpture Society in New York City,” according to the article, which appeared in The Daily News in late March 2013. “One of our board members read that article and emailed it to me,” said Gwen Pier, executive director of the National Sculpture Society. “We keep records on our winners,” and while that artist did win modest prizes back in 1978 and 1982, “they weren’t first prizes.” At a distance of 30-plus years and 2,000 miles away from the Society’s headquarters, this might seem very minor. Still, the Society is a national organization with members all over the country, and artists should keep in mind that anything in print also is likely to end up online, shrinking the span between one place and another.

Pier noted that, when sculptors apply for membership in the Society, they are “juried on the basis of the merit of their work. Jurors aren’t very interested in reading the paperwork. They don’t care how old you are or what degree you have, or if you don’t have any degree.”

Various watercolor, pastel and plein air societies around the country all have their own definitions about what constitutes the acceptable form of their own media. These definitions become mandatory requirements for those seeking membership or to be included in an exhibition. “You can’t always tell from the digital file sent in with the application if opaque or white paint is used, but you can see it when the artwork is in front of you,” said Robin Berry, a member of the board of directors of the Transparent Watercolor Society of America. “Those works have to be removed.”

Juried arts and crafts competitions and fairs offer yet other opportunities for artists to be less than honest, usually not so much the information about themselves that goes on the application than about the artwork submitted. Show sponsors may stipulate that all items be new (that can be difficult to discern unless it has been seen in years past or is dated), that everything be original (giclee reproductions are often in evidence, occasionally touched-up with embellishments to appear more unique), that the artist be present at all times (assistants or agents for the artist, sometimes with fake identification, may fill in) and that everything be for sale (artists may price pieces too high in order to get around that). Artworks juried into a show as digital files may be switched for other pieces by the time the event opens (if the show sponsors happen to notice, they have a range of options, from approving the change to demanding the booth come down). “I walk around the festival with an iPad, comparing what is in the booth with the images that came in with the application,” said Katrina Delgado, artist director for the Coconut Grove Arts Festival in Coral Gables, Florida. Artists who have broken one or another festival rule will receive a warning and, on rare occasions, be told to take down their booths, she said.

Artists seeking to take part in fairs sponsored by Paradise City Arts Festival, which holds events in Marlborough and Northampton, Massachusetts, are required to submit five digital images of their work, and these are “judged on the basis of design, technical skill, originality, diversity and imagination,” according to the prospectus. However, Linda Post, founding director of Paradise City, noted that some artists “misrepresent their work through the images sent to us,” which is discovered at show time. There may be a handful of one-of-a-kind pieces in the artist’s booth, “and the rest are production pieces,” such as sets of identical plates and mugs. Those artists “get talked to” and perhaps are asked to take down some of the least unique items. Those artists whose violations of the rules are most flagrant are not likely to be included in subsequent shows.

“We have our hands full checking on people,” Delgado claimed, but her work is made a bit easier by other artists who help police these shows and “tell on each other.” The more competitive the event, the more likely other exhibitors will become whistle-blowers.

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” Pablo Picasso told an interviewer in 1923, but artists also need to adhere to a less lofty form of truthfulness. They must comply with stated rules, offer accurate information about themselves and their artwork, and avoid exaggeration in order that they will be trusted by collectors, dealers and shows sponsors. Even when the rules and questions seem unfair and arbitrary.

By Daniel Grant

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