12/18/2012 12:33 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Galleries, Labor and the Market

Critic and gallerist Mat Gleason recently penned a Huffington Post blog comparing art galleries and labor unions. His argument misrepresents the role of each in their respective industries, and in doing so he commits a disservice to artists.

Gleason's argument goes something like this: Labor unions negotiate with management in order to ensure the best possible wages and conditions for workers; similarly, gallerists negotiate with collectors to ensure the highest prices for works of art, which benefits artists. He then explicitly compares the Teamsters and Gagosian.

The fatal flaw in this reasoning is its faulty metaphor. Artists and laborers are analogous; but Gleason and Gagosian are management, not labor unions. Collectors are customers, not managers. Consider a member of the United Auto Workers union. He or she sells labor to Ford (what we will call management), who in turns sells the fruit of that labor to customers. The UAW does not negotiate with you when you go to purchase a car. Artists also sell their labor to a middleman who then markets and sells that product to a customer for a profit, this is called a gallery.

It's true that gallerists like to keep prices as high as possible, but so does Ford and any other capitalist. High prices for cars and paintings can result in higher wages for laborers and artists, but it's not guaranteed and it does not preclude exploitation. Labor unions exist to advocate on behalf of the workers with those they immediately sell their labor too. Gleason's reasoning would lead us to calling Ford a labor union. It's a remarkable argument.

An artists union would negotiate directly with Gleason and Gagosian on their behalf to ensure, for example, that the gallery doesn't take 50 percent of a work's sale price or that they provide health benefits to their artists. Such a union might also advocate on the behalf of gallery staff, who often earn terrible wages and receive no benefits. They would certainly take issue with the endemic use of free, exploitative and often illegal intern labor, which can have a deleterious effect on wages, employment and social mobility.

Earlier this year Teamsters Local 814 successfully fought on the behalf of Sotheby's art handlers to end a 10-month lockout and ensure modest wage guarantees at the auction house that conducts billions of dollars in sales. Are gallerists expected to picket themselves when their employees are unhappy? Is there reason to believe that gallerists are qualitatively different from business owners in other industries and should thus be entrusted with advocating for the rights of the labor they purchase? A fanciful notion indeed.

Car manufacturers and gallerists both have a role to play in society. They should not be vilified unless they do something villainous. But their should not be confused with those of others. They are both businesses that exist to make a profit for their stakeholders. Some businesses attain this goal ethically, some do not. Labor unions, NGOs, government regulators, lawyers and others can help level the playing field for workers who are at an extreme strategic disadvantage by themselves. At a time when wages are stagnant or declining, debt is skyrocketing, subsistence is becoming more difficult to ensure, it is irresponsible for Gleason to conflate management and advocacy, foreclosing on the possibility of economic equity in the art market.