The Estheticist (Issue 6, December 2010)

The Estheticist is a free ongoing service of art consultation around practical, philosophical and ethical issues around the visual arts profession. To ask a question, email estheticist [ at ] Participants accept that their questions may be used for this monthly blog and/or for a book that will serve as a professional development tool for emerging professionals in the arts. Your question will be treated confidentially and it will appear as anonymous unless you specify otherwise.

To see previous issues click here.

Dear Estheticist,

I would be interested to hear about secondary market royalties for artists.


Judith Schaechter

Dear Judith,

For your question, I turned to an expert on the issue. According to attorney Franklin Boyd, Founder and Director of Boyd Level ( a financial and legal advise firm for artists and collectors):

“1. Yes, certain states mandate that a dealer disclose purchaser information to an artist. See for instance California Code Penal Code Sec 536 and 536(a): There is no explicit under New York law. Query how valuable this is as certain collectors will buy through 3rd parties or entities (e.g. an LLC or LP set up to hold the art work).

2. Also yes, and in fact it is law in California, Europe and most of South America. It is sometimes known as “droit de suite”. This is pretty easily researched on-line (also search “artist’s resale royalty right”. As for as the US goes, there was a big push to make it a federal law in the 1970s/80s, led by Ted Kennedy and Robert Rauschenberg. As to the why this is a bad idea, I’d suggest an excellent article by John Henry Merryman entitled the “Wrath of Robert Rauschenberg.””


The Estheticist

Dear Estheticist,

I am an associate curator at a well-known contemporary art museum. I am committed to showing new and emerging artists, and I steer away from the old suspects, or artists that are already getting plenty of attention- not only does that turn me off, but I always find it much more interesting to find new blood. However,  I am finding it extremely hard to convince my colleagues that a particular artist without pre-existing art world credentials should be shown at this museum.  I am told that these artists are more appropriate for alternative spaces or smaller venues. I have been curating for a while now and I don’t believe that the quality of the work is an issue, nor can my colleagues suggest that —they just can’t quite articulate why we should be showing a yet unknown artist. I can’t help but feel that my colleagues are generally afraid of taking risks and actually lazy in their selections —they basically chose from a list that has already been pre-selected by them by the establishment ( magazines, galleries, collectors, other museums like us, and yes, alternative spaces and smaller venues) to the point that our shows are almost completely predictable and we turn more into a seal of approval than a deliberative body of curators. This attitude also seems to enter in conflict with the public mission of the museum, which his to display the most cutting-edge art today. As for me, I know that my colleagues are starting to see me as too out there, curatorially reckless, and perhaps even dangerous. I want to stick to my beliefs, but it may cost me my job.  Am I really in the wrong place and my colleagues are right? Should I just accept the fact that large museums simply cannot be experimental?


Curatorial Maverick

Dear Curatorial Maverick,

Based on the information you are providing, sounds like you are doing a good job at challenging your colleagues about their decisions and their taste. As far as I am concerned, a curator that provokes debate and discussion amongst their colleagues is doing the job.  However, and even if this may sound paradoxical, you might also be in the wrong place. You have encountered a classic problem amongst large contemporary art museums, who want to be at the forefront of the field but who at the same time have a hard time experimenting. This is due to a number of reasons: first, because they are too big to fail, and experimentation comes at a very high cost (a show that is a flop at an alternative space is no biggie; but the story changes when you depend on high attendance numbers and revenue). Second, because the curatorial team they attract are mostly focused on connoisseurship, which is the skill that helps put together a good art collection. Thirdly, quality in art is, to an extent, socially constructed: it is part of a wider consensus of the criticism, collector and curatorial milieu, and to operate on a strictly individualistic form as a curator, while courageous, may appear strange to some. The artists that you are suggesting have no known “provenance” but instead are unknown quantities, which may make them suspect to your colleagues.  It is true that art history tells many stories of maverick curators who introduced then-unknown artists into the market and thus made history. However, this actually is not very common. In contrast, you don’t hear too much of the (much more numerous) stories of curators who championed artists who have completely been lost in obscurity (along with the curators who championed them).  While every curator wants to be a visionary, it is hard to do so at a large institution, and may as well be seen as reckless as you infer, even if you are not told so explicitly. My suggestion to you is to continue pressing for the artists you believe in, that you pick and chose your battles, and consider making some compromises if they don’t alter the integrity of your project ( in the end you have to be a team player and can’t treat a museum gallery as if it were your personal living room).  And if none of that works, I suggest you try finding a job at a smaller art institution. I am sure they will take you— the art world desperately needs curators who think like you.


