The Worst New York Gallery Experience in History
I fully realize that beginning with that title is tantamount to throwing down a gauntlet to every artist who reads this, but bear with me.
In the end, you’ll be the judge.
For the sake of this article the events and the gallery discussed here. This is not an effort to protect the gallery, but an attempt to make this experience a little more universal. Remember, this could have happened to you. This was several years ago.
My tale begins with a common enough event… a charity auction. As artists, we participate in many such events. This one was particularly prestigious and national in scope. As luck would have it, my piece ended up in the live auction section and with spirited bidding created quite a stir. It was at this point that I was first approached by the “New York Gallery.”
“Your work is incredible!” they said, “We would love to represent your work in our Chelsea gallery and also take you to SOFA New York! ( A large art fair in NYC)
What a fantastic opportunity… finally New York representation… and at SOFA NY to boot! All seemed right with the Universe.
As a non-New York artist I share a commonly held belief that if I could just procure gallery sponsorship in the Big Apple that my career would definitely take a big leap forward. No longer would I be a regional artist; I would become nationally known. Naive perhaps, but I entered this ordeal with these rose-colored beliefs.
My first hint of unease came when the gallery insisted that I do an “Installation.” I knew that SOFA NY was not about installation work and neither was I at the time, but hey, what the heck? It’s about time I moved in that direction. Don’t all great artists? The gallery also claimed to have many clients who were museum curators who bought installation work. Ok…..done!
And video….. they want a video from me. Not just a bio…. but a video art piece. Great again! I’ve had a video I’ve wanted to do in my head for years, so here at last was my chance. The gallery owners say that they had numerous clients for videos who pay from $5,000 to $7,000 dollars for a single copy.
Ok….. sure… I was skeptical, but I wanted to believe so badly! Here I was heading to New York as a video and installation artist. Pretty cool, huh? Obviously, New York was just waiting for me!
Unfortunately, the Universe has a tendency to punish such hubris. Lessons need to be learned the hard way. Let me also clarify. This story is not about money… it is about the validation that a New York gallery can impart to those of us outside of New York.
I spent the next 6 weeks making all the components for the big day. My regular art is quite labor-intensive. Throw in the video and I was kept very busy until the day I left for New York.
Now the fiasco begins.
My team gets to the SOFA space an hour ahead of me and calls to say that no one from the gallery is there, and that all the artists are confused as to where to install.
We knew the exact size of the space for our installation, so they have measured and decide that only one space is the correct size. They begin to install.
I arrive to SOFA….. not as an observer as in years past, but triumphantly as an honored participant! I get to the space and discover that my space is the only space in SOFA that actually faces the wall… not the aisle where the people are.
The owners arrived about this time and tell me not to worry. Everybody sees everything at SOFA. “Jeez,” I think, “but what can I do? At least I’m at the show….and it won’t be the first time I’ve overcome bad placement in a show.” I’m just happy to be invited to this party.
Now that the owners have arrived it is clear that they have had a huge fight. They are a couple going through a painful and public divorce. For the purposes of this story we will know them as Joe Young and Joe Old.
Not surprisingly, Joe Old is the one with all the money, but Joe Young is the one with all the power. For some inexplicable reason Joe Young (and I mean young) has been given total control over the gallery, without a clue how to accomplish this. He is on a mission to become the cutting edge gallery in Chelsea. (see prior notes regarding hubris).
By this time my team and I have installed my work….. a little tight and very hard to find, but I’m at SOFA . So Joe Young says, “Hey, before you guys leave, could you help us move a pipe? Its another artists work, but its over at the gallery and we have to move it here.”
“Ok, sure. We’d be happy to help!” and besides, I’m dying to see the gallery space. (I know…. and no, I hadn’t ever seen the gallery).
It turns out there are six of us riding down in an SUV. Wow…this must be some pipe! This could not have been truer, as the pipe is 4ft high, 2ft. wide and 1/2 inch thick. This is one heavy pipe! With all of us helping (except the owners…who have strangely disappeared again), we get the pipe in the SUV. Now we enter the gallery.
It is in a wonderful building, filled with wonderful galleries. This is a good sign. This is a building I have always wanted to show in. Ok…. they have the smallest and most buried space in the building, but they are still here. We enter the gallery.
