subtitled: In Which The Artist Bites The Hand That Feeds Him
The earliest exhibit and award I received after my undergrad degree was in 1999. This means I've been active in the exhibition world for about 18 years now. As an artist, I need galleries and museums to host exhibits of my work in order to successfully get my work out to where people (other than my immediate family) can see it. As art exhibition venues, galleries and museums need artists to supply them with a constant feed of new work for exhibition in order to stay relevant and to keep buyers and collectors coming in the doors. Just like many other relationships where the parties need one another, we often have awkward and dysfunctional relationships.
First off, I'd like to say that I have great working relationships with many wonderful galleries and museums. I've dealt with particular businesses, institutions and individuals who are top notch in this field. They truly make the art world respectable and professional. From small to large, they set the standard for all other exhibition venues.
Second, I have to admit that artists can be very difficult to work with. As a group, we are generalized as moody, anxious souls who often have special requests about almost everything. I do not often identify myself as one of the typical art types but I will admit I have worked right up to a deadline and delivered work screeching in on two wheels. I have forgotten to include paperwork as requested. I have even double and triple booked myself and asked to remove a sculpture from a show a couple of days early. I am flawed. I have been a bad arts professional at times.
Y'all, some of the people I've dealt with in the gallery/museum world make me look like an angel. I've had some experiences over these 18 years that still have me scratching my head trying to figure out what someone was thinking. In fact, I have this mental list of bloopers that I will share with an art friend when I'm reminded. An artist pal will ask me if I've applied to the big thing and I'll laugh and share my funny experience. I'm reaching an age when I suppose I can't count on my mental list to stick around so I thought it might be a good idea to form a list of these experiences and place them here for you to share. I'll leave out all of the identifying words and names so as not to embarrass anyone but I think it's only fair for other artists to know that these things happen so that when they have their own terrible experience, they'll know they're not alone. And just so you know, I've given this considerable thought before publishing the list. I've decided that any self respecting exhibition venue will agree that the infringements on this list are truly blooper worthy and that I'm not attempting to hurt anyone's business or embarrass them. Heck, maybe if you read this and you work with artists now or in the future, you'll be able to use these as cautionary tales to avoid any similar experiences. So here we go, I present to you, my hall of shame:
Just A Touch Up
I was invited by a cool venue to send several sculptures for a nice exhibit. The sculptures had to travel a good way across the country so I packed them super well. To be clear, I'm way overprotective of them. They are made of steel but the surfaces are pristine. This was back in the days of painting each sculpture with 8 to 10 coats of paint to get the right surface. With this process, the entire sculpture must be painted at the same time. There's no way to paint only one spot or one side. The overspray with this paint will result in a rough texture and it will not blend. This was a respectable venue and they made sure to inspect the work when it arrived and they even emailed me to let me know everything was in perfect condition. They also had insurance to cover any damage or loss that might happen during the exhibit. When the show closed, they sent me an email stating that one of the sculptures had tipped over during the exhibit. It fell against another sculpture and when the steel edge hit the steel edge, a tiny piece of paint chipped off. They even included photos to show just how small and tiny the chip was. The email said that since the sculpture was not really damaged, they were sure I could just touch up the paint in a second and it would be back to perfect condition. I had to repaint both sculptures at my cost. To be totally fair, this has happened many times but most venues don't have the courtesy to give me a heads up.
We Didn't Lose Your Entry, Promise
This group was making a big deal of their new exhibit and contest and they had blasted the region with calls for entries. There was, of course, an entry fee which allowed artists to submit several works of art for consideration. The fee is a fact of life as an artist and I understand that it allows the venue to pay a juror, award prizes and help with the electric bill. This is cool as long as my work is actually viewed by the juror. This particular exhibit and contest had been all but begging for entries and had pushed back their deadline twice in order to allow for more entries. By the time I entered, against my better judgment, the whole thing seemed like it was a train wreck. After a few weeks I started seeing artists posting things on social media about getting accepted. Once results are mailed out, you either get a "congratulations" email or a "your work was great but no thanks" email. I got nothing. I'm not the kind of artist who calls the venue on the morning of the notification date to complain, so I waited. While I gave it a week, literally every single person I knew who entered was accepted. Regardless of the type or quality of the work. I started to assume I was the only artist who would be rejected (I am my own worst critic). After a week I started trying to get in touch with someone at the venue to find out why I never received any sort of acceptance or declining email. I talked to a nice person who was completely dumbfounded. She assured me that my entry was not lost and that she would be looking into it immediately. Within 5 minutes after hanging up I received an email notification to my personal email address, NOT the one I used to enter the exhibit. The email was a "your work was great but no thanks" notification that was, I kid you not, copy and pasted into the email. There was no apology, only an excuse and the weird notification. I realize this will sound like sour grapes, but I know no artists who were rejected from the show. None but me. It is certainly true that it's possible that I my work was the only work too terrible to exhibit that year, but based on the way it all went down, I am sure my entry was lost and the copy and paste email was just a way of saving face.
