The Universal Notebook: The fine-art confidence game

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A Portland art gallery has the local art scene buzzing over the propriety of charging artists to exhibit their work.

That battle was fought and largely won by the Union of Maine Visual Artists back in the 1980s, when artist-activist Carlo Pittore led the charge against museums and galleries charging entrance fees for juried shows. No artist should ever have to pay to exhibit.

Now we have a new iteration of the pay-to-play phenomenon in the Portland Art Gallery, an upstart gallery that has a lot of noses out of joint in the Portland art market.

As a public issue, art market ethics are nothing compared to state-sanctioned torture, the war on terror and police violence. I guess that’s why I decided to write about art this week instead of atrocities. Even bad art is a good thing.

Traditionally, gallery representation has signaled that someone with an experienced eye has judged that an artist’s work has sufficient merit to warrant showing and selling it. When an artist shows at a vanity gallery, it simply means that the artist is willing and able to pay for gallery space and publicity.

When I started writing about art in Maine back in 1978, I quickly came to realize that fine art is a confidence game in the truest and best sense of that word. It is not enough for an artist to create art, he or she must create confidence in it, confidence that an object with no intrinsic or practical value has monetary value by virtue of talent and scarcity.

“Artists don’t just make art,” Sarah Thornton writes in the opening lines of “33 Artists in 3 Acts,” one of the best books about contemporary art on the market today. “They create and preserve myths that give their work clout.”

In the fine-art confidence game, artists enlist the support of galleries, curators, critics and other artists to convince collectors and museums to purchase their art. Though we like to believe and behave as though fine art is something high and holy, when you hang a painting on a wall or set a sculpture on a showroom floor, it is really just a hand-made commodity on the luxury market.

Nothing wrong with that, but bypassing the traditional vetting process by which art acquires value does short-circuit the value system. To say, for instance, that an artist has had a New York show, a landmark in most artistic careers, when they have paid for it essentially renders the distinction meaningless.

Most of the artists who show at Portland Art Gallery are as good as any that exhibit in other Maine art galleries. In fact, many of them do show at other galleries. What’s really at issue is not so much the quality of the art as the vertical integration that characterizes the gallery.

The Portland Art Gallery is owned by the publishers of Maine and Maine Home & Design, magazines that write about the artists, feature them on their Art Collector Maine website, and, since July, sell the artists’ works in their Portland Art Gallery on Middle Street. The gallery is something of a hybrid, as the artists do not actually pay to show, they pay to be included on the website from which artists are selected to exhibit. I can’t, for instance, show my doodles at Portland Art Gallery just by paying for wall space (I asked).

Just as museums should not be in the business of selling works of art, however, magazines probably should not be in the business of promoting artists in print and online, and then profiting from the sale of their work. That undermines confidence in the art market and constitutes unfair market competition. I can’t imagine any Maine art gallery advertising in a magazine that has set itself up as a direct competitor.

Certainly the art world is every bit as polluted by money as the American political process, but, as painter Neil Welliver told me years ago, when I remarked at the disconnect between his symphonic landscape paintings as he painted them in his Lincolnville barn studio and as they hung precious and spotlighted in a midtown Manhattan art gallery, “The art market is just the way the artist gets paid and the way the paintings get out into the world.”

The best art, as Welliver noted, eventually ends up in museum collections, where everyone can see and enjoy them, not just the moneyed few who are their temporary custodians. The true value of art lies in the making of it. Owning a work of fine art conveys a certain status, but, more importantly, it permits the collector to participate, albeit vicariously, in the ongoing search for meaning that is the work of all serious art.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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