Help Desk

Help Desk: Ghost in the Art Writing Machine

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.

I’m a young curator and an arts writer with a museum job, but like everyone in the world, I can always use extra money. I’ve been approached before about “ghostwriting” for more established curators who get asked to write catalog essays for galleries and small exhibition projects. In general, I feel weird but not too weird about this—after all, I like the practice and the opportunity to think about an artist’s work that I might not otherwise consider or know of. Oftentimes, it’s not work I’ve seen, and my main point of contact with it is via the internet and whatever the gallery can send, which is in and of itself a problem. I guess my question is two-pronged. On the one hand it’s an ethical quandry: I’ve done a few of these now, and I appreciate the practice and the cash, but sometimes I feel odd about the whole masquerade (though not as odd as other people seem to; I guess that’s the money talking). On the other hand, it’s practical: as someone building a writing career, I would like to indicate these projects somehow on my CV, but of course if someone wanted to actually look, they wouldn’t find my name associated in the subsequent print publications, etc. What are your thoughts?

Pierre Huyghe. The Host and the Cloud, 2009-2010; Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

Pierre Huyghe. The Host and the Cloud, 2009-2010. Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

Let me run this down very simply: Your questions are, “Is this practice unethical?” and “Can I find a way to claim this on my CV?” My answers are a correspondingly straightforward yes and no, respectively. But let’s explore this matter, and its potential consequences, in more detail.

To be honest, I was shocked by your dilemma—fifteen years in the art world, and I’d never heard of such a thing! To me, a curator is someone who loves art and artists so much that he or she would not perpetrate a fraud in order to avoid writing about them. Wide-eyed and scandalized, I emailed quite a few friends and acquaintances to see if they shared my amazement; most respondents did. One of them, a curator who has had a long career with many institutional appointments, told me, “Your email makes me feel naïve, as I’ve never heard of such a practice. The honorarium for a catalog essay is so modest I can’t imagine how this could be lucrative for both the curator and the ghost, but that’s a different question. Taking inspiration from “The Ethicist” in the New York Times, I’d say your writer is a professional cheat and liar who is asking for your blessing to deceive the commissioner of the writing, and the public that reads the piece believing it to be the work of a noted writer, and to get paid for it, and to get credit for it. To use a word that has migrated from Yiddish to English, that’s chutzpah.” These are perhaps stronger words than I would have used, but the basic sentiment is the same: You can have the money, or you can have a clean conscience and a decent CV, but not both.

However, the very next person I asked—who also works at an institution—merely shrugged. In a private conversation, he told me, “I’ve done this. My boss isn’t a writer, so I write the catalog essays for our shows.” To my surprise, he seemed to be rather sang froid about this, but when I pressed him for more information, he also noted that it’s a regular part of his job; that his superior is a director and not a curator; and that he also regularly interviews the director and uses those notes for the essays. Although I was gratified to have found someone who was familiar with catalog-essay ghostwriting, your situations are dissimilar enough to make me feel that there’s no comparison.

Then I got lucky and found someone who had worked as a writer and curator, and who lived through a situation akin to yours. Here are her thoughts:

“However good the money, the benefits of getting paid to do this kind of writing will be short-lived in comparison to the longer-term regret this young curator/writer will feel. People who do this will never be able to attach their names to the work, or promote it as their own, especially on their CVs. That is the point of ghostwriting: The writer remains invisible and authorship is claimed by someone else. The contracting curators will not only be able to publish the work as theirs for an exhibition catalog, they will be able to use this text in any other capacity they choose: for a subsequent magazine article or guest lecture, all of which they will receive additional compensation for while the ghostwriter remains anonymous.

“It is highly unadvisable for this ghostwriter to include the work on a CV. The interviewing organization will quickly discover that s/he is not listed as the author and logically assume our ghostwriter to be a liar with a padded CV. Admitting that s/he was a ghostwriter will not amend the situation; it will only convey a willingness to participate in unethical practices. And there is no question: This practice is unethical. Not because of the restrictions it places on the writer, but more importantly because of the deception created for the artist. The artist and/or exhibiting venue has contracted with more-established curators based on their reputations, knowledge, and writing expertise, but they are not getting what they paid for. The artist will promote the text to represent their practice and hang their reputation in part on the curator’s. Any subsequent revelation of fraud will render it useless to the artist.

“I was the unwilling ghostwriter for multiple exhibition essays while working as a curatorial assistant at a museum. My research, which I was required to present as drafts, appeared unaltered, word for word, in the final published essays. Not only am I unable to claim authorship of these texts, they have subsequently appeared in books and other publications. I felt physically ill the day that I opened up a copy of Parkett with an article about an artist I had worked with during this time, only to realize that they were my words on the page, and someone else listed as author. It was a terrible feeling, and I don’t encourage its perpetuation.”

Ultimately, I’m guessing the money must be pretty damn good if you’ve been willing to sacrifice your honesty thus far (especially to yourself, because it’s obvious that this “writing experience” is not “practical” if you can’t claim it). You’ll have to decide which is more important: your bank balance, or your integrity and future as a writer. If you follow this advice and stop participating in these deceitful practices, you’ll definitely be poorer for a while, but perhaps you can contact the curators you’ve worked with in the past and ask them to recommend some publications that pay writers for essays and reviews. Maybe they’d even put in a good word for you. If you can get some paying gigs that will publish your name on the work and send you a check, you’ll be doing better for yourself in the long run. Good luck!