THE BLOG
05/26/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2014

White Lies? Fibs? Tall Tales? Just Tell the Truth

"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 J. Findlay Fine Art 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."

"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.