With a world in crisis and an art market spinning out of control, seasoned creative consultants bring hard truths to our readers.
I’m a studio assistant to a highly regarded, politically outspoken artist whom museums and critics always put on a moral pedestal. This is the public perception; however, I’ve worked for a very different person for the last few years. He is, in fact, sanctimonious, cruel, and underhanded in the way he uses people and “borrows” their ideas wholesale. In interviews and writings he presents a righteous persona, but deep down he only cares about the optics of his social brand. Everybody is always impressed that I work with him, but this place has a revolving door of disenchanted assistants passing through. Yet, somehow, I’m still hanging on here. Should I stay at this job? Why is the art world like this?
Most people dislike their bosses, although most bosses aren’t celebrated as public crusaders. Your expectations going into the job were heightened by his towering reputation. Having experienced his true self, you are disappointed and conflicted, especially because your social capital rose by being associated with him. You’ve watched colleagues come and go, and now you’re the last one standing in the studio.
What you are describing doesn’t surprise us. The art world has historically overlooked the moral failings of those members it enshrines as heroes. The industry tends to romanticize established artists rather than dethrone them, despite clear evidence that they are a-holes (Picasso, Gauguin, and many living, litigious figures). Art is about symbols, and your boss represents something that is more valuable to the system than the problems you have with him as a person. When it comes to words and actions, back-patting and backstabbing are virtually indistinguishable in the art world.
The artist’s studio has become your personal panic room, and the call you keep hearing is coming from inside the house. Emotionally and intellectually, you already have one foot out the door, so why aren’t you running? Remember, the artist can always replace you, but there is no substitute for redeeming yourself. The longer you stay, the more you are enabling the behaviors you’ve witnessed and sadly contributed to thus far. If and when the artist is exposed, you don’t want to end up being known as a Rudy Giuliani or Ghislaine Maxwell, do you?
My husband and I raised our children in a house filled with great paintings. Our middle daughter always felt a deep connection with art, graduated from Oberlin, and now is trying to be an artist in Berlin. Her performance work is thought-provoking and she does have talent, but we honestly cannot see anyone buying it. As collectors, we know very well how hard it is to succeed in the art world, and, of course, we don’t want to see her fail. Should we keep supporting her dream, or is it time to sit down for a real talk?
Your investment in your daughter cannot be written off like a stock you pump and dump. You exposed her to art early, sent her to Ohio to experiment, and have continued to encourage her with a platinum credit card. Only now you are suddenly realizing that her marginalized, ephemeral, and unsalable artwork is a problem? A recent study reported that a mere 12 percent of visual artists manage to sustain themselves from sales, and only two or three people in the world make a living from contact improvised dance and cringe prosody. Fortunately, you have means, so your daughter will never be a starving artist, unless you disown her. If you pull the plug now, you will leave her hangry for life.
Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOWIE CHEN is a curator who has also worked as a derivatives analyst. ANDREW LAMPERT is an artist, archivist, film restorationist, author, and curator.
This article appears under the title “Double Lives” in the November 2019 issue, p. 36.