The Estheticist.

Dear Estheticist,

I never really believed that people have sex with gallery directors for shows, figured such stories were products of the desperate, envious and exhibitionless.

But naive me, imagine — it happens! This could be viewed as:

(a) Wow man, a totally awesome expression of two individuals with souls so liberated and limitless that they might even be folding themselves back into highly conservative tropes (see taco, time-travel theory)

(b) An abuse of power, akin to sleeping with one’s therapist

(c) The Way the Art World Works

(d) What it is

My question is not which is most accurate, but instead what is the responsibility of the witness, the citizen, the onlooker?

Anonymous, Croton-on-Hudson

Dear Anonymous,

Your comment reminds me to a famous anecdote attributed to George Bernard Shaw (and sometimes to Churchill) that goes this way:

GBS: Madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?

Actress: My goodness, Well, I’d certainly think about it.

GBS: Would you sleep with me for a pound?

Actress: Certainly not! What kind of woman do you think I am?!

GBS: Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.

The moral of this (likely fabricated) anecdote is that, while most of us may cringe at the thought of sleeping our way up the social ladder, we do tend to make dubious concessions all the time over the course of our professional lives, sometimes inadvertently. I was recently accused by a blogger of presenting an art work at an art space that had received a grant by a foundation that belongs to a bank that engages in evil control of the market. ( It had never occurred to me to check the list of the funders of the space, and of the funders of those funders, and on the personal habits of the CEOs of those companies that support the funders of those funders, etc.). Strictly speaking, in terms of the Shaw anecdote and according to this blogger, I prostituted myself, and it only remains to be determined how aggravating were the terms in which I did so. Granted, there is a difference between exhibiting at a place with thrice-removed unpleasant sponsors and  overtly using sex to further one’s career. But each person’s situation is different and it may be hard to judge a legitimate love affair from a cynical career move.  We can get very righteous about it, but you may have a hard time arguing where you draw the line.

And so, in terms of what you should do about it, the answer is: probably nothing. To “denounce” a social climber generally its unnecessary, as most people can recognize one a mile away anyway, and it may only reflect poorly on you as you may be seen as a gossip or simply envious. As long as it doesn’t affect you directly, the civilized thing to do is to continue to focus on people’s work and not on their personal lives. And if the work is bad, you shouldn’t support it anyway, regardless of what sort of peculiar bedroom habits the individual has.


The Estheticist

Dear Estheticist,

I’ve been told my work is important in major conversations going on in the art world by almost everyone who looks at it.  I know a lot of people, I go to openings & after parties, I’m friendly, but I’m absolutely sick & tired of 1) not EVER selling ANY work and 2) not being curated appropriately.  I’ve had tons of shows in and around NYC (groups & one solo in SoHo), went to Skowhegan, have had big fellowships, the whole nine yards, but still am sitting here broke with the work just stacking up like crazy in my studio.  I feel like the next major step is to find the RIGHT curators & collectors to come through my studio.  Unfortunately, there is no  I know patience is a virtue, but dammit I’ve been living in NYC since LAST August and the story is the same.  What am I doing wrong?


Dear B.C.,

Its very simple: you need to focus more on your work.

If its any reassurance , there are many artists in NYC who have been here not only since last August, but since August of, say, 1967, making lots of significant work and they, too, still don’t have a gallery, don’t sell much, and have not gotten their due recognition.  What you are doing wrong is to obsess with instant success, which is a sure recipe for despair.  The one undeniable fact about success is that it will never come when you expect it. You seem, however, to have started a promising career, so you should not undermine what you have already built by waiting for Godot.  While it is good to be ambitious, you have to also be realistic.

I would first suggest that you find some ways to stabilize yourself financially, so that takes a bit of the stress of having to sell work at this point; perhaps taking a part-time job ( you may get to the stage where you sell your work more or less regularly, but that is unlikely to happen in a few months). Second, what matters is not what people say about your work but what they do about it. Let’s face it: we all praise each other in the art world; so sometimes its hard to know if people really mean it, if they only somehow mean it, or if they don’t mean it. So, you should carefully approach those who you say praise your work and ask them what kind of opportunities they can help you get – exhibitions, studio visits by curators, etc.  but most importantly, as I said is to focus on your work – without doing that, you will have nothing to show. You will know when you have produced a small hit ( or a big one): you live in NYC, where good art is hard to hide: as long as you are active showing somewhere, if you have really strong work it will get seen. It may happen tomorrow, but you may actually have to wait a few more Augusts.

