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Karen Atkinson

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Ethics For Artists

Posted: 02/22/11 10:25 AM ET

The discussion of ethics in the art world has come up numerous times recently. Since all participants have a stake, I am going to start with my suggestions for artists. In another post, I will discuss ethics for other participants.

Having worked on just about all sides of the fence in the art world, I can say that I have run across the most amazing things being done to artists, as well as things artists do to each other. In the vertical career trajectory, climbing the ladder is taken very seriously by those climbing. Those at the top have to watch who is climbing up behind them, as well as who they are trying to step over to get to the very top. There are only so many options for getting to the top of one's career by the standards set up by the gate keepers. Gate keepers have their own set of rules to climb by. With everyone rushing to the top, and with only so many slots to fill, ethics often get overlooked. Here are some things I see often, and want artists to consider when making certain choices of how to proceed.

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Jacob's Ladder, William Blake

Treating Colleagues With Respect

Contrary to what some artists believe, curators, galleries, funders and the art world are not merely a support structure. They are, rather, partners in your creative pursuit. One unflattering aspect of many artists is their attitude of entitlement. They think the world "owes" them support, but it is simply not true.

If you are perceived as self important, you may get a reputation as difficult to deal with, and curators will lose interest, even if your work is strong. Respect their space. They have opinions and ideas of their own, and are not in the business of giving deference to ego.

Having good relationships with colleagues is important, and a collaboration is much more gratifying for both parties. Listen to what others have to say, and consider your role in the relationship.

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Charlie Brouwer, 2009, Old Salem, www.secca.org

Don't Be Selfish

Many artists are secretive about what they know and actively avoid sharing their knowledge. If you know an artist whose work fits the prospectus of an exhibition, by all means, let them know about it. Keeping information to yourself only hurts you in the long run. Artists who share information with each other get much further and develop excellent reputations. It is hard to be an artist, so be generous with your friends.

Don't Tread on Other Artists' Spaces

It is inappropriate to solicit interest in your work at someone else's event, or at a party. Handing out postcards to your show at someone else's opening is tacky. It is okay to give one or two to a friend, but do not stand at the door and hand out your announcements. If you share a studio with other artists, don't invade their studio visits with curators. That is their time. It's OK to say hello, but don't drag the curator into your own studio to look at your work.

Leaving a Gallery

How you leave a gallery can be really important. If your gallery has been supportive, treat them with respect and dignity. At least show appreciation for your partnership. Leave in a way that will honor your own integrity. Many artists leave newer galleries to partner with bigger galleries that have established reputations. Often an artist thinks the latter will help them advance their careers, but some smaller galleries will work harder for their artists than a gallery with a large roster. Do your research because this may not be the case for you, and gallery hopping will not necessarily strengthen your resume.

Reasons to leave a gallery are: not getting paid; your dealer is not actively pushing your work; other artists in the roster have lowered the quality of their work; personality conflict with the gallery or its staff; a breakdown in communication that cannot be rectified; or the reputation of the gallery changes.

Make sure when you decide to leave your gallery you have all the right paperwork and agreements in order. You will need to make sure the gallery returns all your work in a timely manner, pays you for any pending sales invoices, provides accurate records of all sales transactions of your work, and returns any materials, portfolios, or other things you have at the gallery. Depending on your relationship with the gallery, you may need to reconcile bills you owe to the gallery, like charges for framing or fabrication expenses.

Galleries That Tell You What To Make

Many artists have faced the dilemma of having their gallery dictate what kind of work they make. If a gallery encourages you to paint like another artist, or asks you to make five more of those yellow paintings because they sell well, you may be shortchanging your career. This kind of production decreases the value of important work and makes it appear as if you are just making work to sell instead of making work because it advances your practice. Think carefully before you go into production as a commercial artist.

On the other hand, if you have entered into an agreement with a gallery and the agreement stipulates that your work maintain its current conceptual/material attributes, you may need to renegotiate your contract or consider working with the gallery to make them better understand how your practice is shifting. Be true to your own vision, and change galleries if this persists.

