A chance encounter: I just happened to be in the same place, at the same time, as another artist. We hadn't met before but I could tell he knew who I was. There was that awkward mix of curiosity and surprise that comes from a real life encounter with someone you've only seen in a photograph. He stared an instant too long, scanning the nuances of features that didn't quite match the image he remembered.To be friendly, I got us both a coffee. Almost immediately, he launched into a long tirade about art dealers. He was sick of paying them so much. They didn't do anything they said they would. He hated paying their expenses, especially when they took 50% of every sale and often didn't pay him until months after a show. He was sick of it all and didn't know what to do. I told him to go independent, to do it all himself. He made sighing noises, as if it was all too hard. I asked if he knew of any non-gallery spaces to hire, as I was thinking of producing a show in Sydney. He only knew of commercial galleries. Then he said he wanted to "pick my brains, too". I winced, not just at the implication that he had given me something worthwhile in exchange but also because I knew what was coming."I want to ask your advice on self-promotion," he said. It was now obvious he already knew who I was and what I'd accomplished. It pissed me off that he was still bothering to pretend not to. It also pissed me off that the only stuff less successful artists think to ask me about is promotion, as if my success is some magic trick that has nothing to do with making good art, that it's all down to some glib schtick rather than a substantial body of art and writings, that it's plain dumb luck.Still, the impulse to try to help a fellow artist, even a socially inept one, dies hard. I offered to explore with him what he might do, even if I'd given my best advice already. I asked how old he was and how long he had been making art? Did it support him financially? Did he have a website or any other online presence? How often did he exhibit? Finally, I asked him what, exactly, he meant by self promotion. What his answers boiled down to were that he supported himself through art but didn't earn enough to buy materials. And he didn't exhibit as often as he wanted. I told him that Australia was only one, small market. He had to get his work in front of more people. He showed me his website. Almost all the information on it was at least eight months out of date. He exhibited only through galleries but the gallery listed on the site no longer represented him. He was a little embarrassed: "Yeah, I know. I meant to update that a few months ago." "It's pointless having a rarely updated website with inaccurate information," I told him. "No-one will go there. It needs to have more content. Maybe do a blog to drive traffic to it. You have to give people something; otherwise, why would they bother going there at all?""Oh," he said. "So, with a blog, how often do you update it? Once a week?". "No," I replied. "It should be done every day or every other day."He blanched. "That's a lot of work.""Yeah." I responded. "But it's a small price to pay for what you're after."But he didn't want to know. "I don't want to earn a lot," he said. "Just enough to get by."I rolled my eyes and resisted saying what I thought: I know you want more money. You already said you did. What you really want is an easy answer. You want something that doesn't exist."A curator told me that I should auction my work in Europe, to get it out there more," he said. "You mean make more people aware of your work?" I asked. He nodded. What the fuck does a curator know about the business of art?
I tried to be delicate: "Umm, you've been in one group exhibition there. Your work hasn't been sold at auction anywhere before and there's no proven support for it yet on the secondary market. I don't think the major auction house you mentioned would accept your work. Besides, why you would try to put it in yourself, especially as an attempt for publicity. "Based on what you've told me, it's unlikely that it would sell, even if it was accepted. And if it doesn't sell, it's on a public record. Auctions signify the strength of your work in the market. People need to be aware of your work before it goes to auction." I couldn't help shaking my head – the function of an auction is not to build awareness for an artist but rather to put a price on it.Wearying of the conversation, I told him it sounded like he just wanted to play the traditional game of entering competitions and exhibiting with traditional galleries. He told me he'd stopped entering competitions because he never got anywhere and it cost too much. I bit my tongue. "Maybe you just need to get into a bigger gallery." I said. He'd need more than that. Of course, he'd been thinking about that. He told me of one he'd like to approach. "I have contacts there already," he boasted. "Sure." I said, with no enthusiasm. I wanted the conversation to end. "Go for it. Sounds like that's what you want." I added that he shouldn't mention my name to the gallery's owner: "We fell out. He wanted to represent me and was pissed off when I wanted to do a deal on my terms." I laughed."Well," the other artist muttered, defensively, "I can see his point. I mean he does have a specific structure."Suddenly, I felt a surge of anger. Despite whining about every aspect of the traditional gallery system, the artist had used exactly the same words the art dealer had once said to me. Either he'd heard the story before, elsewhere, or this has become the standard, meaningless excuse for the traditional gallery system not to change – because it already has a "specific structure". Hell, that structure was fast becoming redundant. I couldn't think of anything more stupid.
"Oh, fuck off." I said. "I can't believe you said that."He muttered something about not wanting to burn bridges, that he might need the dealer – even though the dealer had obviously shown no interest in him. I turned away as he made excuses to leave. "Anyway, it was nice meeting you." he said, as he scurried off. "Yeah," I lied. "You too." Not. I admonished myself for the insincerity. I really wanted to punch the fucker in the face for adding insult to the injury of wasting my time.Why was I surprised? I've had the same conversation a hundred times with a hundred different artists. The next time one complains to me, I'll repeat what an unsympathetic Gore Vidal told a student at an American university lecture, after the student complained of the hardships of writing and getting published:"Fuck off then. Plenty more where you came from."