Help Desk

Help Desk: Various Unpleasant Situations

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by

I have a collector friend who recently went into a gallery to acquire a new piece for his collection. He was prepared to pay cash and was surprised when told by the gallerist that the piece was not available (there was no indication on the exhibition list.) However, that was incorrect—the piece was available and was then offered to another collector who declined (a friend of the original collector). Why did the gallerist misinform the original collector? (The piece was also never offered to him later.)

It turns out that selling artwork is a little like getting rid of a cat. Some folks will hand the beast over to anyone, and some are more protective and want Mister Mittens to go to a “good home only.” It sounds like your friend fell victim to the latter.

Not one to rely on my own conjectures, I contacted some gallerists to confirm that this is indeed the case. One well-respected New York gallery director suggested that we first consider another possibility: “It’s impossible to know exactly what transpired when the one collector was not able to purchase an artwork which was offered later to another collector. To give the gallery the benefit of the doubt, it’s feasible that the work was on reserve when the first collector inquired and was offered later once the reserve was removed. (That doesn’t explain why the first collector was not contacted in advance of the second collector, of course.)”

David Kramer, My People, 2012

However, he continued, “More likely the gallery was being selective regarding to whom it would sell the piece. Galleries often prefer to sell works to collectors whom they know or know by reputation. If the gallery is representing the work of an artist or estate, it will want to be sure that pieces are placed in collections that are known to be responsible and safe homes. As such, it’s not unusual for a gallery to give preference to certain collectors over others.”

Another long-standing gallerist in Seattle explicated further (in an admirably straightforward manner): “The gallerist was giving the work to a preferred client or to someone who he felt had more potential…This kind of issue is more prominent when an artist is particularly hot or poised for some kind of success. And when a dealer has worked hard to put an artist on the map, they tend to get more guarded about where the work ends up.” And voilà, Mister Mittens now lives with Madame and Monsieur Posh and not with your pal.

If your friend is really serious about collecting work by this artist, he has a couple of options: he could ask again about the same work to see if it remains unsold; or inquire about other works by the same artist; or see if the artist is represented by a different gallery. Call me naïve, but I think it might not hurt to have another (polite) conversation with the original gallery. If one needs to prove one’s seriousness as a collector before being admitted to the inner sanctum, one must start somewhere. Bonne chance!

David Kramer, exhibition view of “Untitled (Because I am not Richard Prince…” at Galerie Laurent Godin, Paris, 2010

I recently moved to a new city to start a full-time university teaching job in my field that a lot of people had been competing for. I was relatively unknown among the local arts community before arriving and was surprised to find a lot of antagonism directed at me from people I had never met before. Most people that know me or have worked with me like (or at least respect) me and I think that if these new people at least give me a chance, they would find that I’m not so bad. Instead, I’ve had vicious rumors spread about me (about inappropriate affairs with students), extremely uncomfortable lectures and studio visits with students at other local institutions, and a general sense of ill will. I wonder if there is anything I can do to smooth things out, but it seems weird that I should have to go out of my way to placate people who are giving me a hard time for no reason. Ultimately my feelings are just kind of hurt.  Can I really write this off to professional jealousy?

Let’s just cut to the chase: yes, it is weird to placate a bunch of meanies. Of course you are hurt. And yes, you could write this off—but you’re not going to.

Now that I’ve affirmed your feelings—we’ll come back to them in a moment—remember that you stepped into a situation that others are reacting to; that it’s not you per se that they find objectionable, but what you might represent. Perhaps there were some goings-on that predated your arrival, and the job was verbally offered to another person and then rescinded, or there was an interdepartmental rivalry for the position. Universities, like most bureaucracies, provide a sanctuary for the perfidious and the petty. However, writing this problem off to jealousy does nothing to ameliorate your situation. What you need is a one-person public relations campaign that will mollify your critics and win you some friends. Otherwise, your professional life is going to be a living hell and you’ll never get anything done.

You’ve got to start somewhere before things get truly desperate, so take out a piece of paper and write a list of your colleagues that you could ask to lunch. You need to start connecting with these people, so suck it up and send the first email. No reply? Send an email to the next person on the list. Suggest a topic of conversation in the email so that it’s less open ended: “I see that you’re teaching Video Poetry next semester and I wonder if I could ask you a couple of questions about your reading list” or something equally neutral. All of humanity loves to talk about their interests and pursuits, so prepare a couple of questions and get ready to listen.

David Kramer, Sunset (…Rest for The Weary), 2011

While you’re forming some one-to-one relationships (and hopefully finding common interests), work on the whole department at the same time. You could try feeding them (pick up a box of donuts on the way to work, bring in some cookies claiming they were an experiment, leave the leftover Halloween candy). You don’t have to announce it, just leave an “eat me” sign on the plate in the main office or the staff room. Everyone who wanders in will ask where they came from. You can also volunteer for some crappy job that no one likes to do, like organizing an all-students meeting or cleaning out the office fridge. Don’t go overboard, but try to find a way to contribute. The point is to make everyone see that you are an asset. When you’ve been kicked in the pants the tendency is to hide away and lick your wounds; but taking yourself out of the public eye will only ensure your continued unhappiness.

You may not be able to do much with the arseholes at other institutions. Making friends (or at least making nice) with your own colleagues may help that situation (they probably all know each other), but in the end it’s hard to win over people you only see occasionally. As for the students at other institutions, the response to rudeness is a long pause followed by a succinct and dignified, “You don’t seem to require my assistance. Is there anything I can do for you before I go?” The last time I checked, it was still important to be kind and polite to visiting professors; anyone who doesn’t know this should be treated (gently) like the imbecile she is.

David Kramer, A Survey of Works, 2010

Back to your feelings: your situation sounds pretty miserable, and I wonder what you’re doing to improve your mental health. If you have friends in your area—real friends, people you can trust—make lots of time for them, too. If not, take up jogging, or meditation, or join a book club, but for heaven’s sake go somewhere every week where you can get some positive feedback. If you don’t make a commitment to take care of yourself, you might as well start polishing your resume now because you’re not going to have the stamina to turn this job around.

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a classic for a reason, so I suggest that you buy a copy. It’s one of those hokey-but-true books that won’t take you more than a day to read, and it’s got some good tips for dealing with difficult people. And in the end, if after a couple of months you’re still hitting the same wall, remember that there is nothing so maddening to the jealous as a happy, secure person. Smile at the bullies, sail past the rumormongers, and focus your attention on the things that are going well. Best of luck to you. Let us all know how it goes, okay?