Archive for November, 2008

I could be wrong, but I’m starting to see a darker side to art galleries – at least, the ones that specialize in Northwest Coast art. If you are a potential customer, you are unlikely to see this side. Most of those who work in a gallery are as passionate about the art as the customers, and – especially if you are a returning customer – will happily talk for hours. I wish, though, that I could be sure that the artists receive the same courtesy. I’m starting to wonder.

This doubt began to flicker when I first became aware of a common figure in the galleries: A first nations person – almost always a man – hovering around a gallery, looking as though he feels out of place. Sometimes, such a man has a knapsack or even a large duffel bag that he lays very carefully on the floor. If he doesn’t, at some point he will take out a carefully wrapped bracelet or other piece of jewelry from his pocket. Typically, he waits until the gallery is mostly deserted, and then gingerly approaches the nearest gallery employee. He is, of course, an artist hoping to make a sale, and his manner is very much that of a supplicant, nervous if not outright afraid.

Then, yesterday, a gallery owner regaled me with stories of how artists used to be lined up outside his door in the morning. Sometimes, he said, there would half a dozen in line, including many famous ones. The first one or two might make a sale, or even the first three, but, after that, the owner said, he usually lacked the money and was suffering from too much sensory overload to buy anything else. So, at least half the line would have waited hours for nothing.

At the same time, I’ve heard grumbling from several artists. Sometimes, they’re talking about how they feel that a particular gallery has cheated them. But, just as often, it’s grumbling against the gallery system in general. They complain that the galleries sell their work for three times what they were paid for them. And the younger ones especially complain that no major gallery for Northwest Coast art in the province is owned by a member of a first nation (although perhaps Alano Edzerza’s new gallery will change that).

I don’t want to be dramatic, but such scenes make me uncomfortable. Not only are the artists at the hub of the system, but Northwest Coast art is an assertion of identity — both personal and cultural — for many artists. It’s an assertion that, despite everything, they and their culture are still here, and being respected. Yet the scenes are not so different from those associated with day-laboring farm workers. Not that people doing piecemeal work aren’t entitled to dignity – they obviously are – but it seems an added injustice that people who are the main producers, people of real talent and sometimes genius should be subjected to this kind of treatment. Yet some don’t even feel at home in the places where their work is being displayed.

Not all, of course have this reaction. Some artists are capable of handling the gallery system with skill and finesse. Others hire someone who can do the business of selling for which they personally have no aptitude. Still others either have enough talent or reputation that a gallery will adopt them and do everything in its power to promote them. But many aren’t so lucky, and they resent the situation without feeling that they can do much about it.

I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe galleries can be justified as a form of promotion that ultimately helps artists’ careers. But I’m starting to think that more artists need to learn more about business so that they can hold their own. Or maybe more Northwest Coast artists need to become gallery owners themselves. Others might group together to form an online co-operative and create a market for their work that bypasses the gallery system.

Personally, I am listening to the artists, trying to separate out individual animosities from trends in the hopes of finding which galleries, if any, are the most ethical. I am also starting to wonder if I should be dealing more with the artists directly – although I’m not much for negotiations myself, even if I have some experience with them. It’s not a situation that has clear answers, but I won’t be easy about my art-buying until I have some.

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