Saturday, May 30, 2009

Vanity and Shame

Transcript of recent interaction between myself and Ico Gallery:
Dear Stephanie Lee Jackson,

I recently been introduced [sic] to your work online, and I must say I'm very impressed. After reviewing your website, I'm extremely interested in finding out more about you and the process of your work. I feel that your work would be a grand addition to Perceptions Of Reality, which is our September collective exhibition that uses the Surrealist ideology of entering a different cosmos, and combines it with that of abstraction and Fauvism, which in effect will create an alternate view of reality, previously unexplored by one artist. This exhibition will the inaugural exhibition in our new flagship location in our extravagant ground floor 3,000 sq ft gallery in Chelsea.

[two paragraphs of pretentious blather about "renaissance," which, in case you didn't know, is a French word meaning "rebirth."]
Upon perusal of the attached proposal, I found the real reason for this 'career opportunity': $2500 in fees. I replied posthaste.

Get a clue. And take me off your mailing list.
Vanity galleries are like Nigerian 419 scammers; usually they crawl back into the woodwork like cockroaches when confronted with the truth about their business practices. I was thus rather surprised to receive a reply.
You do realize why you're [sic] resume is non-existent, right? With an attitude like that, you will not make it in the business of art!
My first impulse was to press the 'delete' button and forget about it. But I have been making a habit, lately, of stating my boundaries when strangers try to shame me, even though this may come across as hysterical and overengaged; it is helping me eradicate the bad habit of taking jerks too seriously.
Hello, could you BE any tackier?

I know enough about the 'business of art' to know that artists who show with galleries that charge thousands of dollars in fees never get any artistic respect, and are unlikely to recoup their fees in sales, because galleries that charge fees have less incentive to build a collector base; their overhead is already covered. They also prey upon artists with 'non-existent resumes' because they are looking for the ignorant and the insecure who haven't yet figured this out, and are thus vulnerable to their scams.

Genuine, respected art dealers make studio visits, spend time getting to know their artists, and build a consistent program over time. They don't do online searches and send out flattering (at first) emails to every random artist they find. This isn't the first solicitation I've received from you; you need to keep a better database.

My 'attitude' is generally just fine, thank you very much. I am just sick of being an object of predation for every fool with an MBA and cultural pretensions. If you believe in art, put your money where your mouth is and start a real gallery. Select your artists for their skill, passion and commitment, not their economic idiocy, and treat them decently. Which means NOT charging them fees.

Good day.
This is pretty much the basic screed, which any artist ought to know by heart. What I want to point out, though, is the levers which predators of all stripes use to control people.

Note in their first contact, the fulsome level of flattery; this is the sort of thing that every adolescent assumes will come as their just due--say, when they first upload their work to Saatchi Online. You have to be working a few years, and have your illusions shattered a few dozen times, before you truly understand that nobody will EVER come across your work online, or on the street, or in a restaurant, and be so blown away that they offer you a Chelsea exhibition and thousands of dollars per piece. (Unless you are Swoon, or Barry McGee. And I'm not even sure that both of these artists are solvent.) Our culture is too saturated with images for that to happen. Plus, anyone who thinks they truly understand what an artist's work is like from an online image doesn't understand visual art at all.

Then, of course, once their cover is blown, out come the nasties: "You do know why your resume is nonexistent, right?" People who use flattery as a tool are highly prone to use humiliation as a weapon, since these are two sides of the same coin. Simply, they're trying to shut me up by hitting my most vulnerable spot.

And the reason I'm posting about this at length, online, despite the fact that it showcases my lack of career success, is that vanity and shame are the forces which keep most of us isolated, helpless, and ultimately unsuccessful. Predators can only survive when they've got a steady supply of weak, ignorant victims who don't share information. Once we learn to step outside of our egos and ask ourselves, "hey, what's this person's agenda? What's the bigger picture? Who is profiting, and who is the loser?" it makes us much harder to manipulate. Then maybe the vanity galleries will disappear--not to mention the vanity governments.


Spatula said...

Ugh. I sent out inquiries to some galleries and the only one that was happy to meet with me wanted to sell me "PR services" which entailed my buying a page of coverage in a vanity magazine the gallery publishes. In addition to selling gallery space.

This was in NYC. I'm sure lots of people in the art world there prey on the naivete of someone thinking that just because they had a show in New York, or a mention in a magazine published there, a career will somehow get going.

I really like your analysis of the predatory techniques involved. I think non-vampiric people have to band together and pool their knowledge of how evil operates! It's the latter's greatest nightmare.

I met a guy once who set off HUGE alarms in me. HUGE. At the time I didn't understand why I felt that way: he was mild-mannered, worked in some kind of writerly capacity somewhere, and showered me in compliments. And yet every time I interacted with him, my inside would scream to get away from him.