Using Other People's Images

An ongoing problem, which has increased dramatically because of the Internet, is that artists use other people's images without giving the artist any credit, or not changing the image enough to make it distinct from the original. Copyright infringement is actually quite serious, so if you are not sure of what is legal and what is not, be sure to check out the GYST copyright section. www.gyst-ink.com

Also, while not illegal, making work that looks like someone else's is unethical. Sometimes this happens unknowingly. But, if you saw a great image in Artforum, and then you remade it as your own, you are charging into unethical territory. It is, of course, permissible to give homage to another artist and to demonstrate your influences, but be aware of the gray areas of appropriation.

Don't Steal Other People's Ideas

Here is an exemplary anecdote. A visiting artist came to an art school and did a lecture and studio visits. He met with a young artist whose work was very specific and distinct. A few months later, the visiting artist opened a show in New York that was a direct copy of the student's work. Since the visitor was a fairly well known artist, and few people knew the work of the student, the established artist got great attention. That is, until the students and faculty at the school made sure that the art world knew what had taken place. Needless to say, the established artist's reputation has suffered.

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Artist Martin Puryear, "Ladder for Booker T. Washington"

Giving Back

Showing at nonprofit organizations, which are generally supportive of emerging artists, is a good way to start out an art career. Nonprofits also tend not to require a percentage or take a small amount of any sales. If work does sell, it is smart for you to donate part of the sale of the work to the nonprofit, as they have spent time and money to support you. Once you are more established, consider giving back to those organizations that supported you at the beginning of your career. This way they can continue to support other emerging artists.

Do What You Say You Are Going To Do

If you say you are going to do something at a certain time, do not be late. If for some reason you have a really good excuse, call and let the other person know you are running late.

Other people have busy lives too, and if you do not show up with your work on time, you throw a wrench into everyone else's schedule and they are forced to work around you. You never know what kind of trouble you can generate when you do not follow through.

Desperation

A gallery owner can smell a desperate artist a mile away. Some commercial galleries thrive on desperate artists, asking them to pay fees for submitting work (see vanity galleries and juried exhibitions). Some galleries are now telling emerging artists that they will need to take 90 percent of the sales, giving the excuse that is costing them a lot more money to promote them as an emerging artist. Steer clear of any agreement giving you less than half of all sales!

Avoid appearing desperate. Don't send unsolicited work to galleries. Don't rush to sign contracts without reading them and having a lawyer look at them. Remember, all careers go through ups and downs. The trick is to stay smart and level headed in both good and bad times.

Bitterness

Exuding bitterness about your career is unhealthy and unproductive. It's hard to work with artists who constantly complain. If you are bitter, it is best to keep it to yourself.

The art world is a tough place, and you need to constantly work around obstacles, whether it is your health, a family issue or a job that gets in the way of being an artist. Instead of complaining, change your tactics, look at your career in a different way, and be pro-active.

Keep a diary, visit a therapist, and talk to a mentor. There are appropriate places to productively state and address your personal problems and flagging career.

Do Not Talk Shit

The art world is a teeny tiny place, and if you talk shit about other people at art openings, it may get back to them. Be wary of how you come across to others when you engage in this activity. Your personality can have a direct effect on whether people will want to work with you.

Be Professional

Your opening is an important time to have your sh*t together. Do not be unreasonably late. Most viewers come to see you, not just the artwork. If someone drives across town and they can only come early because they have somewhere else to be, and you are not there, they might not do it again the next time you have an opening. Also, do not get drunk at your own opening. Be alert and calm.

While it is tempting to only talk to your friends or family at your openings, be aware that this is a time for you to talk to people uninitiated to your work. If you are showing at a commercial gallery the gallery director will probably want you to talk with critics, curators and collectors in attendance. So say hi to friends and family, be gracious, but also work to promote your work, meet people, make connections, and talk to strangers.