Finally, regarding not being “curated” properly: before you jump into an exhibition opportunity, take a second to analyze it: does the curator know what he/she is doing?  If the curatorial premise is very lame or the show not something that you would support, would it hurt more than help to participate?


The Estheticist.

Dear Estheticist

I have just started to work with a gallery, not formally represented by them but they wanted to have some pieces at the gallery and all has been a verbal agreement so far. 
Turns out they did sell my pieces but at a higher price than the price we talked about and they will not tell me who bought them. Should I get 50% of what they sold for or what I agreed to (lower price)? 
Do artists have any legal rights to know who their art is sold to?

Not feeling great about this relationship so it may be very short lived.


Doubting Thomas

Dear Doubting Thomas,

Regarding the 50% arrangement : it’s a contractual issue. You should have previously agreed with your gallery that the piece should sell at a minimum/maximum price, and that you would get 50%.  Otherwise they are engaging in a unethical, but not illegal, practice.

If the price was stipulated through a contract and they changed the price, you would have right to sue;  however this may not be the most beneficial course of action for you. In this case, sounds like you are dealing with a sleazy gallery so it may not be doing nothing for your career. Best is to end this relationship.

Regarding knowing who your buyer is: depends where the gallery is located. It is law in California and most of Europe to disclose the buyer to the artist, but New York law is not explicit about it.  In any case, if the gallery hides the name of the buyer to you it is an unethical and shady gesture that gives you the more reason to look for another gallery.


The Estheticist

Dear Estheticist,
Is China really the new New York and Auction Houses the new Museums?


Stuck in the Past

Dear Stuck in the Past,

Again, not being an expert on Chinese Art, I asked this question to Barbara Pollack, who is the author of a recent book, “The Wild, Wild East: an American Art Critic’s Adventures in China”. Pollack replies:

“Yes,  China is the new New York,  with bigger artists studios,  galleries,  and collections than you can find in New York these days.  First,  there’s the market,  which continues to grow even when there was a recession in the international art market.   Beijing has become a hub for art dealing for all of Asia with over 200 galleries from Japan,  Korea,  Indonesia,  as well as Europe and the US opening there.   There’s a real sense of internationalism which makes New York seem provincial.  But also,  artists are flourishing there, despite some kinds of censorship still in force,  because of the unbelievable economic resources available to them there.  There are now too many art movements happening in China to be easily contained under the rubric of “Chinese contemporary art”  and I predict that like New York in the 1950s,  China will spawn the major innovations in art for the 21st century.” My caveat on this regard — and not intending to comment on the Chinese phenomenon–  is that I would be skeptical that the historical moment of New York overtaking the art world would be replicated again, anywhere— the art world is too fragmented today and it would be difficult to minimize the importance of globalization in thinking of a single location as the center of art (note also that comparing  a c

Regarding Auction Houses as the new museums:  As far as I understand the argument, it goes like this: 1. auction houses have museum-like spaces where they show their works; 2. the production value of these are equal or even superior than most museums; 3. today some museums are turning to private collectors to showcase their collection; 4. Auction houses are now “curating” auctions. Conclusion: the frontiers between church and state are falling.  While actually are the previous statements are true, they purport to present an inevitable conclusion by omitting more abundant and significant facts. Auction houses are about making money, not about fulfilling an public mission as it is the case of most museums; unlike auction houses, who don’t collect, museums collect and preserve art for future generations; auction houses cater to the most affluent individuals, while museums see as their mission to serve the wider public; auction houses’ education programs are, like their auctions, about making money, while museums offer a vast array of programs for all ages.  The list goes on. Museums can be demonized as much as possible, but the capital they produce is cultural and educational, while the auction house is for collectors. And yet, indirectly, this is a hepful phrase for those of us who believe in the educational role of museums; those museums who have shown private collections like the New Museum (which is not even a museum) and which have given a chance for auction houses to compare themselves with the non-for-profit world, only build the case for museums to pay more attention to their education program, which truly should be at the core of their mission.


The Estheticist.

Dear Estheticist,

What happens when you leave New York?



Dear X,

Depends on what terms you leave it. If you made it there, it doesn’t matter where you live afterward. If you didn’t make it, it’s like a curse: it will become an obsession to go back to get the job done.


The Estheticist.

Tags: , , ,

One Response to “The Estheticist (Issue 6, December 2010)”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aaron Landsman, Pablo Helguera. Pablo Helguera said: The Dec. issue of the Estheticist is out: […]