Luckily I wasn't terribly involved with him beyond a very superficial acquaintance when he exploded into an ugly meltdown in a social circle we shared, and I said to self: "Self, note: obsequiousness and unusually intense flattery are Portents of Bad Things to Come."

It wasn't until I read The Gift of Fear and Influence that it became clear - flattery is a psychological tool used to win trust, so when someone flatters, my first question is, "what does this person want from me?"

I didn't connect it to shame, though, but you're right - they are linked. And in both cases, the person assumes the right to be the Arbiter of Your Worth.

Rathsgeber said...

You go. And good for you, telling those people off. Not that they probably read too much of it once they figured out that you weren't begging them for a second chance, but I think scumbags should be occasionally told that they're scumbags. It might even do them some good.

I see very similar things in screenwriting ("We are certain that we can sell your script, if you just pay us $500 to edit it first...") and heard about them in other fields. The advice usually boils down to one of those simple, but difficult, truths--you have to believe that your work is worth something. If your work is worth something, then they should be paying you, not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

Hey PL,

I've been privately masticating this very topic lately... and I don't have a vanity gallery to externalize onto. Long story short, it's dawning on me that my primary artistic motivations are all about traveling this vanity/shame axis.

It's a really hard lesson.

Here's to banishing vanity galleries--both internal and external.

Pretty Lady said...

Spatch, unfortunately it's nearly impossible to get a good NYC dealer interested in your work if you don't live here. (And only slightly less impossible if you DO live here.) Not only do they need to be able to make studio visits, the sad truth is that it's much, much easier to pack openings and sell work if the artist has a lot of friends in town. Bonus points if those friends are wealthy.

I think of that obsequious personality type as the "Grand Vizier archetype," from a recurring character in The Arabian Nights. I had no understanding of why anyone would behave that way, as a child reading the stories, but after encountering a few real-life versions I learned to spot them and flee from them.

RJ, from the number of people I know who routinely send scathing replies to solicitations from vanity galleries, I think the people who run them must have both extraordinarily thick skins, and a wholesale contempt for artists. On my bleaker days I really do believe that most of the world conspires to suck us dry, except that this is not unique to artists, merely a human condition.

Deborah, I've been trying to learn that lesson for a couple of decades now, and keep flunking the class and having to take it over again. But surely it's worth learning, because what could be on the other side of it except freedom?

Besides, I think that if our ONLY motivations were vain ones, we'd break a lot sooner. There's got to be something else going on as well, and the vanity is just one of nature's tricks to get us to sign on to its agenda.

Chris Rywalt said...

Hm. I don't think I've ever connected flattery and humiliation the way you have here. Very perspicacious of you. They are two sides of the same coin -- how could I have missed that?

I've been getting more vocal in general with people who do dumb things. I don't think it helps anyone, and I suspect it's against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Scout Law which I recite every week; but lately I've feeling more than I can't let people continue to be freely inconsiderate. For example, yesterday I had words with a woman who had double parked outside of the cones in front of my kids' school. I felt someone should point out to her that the cones mean "do not park here", not, as she apparently assumed, "park in the middle of the street".

I expect someone will punch me in the face any day now.

LXV said...

I'm confused about the vanity/shame thing. For me to acknowledge that vanity is a good thing is a major step forward. It propels me out of the stranglehold of my puritanical inheritance. But shame is not the flip side. I think it is rage at being ignored. PL said "There's got to be something else going on as well, and the vanity is just one of nature's tricks to get us to sign on to its agenda." I'll take any trick that works because it's so hard to keep going sometimes (as we all well know).

By the way, Joanne Mattera recently posted a blog about the abuses of vanity galleries which generated lots of lively comments. You might want to check it out HERE

Chris Rywalt said...

Lady Xoc, I don't think PL is saying vanity and shame are flip sides of the same coin; just that, if someone tries to manipulate you using vanity, then they'll flip to using shame also. Flattery and humiliation are the flip sides.

Oriane said...

The word vanity is a little vague. Developing a little vanity, or pride, can be a good thing for someone with low self-esteem. Maybe I'm thinking of ego, not vanity. I think ego is part of the impulse to make art, and that's not all bad. It's part of who we are. Evolutionarily, people with bigger egos are more successful and pass on their genes more frequently. It's a question of balancing the ego with something like altruism.

Oriane said...

Hi Chris! Look, we're part of the same conversation! At practically the same! That's almost like being in the same room together. And the world hasn't imploded.

Oriane said...

Oop, that should say "at practically the same time." But I'm sure you got the gist.

Pretty Lady said...

Lady Xoc, I think you're confusing vanity and self-esteem. Vanity is needing to control the way you are seen by other people; self-esteem is valuing yourself no matter what other people think.