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UK artist Banksy

Criticism and Rejection

Remember that if you are not getting rejected, you are not applying enough. Contrary to the typical emotional reaction, rejection should not be taken personally--and may not even be a reflection on the quality of your work. Always try to get feedback on your proposals. Some funders do not allow this, but most will offer comments and, even if it is not their policy to provide explanation, they will respect the question. It may simply be that they are still unfamiliar with your work, or they have recently done too many shows of work similar to yours, or there was not enough information in the application. It is also important to know that most funders have a committee of your peers (other artists, curators, etc.) who rotate with each review panel. Hence, the makeup of the review committee can greatly influence how your work is received. It could be that you just need a little more experience. Do NOT give up applying for grants and other funding. Do NOT give up on applying for shows. Doing your research and making sure your work fits the application requirements is one of the most important aspects of getting grants and exhibitions. If you find out why you were rejected, you may be able to make changes, and reapply next year.

When you make a follow-up call, especially following a rejection, make sure that the receiver has time to chat with you. Other people in the arts are often understaffed and very busy. Some foundations only have one or two employees. Be courteous, and if they are busy, ask them when you can call back. Do not argue with them and just listen. You can ask a clarifying question, but remain professional at all times. You can learn a lot from the experience.

Deception

Deception can ruin a career. Don't lie about your past achievements on your resume because doing this will eventually come back to haunt you. Don't make sales behind your dealer's back and don't lie to collectors about work. If you make art out of materials that will decompose, you should disclose this to your dealer, the curator and the museum. Do not misrepresent the materials. Getting sued over a good joke is no laughing matter.

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David Nash, Ladder, Espoo, Finland

Artwork on Private Property

Creating artwork on someone else's fence, house, or other property is an issue that you should consider. Graffiti and tagging may be a valid art form, but it is expensive to paint over and clean up. Public property is just that--public; consider how your work will affect others in the community. Always be respectful of private property.

Don't Take Advantage of Others

Making art that hurts others--such as hurting people to get a good image, or making children cry to get a great shot--should be considered carefully. If you are working with adults, get permission and make sure that they understand what you are doing. Get them to sign a model release form. If you are working with children you will need their parents to sign a release form. If you do work with kids or those who are challenged in some way, be very careful when using manipulative tactics. You have no idea what terrors you are setting up for their future.

Eco Art

When making landscape art, you should consider if you are actually damaging the flora and fauna. Making an ecological statement, while at the same time destroying the very thing you are working on, is a contradiction. This seems obvious, but it happens all too often.

Privacy

Any work that affects the privacy of an individual should be cleared with that person before being shown. This is the purpose of release forms. Also, consider what it means to use someone else's image in your work, and how it may affect that artist. Getting sued over the use of an image should always be avoided.

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Artist Kerry Skarbakka

Safety of Your Audience

Do not use materials that are harmful to you or your audience. Certain chemicals, mold, and other materials may severely affect people with allergies, people with weak immune systems, and children. If you need to use something that might be potentially dangerous, make sure you inform the audience and the gallery with noticeable signage. (See Experimental Materials section).

Documentation That Includes the Audience

It is important to notify your audience if you document your show and record interactive relationships with your audience. If an individual's likeness is clearly identified, you may want to get them to sign a release form.

Graphic Images

If you are showing work at a space where families gather, you may want to consider how to present the work if it is not appropriate for children. Signage is a good way to warn parents that they are entering territory that may be disturbing to children.

Graduate Work

Sometime galleries do not show work made in school, even if it is a graduate show. One reason is that they may be avoiding work that reflects a collaboration of ideas between faculty and peers. Some galleries will want to show work that is "totally yours". Also, certain funders prohibit support of student work.

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Chinese Ladder, unknown

Thank Those Who Support You

Everyone likes to be thanked. Be sure to thank the curator, dealer, or funder. You should at least thank them in person, but a nice note is really special. If you are in an exhibition that publishes a catalog, consider using this as an opportunity to thank those people who helped you with the exhibition. If you get rejected for a grant, or a show, writing a thank you note for allowing you to apply might help them to remember you in the future. If you do not get the teaching job, thank them for the interview. You do not have to be extravagant, just make sure that they know you respect their support.