Standing in the middle of the gallery is a coat rack filled with coats and a picnic table covered in trash. Trash also covers the floor. Empty Coke bottles, mustard jars, Boone’s Farm, Cheez-Whiz…… it’s seems like some exploded leftovers from a Tennessee picnic.
“Oh my God!”, I say, “What on earth happened!?!?”.
“What do you mean?” they say, “This is an installation. Its all about consumerism.”
Oh Lord…. I remember when kids would put a box of S.O.S. pads on a pedestal and called it consumerism art…. is that fad back again? I sincerely hope not. Maybe I’m just out of touch; I mean after all, I’m a non-New York artist. What do I know?
My work has been thought out for weeks. Every piece has been scrupulously made and the installation subtly and thoughtfully tells a story common to us all. Maybe this heavy-handed consumerism approach is back again. I hope that I haven’t made a mistake!
OK…. home to bed… I want to get lots of sleep before the big day.
As I walk into the booth the next day, I see that the other artists showing with my gallery have had time to install their work.
Boy have they!
I should say that there is a glass artist, a wood artist and a ceramic artist sharing my booth (and who also share my fate).
In front of the booth they have forced the ceramic artist to put her work into a structure that looks like a puppet theater…. complete with red velvet curtains.
Next to me is another pile of picnic refuse as well. It seems that it is the brainchild of the gallery owner.
It’s what he thinks the wood guy should be doing. “It’s all about chaos theory,” he says. Well… I agree about the chaos part.
On the other side of me is a huge installation titled “Dictator.” This consists of two walls completely crammed with coffee mugs, t-shirts, pillows, thongs and boxer shorts with the word “Dictator” on them. Again….. its about consumerism (Ok..I get it).
The giant pipe is also there.
Well….. it’s now very very tight to get into the booth….. maybe five feet of entry space left. Let’s see….. how can they close it off more?
I know!…… let’s paint a foozball table grey and completely cover four of the last five feet of entry space.
And let’s put DVD players right at that last opening (although they never show the video that they had claimed they would show to curators).
The booth looks like a grocery store and a Thrift shop have mated. If you manage to wiggle in to see my work, it’s extremely difficult to see it at all because it is surrounded by so much stuff.
The owners have also hired three youngsters to “sell” at the gallery. One seems to know what she is doing…. the other kids just talk about who’s getting laid by whom while all the while congregating at the only one foot entrance into the booth.
Its now 5PM and the big black tie opening event has started.
All the big collectors, museum curators, etc. are there……. but not the owners of my gallery….they’ve been missing all day.
At 5:15; however, another 20-year-old kid runs in and says he’s supposed to be hanging there too.
He’s a painter….. and this is definitely not a painter’s show….. but up go his paintings.
Nothing makes sense in this explosion.
There is no theme, there is no order (and there is no way to get into the space).
The owners finally arrive towards 6PM. In the meantime the painter has begun to drink heavily.
The owners have decided that their space was too simple, so in order to create a “happening” they have hired a performance artist. She is from Italy. It is her job to walk around the entire event and put red dots on all of everyone else’s artwork. This is intended to create a buzz.
And buzz it creates…… people are getting very upset.
So upset that the security director escorts her out of the event. The security director believes that I am to blame because I am the only one at the booth (the owners and other artists are again no where to be found).
I assure him I am not; though this is not our last contact.
The painter…. very upset over the gallery’s seeming inability to sell even one painting, has really started drinking. In fact he has had five large wine glasses filled with Scotch.
The security director comes over to me again. “Is this your boy? ” he asks. “He’s peeing on the ground right over there. We are going to put him out for good.”
Dear God……he is certainly NOT my boy!
I had better at least try to get him into a cab. After all, he is one of my fellow artists from the gallery (The owners are still invisible).
I go outside and try to talk some sense into him and send him home to his girlfriend. He is immediately hot headed….. so I start to go inside. At this moment, finally, one of the gallery owners comes outside; Joe Old.
The painter is really wound up about promises not kept by the gallery. The painter takes a swing at the gallery owner and knocks his cell phone into traffic. The painter dives for it, narrowly missing being hit by a passing cab.
The painter grabs the cell phone, and throws it onto the roof of the neighboring building. He then turns around and punches the gallery owner full in the face. The gallery owner runs inside. Now I am left with a screaming, flailing kid on the middle of Lexington Avenue.