You Want Guacamole With That?
I'll do my best to keep this one anonymous, but it will be difficult if you know anything about the regional art world. There was a big, big exhibit and it was the newest, biggest thing around if you believed the hype. It was a juried exhibit with huge cash prizes for the winners. The event was going to be so big, in fact, that it was going to take over the whole town with exhibits happening in several locations. Tons of us got accepted and we were all happy to think that we might be in the running for the big, big prize. After the acceptance notification there was an email with more details. It seems that every artist had different details based on where their work was to be exhibited. My small, shiny sculpture, I found out, was to be exhibited in the local Mexican restaurant. I'll give you a minute to let the magnitude of that settle in. With the contract information included, it became obvious that the Mexican restaurant, not the big, big venue was in charge of handling, insuring and exhibiting my sculpture. I swallowed my pride and shipped my baby off to the restaurant and it was displayed at least for part of the exhibition time. When the date came for the return of the sculpture no sculpture arrived. After a couple of nervous weeks I called the restaurant to inquire. They had no idea what I was talking about. I called the venue contact and explained. The person there freaked out and drove to the restaurant in a panic. After getting the manager on the phone the venue contact was instructed to find my sculpture in a box in the kitchen under a cabinet. It had something green splashed on it. I can only assume it was guacamole. The contact had no idea if the work was in the kitchen for the entire exhibit or not. Luckily I did get the sculpture back and the contact was nice enough to wipe off the green stuff.
A friend recommended a venue to me. He knew the new person there in charge of exhibits and he indicated things were moving in a positive direction. Always happy to have an exhibit, I sent off my information with a personal email. No response. I waited a long while and resent the info with another personal email indicating that I was hoping to establish that my email went through. This time I received a response that was kind and professional but seemed to imply a "thanks but no thanks tone". I can take a hint. I forgot it and moved on. A year passed and I received an email from the same venue contact congratulating me on my upcoming exhibit and asking for some information to put on their website for marketing. The email stated that they had sent a contract and to let them know if I had any questions. I had questions. Like, when was this exhibit that I was going to be in? I responded to the email with excitement and let the contact know that I had not yet received the contract but I would be looking for it. I also asked for the exhibition dates to make sure I wasn't going to double book individual works of art. The next day I received another email from the venue contact. It said, and I'm not making this up, "oops, I must have sent this to the wrong Doug McAbee. Sorry to get you excited." Ouch. That one hurt a little.
No Cash Value
I'm still torn about this one. I totally understand where it came from and I could see myself making a similar mistake. I just like to think I would have solved it a different way. I was honored to win the top award at a juried exhibit. This was particularly great for me because I knew many of the artists involved and it was a high quality show. I could not believe my luck when the award was given and my name was called. It's still a career highlight. The award was a cool certificate signed by the juror and the gallery owner. It's framed and hanging on my wall beside me. It was a great night. Slowly though, I started to wonder when I would get a check. Second place won a significant amount of money. Third place won a slightly less amount. How much more would mine be? I emailed the gallery after a few days to see when I might receive a check. After what must have been a great deal of awkward email silence, the response came. It seems as they were planning this event for the first time, they failed to factor in a monetary prize for 1st place. 2nd and 3rd had been paid out and there was no money left to fund a prize for 1st. Like I said before, this is totally a mistake I would make. But instead of finding a way to come up with something of a cash prize to erase the mistake, they just wrote it off to learning and moved on. I'm still very thankful to have won and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have just taken 2nd just to get the money. But sometimes these things happen and I think, this could only happen to me.
There are more but I think 5 is enough for a hall of shame. Maybe next time I'll tell you about the gallery in Seattle that went under and still has one of my sculptures they wont return. Or maybe I'll do my best to forget it and be positive.
I'll add this one thing for everyone's benefit: In each of these scenarios I was able to keep a cool head and say please and thank you. Mistakes happen and mistakes don't mean someone is bad. It means they're human. I have remained kind, professional and generous with grace in each situation. In many of these times, the gallery contact was also kind, professional and as graceful as possible. So when these kinds of things happen to you, keep that in mind.