And as Spatula so trenchantly puts it, vanity and humiliation are two sides of the same coin because they both hand off your valuation to the perceptions of other people, rather than any set of absolute principles.

Anonymous said...

I think this is terrific. It is inspiring and damned insightful. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Pretty Lady,
I just received the same email from ICO gallery for a different show - but with word-for-word the exact same opening sentences. My first reaction was "I hate vanity gallery spammers" and then, frankly out of boredom, looked them up and found your post when Googling details on the gallery...

My question to you - did your email have the following disclosure at the bottom? If not, then they may be reacting to being called out for what they are:

"The content of this e-mail is confidential and may be privileged. It may be read, copied and used only by the intended recipient and may not be disclosed, copied or distributed. If you received this email in error, please contact the sender immediately by return e-mail or by telephoning (212)******, delete it and do not disclose its contents to any person."

Your likening to the Nigerian scammers is amusing, but partially (disturbingly) accurate ~ although technically legal, vanity galleries are merely another business that taking advantage of those with high expectations and aspirations, but not necessarily experience.

-Sarah P.

PS. I love your blog...I have read your posts before - you are a witty, articulate, and direct lady, too. Thanks for writing.

Pretty Lady said...

Sarah--BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA! The message I received did not, in fact, have this disclaimer. Since I blocked all further email correspondence from them I can only assume that their threats never reached me. Too bad for them.

And thanks!

Anonymous said...

I realise the latest post here from sarahpetruz is quite old now, but I have just received a similar email from the same (Ico) Gallery as she did.
Being in the habit of googling such 'out-of-the-blue' offers as a rule of thumb first, I found your wonderful blog, and needless to say I haven't replied to their mail (which I have pasted below);)
I totally agree with your astute summise of the 'vanity/shaming' thing (also the analogy to 419ers seems wholely appropriate too!).
In short, it seems they are still getting away with these scams, sadly, but I for one won't be preyed on by or victimised by such low-life...
Thanks so much for blogging this, and keeping the topic alive also:)
Here is my work, and how they found me(take out the *** for correct URL):
Note the 'carefullly worded' phraseology used in the email to circumvent the 'payment' thing:

I am a representative of Gallerie Icosahedron Inc. based in New York City. We have reviewed your work online and would like to make you aware of our services as well as discuss the possibility of collaboration. We can offer artists of all career levels assistance with promoting, exposing, and selling art. Our extensive business structure and upfront financial investment means that no matter what your goals or budget we can advise and help. Some of our services include catalogue & book design, museum placement, media distribution, exhibition curation, gallery placement, and exclusive representation. Our newest gallery in Chelsea NY will also offer an exceptional distribution point for Gallerie Icosahedron media materials as well as the possibility to exhibit. If you are interested in learning more about what we can do for you please let us know and we would be happy to talk with you. Please be advised this is not an opportunity to exhibit and all services are at the discretion on Gallerie Icosahedron Inc.

Ian Miller
Curator, Ico Gallery

Kind regards, Chris

Richard said...

I also wanted to thank you for posting this as it does make it much easier to find the crooks and scams when we post the information out there.

This is what a global community is about, helping each other to make lives better and easier!

Thanks again,

Richard Hoedl
Art Guy

Anonymous said...

Hiya, I have received a variation on the email and as it sounded a bit suspicious, I googled it and came across few similar sites (thank you!) and thought that I should post at least once as a warning to others (and I don't give a toss about the legal issues,though there was no request to keep it confidential).

Here it goes:

"My name is Mariette Moore and I am a gallery assistant at Icosahedron Gallery in Chelsea, NY. I am helping to curate our upcoming exhibition “Into the Void” which runs from January 8-29th. The show will feature contemporary abstract pieces. I really admire your work, and am interested to know which of your paintings are available or if you have any new work not on your website. Your paintings especially are exemplary of what I would like to include. This group show will feature emerging to mid career artists with works listed between $500-3000 USD. We are looking to add an additional 4-6 pieces to this show with a broad price and size range to allow maximum sales potential. I believe that this would be a great opportunity for you to introduce your work to the New York City market, and gain exposure for your unique style.

The exhibition will be held in our flagship gallery space in the heart of Chelsea, NY, on West 26th Street and 11th Ave. Our generous commission structure ensures that our members have an excellent chance of recouping their original investment while pursuing additional endeavors to expand their career. Due to the nature of this exhibition and the price range of the work we are asking that all artists help to cover the cost of the exhibition catalog and printed invitations. In exchange for your assistance covering the catalog costs the gallery will give 100% of the sales back to you until your original investment is recouped and then will move forward with a 50/50 split of all additional sales.

Please feel free to email me with any questions you may have. I look forward to speaking with you soon.


Mariette Moore
Gallery Assistant
Icosahedron Gallery

kvinnor said...

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