I’m holding him back as he rants.
It looks like I’m having a huge lover’s quarrel with my child bride.
As this thought crosses my mind, I look up.
There… on the corner… is the entire staff of the most prestigious gallery for my kind of work in New York. They do not look amused.
Great! …. perfect…. just what I needed to boost my career.
How on earth could this get any worse?
I know…. let’s have the cops join us, who have arrived on the scene with flashing lights.
The cops don’t know what’s happening; they are just responding to a call.
Their belief is that he and I are both creating a disturbance. I tell the cop that I barely know this kid, I’m just trying to get him a cab. The cop says that I have one minute to do so or he will run us both in.
I hail a cab and pay the driver $40 out of my pocket to get this kid to Brooklyn; why I will never know. The cops finally say that I can go.
By this time the huge black tie party is over… my collar is torn… and I’m out 40 bucks. Time to go home, lick my wounds, and try again the next day. Thus ended the longest day in my art career.
Day two started off much better. I was full of hope and determined to cast off the bad mojo from the first day. I arrived on time, and again… no owners.
But hey….who needs owners? I’m at SOFA NY… I can sell my own work. Which I did almost immediately. Three pieces in fact. Alright…. this is gonna be great! Then in comes the three staff members.
Now the booth is too packed to get into again. This is when the testimonials begin.
All throughout the day artists keep coming up to me and pulling me aside. “Get your stuff out while you can!” they’d say, or “I had to sue them to finally get my money!” This happened six times that day.
And these are artists I respect; Where were all these guys when I was asking about this NYC the gallery in the first place?
And it’s not just artists.
Its other gallery owners. They look at me consolingly and tell me how sorry they are for me. They, without exception, advise me to get my work out of there before the train wreck occurs. I sold nothing more that day; I left with a sick feeling.
Day three continues along those lines, only today it’s the other artists and gallery staff that offer tales of terror.
The most lucrative artist they show there tells me that while he has sold lots for them, he has yet to receive money. He is told his work is hanging in a millionaire’s home and that the gallery hasn’t been paid yet.
This was three months ago.
He also tells me that the owners are furious with me. “Why?,” I ask.
“Because you sold three pieces of artwork.”
Seems that if you sell artwork and they don’t, they get upset…supposedly because it points out they can’t sell.
Huh? They hadn’t even come to work that day till 4pm.
The woman whom they have hired to run the gallery is pretty sharp. She tells me the ship is sinking… try to get your work out ASAP.
She says that they are the laughing stock of the Chelsea art scene. This is their employee.
Lord knows we are a laughing stock here; except to the art collector who came into the booth to loudly accuse the owners of stealing a 100 dollar bill off of his dresser while they were in his home.
Day four is known as “Skank Day.”
The owners have decided that they need more attention. They decide to hire two 20-year-old girls and have them dress in thongs and skimpy t-shirts and hand out water bottles with the booth number on it.
Being that the average age of collectors attending the event is 65, you can imagine how well this is received. Enter my new friend (the security director); Out they go.
Today the owner yells at the staff, “We are NOT here to sell artwork…. we are here to sell the gallery!,”
That sure explains a lot.
Wish they had told me that going into this. I am standing in the middle of a three ring circus, and there is nothing I can do about it.
Word has gotten out about this train wreck. Everyone comes by to offer advice. Unfortunately, I can’t leave with my artwork because I have a contract with the gallery. People tell me to break my contract, but I know I can’t. I check into the booth before heading to the train station. Since before I’d arrived and all during this event I have told the owners how to move my work when they de-install.
Now as I leave they start freaking out… they are uncomfortable moving it. God knows what will happen.
I am writing this on the train returning home. I have no idea if I will ever see my artwork or my money ever again. The general consensus was that they will shortly file for bankruptcy and fold me into that. So much occurred that I didn’t even report here (in the interest of brevity). Suffice it to say they lied to me daily and obviously.
So….. you non-New York artists out there: Let this be a lesson to you all.
Learn the easy way for a change; not the hard way. Maybe being a regional artist is not so bad. And when you plan to stretch to the Big Apple, try and get a recommendation first. This was an incredibly costly mistake for me, but I won’t stop trying. You can be sure though…. the next time I will have a lot more questions to ask.