Asking For Things

From time to time, you will need someone to write you a letter of recommendation. When you ask someone to write a letter, do NOT wait until the week it is due. If they say yes, be sure to send them all the pertinent details: who the letter should be written to and the description of what you are applying for. Make sure to give them plenty of time to write the letter. Be sure to include information about yourself, particularly if they have not seen your latest body of work, or if you have additions to your resume, which may be helpful in a letter. It is a good idea to keep in contact with those whom you may request a letter from. Consider how selfish it will appear to request support from someone you have not reached out to in a long time. Be generous, and others will reciprocate.

How To Treat Established Artists

It is not the job of your former teacher or other artists to get you into a gallery. If you ask someone to recommend you, do not do it out of the blue. Make sure that your colleague is comfortable with supporting your work, and do not expect them to say yes. Artists have a limited number of recommendations that they can use with the people they know. Do your homework, have them over to your studio, and try to wait for them to bring up the subject.

Art Agents

Beware of dealing with art agents. They may say they can help your career, but consider this:

An up and coming artist who was starting to do quite well in their career was contacted by an agency. They offered to help secure shows, do PR and basically make the artist's career. What the artist may or may not have known is that the agents were buying out the shows before they opened. The artists became so desired, because of this market manipulation, that he had shows set up all over the world. Once it was found out that the agents were dealing in fraudulent practices, it destroyed his career. Always be aware of your agents' practices.

Editions

There are laws that govern editions. Editions must be declared at the time they are made. Buyers must be notified of the number of editions in writing. DO NOT make additional prints or photos after you have declared the edition size. Be aware of the consequences of such actions.

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Artist Francesca Dimattio, "Ladder"

Blind Submissions and Approaching Galleries

Less informed artists tend to submit portfolios/packages blindly to galleries or art professionals in order to achieve some sort of instant fame. That is tantamount to sending a message in a bottle out to sea. Most success in the art world is made through being active in the art community and through its extensive referral system.

No gallery owner, director, assistant director, or intern will do a bunch of busy work for you for free, including critiquing your art, web site, making suggestions about how to have an art career, and connecting you with their collectors/clients/curators. A dealer will only do the above after representing you as an artist in their roster and after a business relationship is established. Otherwise, why would a dealer suggest someone to their business clients without knowing who you are, what you are capable of producing, how you are to work with, how you handle deadlines? They need to know what you are like in person, and how your reputation is regarded in the larger art world. Regardless of what a dealer thinks of your art, they will not jeopardize their existing business relationships and reputation by referring a complete stranger.

Instead of wasting your own time and the time of a gallery, focus on art-making by getting into the studio, having studio swaps with colleagues and peers, volunteer at a local nonprofit, go to art openings, go to local lectures/symposiums that are of interest...basically engage with the community. Along the way, you will meet plenty of people, make connections, and open the doors to many opportunities. This is a tried and true way to get galleries, sales, teaching referrals and all kinds of other good stuff for your career. The art business works on connections and referrals. So be on your toes, be generous, and above all, be a professional.

Shady Collectors

Some collectors may try to negotiate with you at an opening to try to get a price break. Beware of this practice, as it may violate your contract with the gallery, whether written or implied. Send the buyer to the dealer and let them work it out. After all, it is the gallery's responsibility to sell at their venue.

Some "collectors" may artificially inflate their importance to get steep discounts. Never sell yourself short. It's ok to give small 10-20% discounts for known collectors, but anything more than this is unnecessary.


Karen Atkinson is the founder of GYST Ink, a faculty member at CalArts, and teaches professional practices workshops around the country.

For more information on professional practices for artists, see the GYST (Getting Your Sh*t Together) website at http://www.gyst-ink.com.

 

Follow Karen Atkinson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GYSTInk