When An Artist Acts Without a Gallery's Consent

Q: I'm a gallery owner who recently exhibited the work of a fairly radical artist. During the show's opening, the artist started performing in the middle of the gallery. Everyone stepped back and watched. As the performance progressed, he engaged in some controversial actions which I won't go into. I had no idea that was happening and had an odd feeling standing there with two hats on. One hat was the concerned gallery owner not sure if this was a good thing, and the other was as an interested patron of the arts engrossed in this process. Do you think the gallery should take such risks?

A: This is not a good situation for you to find yourself in. As a gallery owner, your job not only involves deciding what art to show, but also includes knowing and being in control of everything else happening in your gallery at all times. If an artist wants to perform as part of his opening, that has to be agreed upon in advance in terms of date, time, length, location, and content. Just as you don't let artists show art in your gallery that you haven't approved, you don't allow artists to do anything else in your gallery that you haven't approved.

When you contract with an artist to show at your gallery, you agree on what kinds and how much art the artist will provide, when that art is due at the gallery, how much it will sell for, and how and when the artist will be paid. You also agree on incidentals such as whether the artist will appear at the opening, whether the artist will be accessible to discuss or help sell works of art during the course of the show, and whether the artist will participate in the exhibition process in any other ways. The more details you leave out of the contract, the greater the potential for misunderstandings, disagreements, and unexpected turns of events.

If an artist wants to perform as part of a show, he doesn't necessarily have to perform for you first, but should at least discuss the content of that performance with you ahead of time. If you feel that certain perameters of the performance should be written into the contract, then do so. In the case that you write about, you had no idea that your artist had either planned a performance or what that performance was about. True, you enjoyed the spontaneity and content of the moment from a pure art standpoint, and that's a valid experience, but suppose a good client comes up to you after the opening and asks what just happened. Hesitating or not being able to answer her questions reflects poorly on your ability to control what happens at your own gallery. Serious art patrons are less inclined to do business in uncertain situations like this.

You state that this artist engaged "controversial actions." All publicity generated by these actions, whether or not you knew about them ahead of time, reflects on your gallery at least as much as it does on the artist. As far as the art community or anyone else is concerned, the performance happened on your property while you were showing the artist's art, so you're responsible. If the show get's bad reviews, you're responsible; if the artist breaks any laws or offends anyone, you're responsible.

In the same way that gallery owners are responsible for everything that happens at their galleries, artists are responsible for their actions and involvements with every gallery where they show their work. No artist should ever do anything at or involving a gallery where they're showing their art that has not been previously agreed upon. At most, unagreed upon actions may violate a contract; at least, they damage whatever level of trust exists between the gallery and the artist.

Furthermore, gallery owners know how to sell art at their galleries better than anyone else. An artist who takes unilateral action at a gallery without informing the owner in advance may seriously impair that gallery's ability to sell art. In so doing, that artist may also seriously impair his or her art career. Word travels fast in the art community, and galleries tend to avoid getting involved with unpredictable artists.

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