Help Desk

Help Desk: Critic or Collector?

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

What are the ethics around a critic collecting art? I want to write a review of a dazzling painting show. While I can’t afford one of the paintings, I would like to buy one of the artist’s works on paper. Is there an ethical problem of covering this show and buying a piece not in the show—as long as I don’t write about the artist in the future? 

On Kawara. Paris–New York Drawing no. 144, 1964; Graphite and colored pencil on paper, perforated top edge, 4 9/16 x 18 1/16 in. Photo: David Zwirner, New York/London.

On Kawara. Paris–New York Drawing No. 144, 1964; graphite and colored pencil on paper, perforated top edge, 4 9/16 x 18 1/16 in. Photo: David Zwirner, New York/London.

I once walked into an exhibition and fell in love. The artist had restaged her childhood photographs with her adult body; the two images were framed side-by-side and titled with the hand-written captions from the original photo’s verso. At the time, I was examining my own identity and progress through life, and these images resonated on that same wavelength. They were priced at $600, which was the outer limit of what I could afford, and I made a quick calculation: I could buy one, or I could write a review. The former would give me a single possession that I might enjoy for my whole life; the latter would allow me to consider the entire suite of works and support the artist in a different (but no less tangible) way. In the end, I chose to review the show.

Undoubtedly there is a range of opinions on this subject; the field of art often appears to be a mucky marsh of ethical gray area. But to me, reviewing an artist when you own a piece of their work is unethical, even if that particular work is not in the show that you’re writing about. Exhibition reviews have the power to raise the social and economic value of an artist’s oeuvre, and if you own work by that artist you are—even inadvertently—raising the value of your own collection.

As usual, I asked around to see what others thought. Jen Graves, the visual arts writer at The Stranger, immediately sprang to mind; in 2007 she published an article that indicted critic Matthew Kangas for impropriety and conflict of interest. In that article, she wrote, “The emphasis on reporting instead of criticism, or in addition to criticism, has dragged critics into the same spotlight reporters work under, where lapses of judgment are firing offenses. Today, being embedded is looked at with suspicion, and being detached is more in vogue. Each position certainly has its merits. But the industry is still struggling to combine the two approaches in a way that keeps critics passionate, engaged, and knowledgeable, without allowing their biases to be, or to appear to be, personal or financial.”

Nine years later, I knew Graves would have more thoughts on the matter, and here’s what she has to say now: “The ethics around a critic collecting art aren’t particularly clear but the stakes are fairly obvious. Here’s what I do: I own very few works of art. I have two rules: I never sell anything (and wouldn’t want my children, grandchildren, etc. doing it, either). And I never broker with artists myself. I either buy from a listed price, or if a price is not listed on an artist’s website, say, I have someone else inquire about the price for me. I never want to get a deal, is what that’s about. I guess the whole point is that you don’t want to inflate the prices of an artist by writing about the work in order to turn a profit from your supposedly non-financially-interested opinion. I don’t steer clear entirely of collecting. But I am pretty wary.”

I also wanted to talk to Victoria Camblin, editor and artistic director of Art Papers, a magazine that (like this one) has an explicit conflict of interest policy. Camblin had some good advice about how to think through this issue:

“There are (or should be) policies in place at any art magazine, and the editorial staff there will have a clear answer as to what theirs are—so this is first and foremost a question of disclosure: communicate with your editors honestly about your relationship to the artist and/or gallery.

“As an editor, after a while you develop an internal ethical monitor. If something feels unsavory, you don’t go forward until you have found an approach that feels right.

“Artists, writers, collectors, and curators all work together in a highly collaborative professional community; often, one individual occupies several of these industry roles. Conflict-of-interest policies are important, but mustn’t stifle the work that might emerge from the intimacies of these connections. There are some creative and ethical ways that editors and writers can harness these relationships, nuancing and unpacking them by diversifying content styles, for instance, and thus building a disclosure into the final product. (A personal essay about why you were moved by the work enough to collect it, or how it has influenced your output as a writer, might not be a good fit for every art magazine, but may well find an appropriate niche outside of a ‘reviews’ section.)

“If you and your editor cannot find a way of editorializing this that works, then you cannot force it; you have to kill the piece. But you can write to your editor and suggest that they find a colleague to cover the fabulous show. If it’s a good fit for the publication, chances are the editor will have another writer for the job, or will be open to solid suggestions from you once you explain your relationship to the work.”

In the end, if you’re wrestling with the question, I’d say your instincts are good. Perceived conflict is as important as a real conflict, so bear in mind how your relationship to artists and/or their work will appear to your readers. Put your faith in truthful disclosure, and when in doubt, ask your editor. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a review—or to refrain from buying a work; your future credibility is more important than what’s hanging on your walls. Good luck!