September 10 will mark the one year anniversary of Douglas Britt’s notorious and fantastic e-mail (which made Gawker!) “Houston Chronicle art coverage in the post-Preview era – Part 2”. (If you’re in Houston you already know this, but the very talented and capable Britt juggles two beats—he’s both arts and “Society” writer for the Houston Chronicle.) Here Britt does a gleefully pointy job of skewering the kinds of behaviors and expectations that drive all art writers crazy. I laughed as I read it (…And I thought it was only me who was always haranguing people for jpegs. Somebody understands!), and I agree with damn near every point. It was a tonic experience too, since I’m an arts writer and apparently we’re dwindling down to a nub of a profession, so you hardly hear any arts writer shoptalk ever.
(Douglas Britt’s good; check out his essay “Is green the new pink triangle?” from ’09, I especially like.)
So, I heartily recommend reading the Gawker post. I also recommend reading the following Ten List, whether you are another arts writer, a gallery owner, an editor, the head of an arts nonprofit, a PR person, a curator, or you just relish the idea of irking me.
Which is easy if you know how! It’s also easy if you don’t know how.
So here’s how.
1. Keep me guessing by leaving your website and event calendar un-updated, factually incorrect or uninformative, visually aneurysm-inducing and incomplete.
Whether you’re a gallery, a city agency, or an artist, when it comes to future openings and shows, don’t keep it a secret motherfuckers. We need information not just from pre-event press releases, but available all the time. Let the experience of the artwork have all the narrative tension or surprise; you tell me what the hell is going on. Lay out what you’ll be doing and when you’ll be doing it for as far ahead as possible.
Recently, I’ve written a bunch of Fall Arts Guide-type stuff. it’s labor-intensive; I survey every exhibition I can get my mental hands on via advance materials, I learn as much about it and its participants as possible, so I can describe my impressions, give some context and make recommendations. In the case of at least 2 SATX/ATX art festivals, there was no calendar, all the events were TBA, and there was no indication of what was gonna actually happen or when. I’m trying to help you out, Bexar County Ex-Convict Dance Therapy Theater Festival. I woulda put your show in my guide, Exploding Performance Artist. Give me the tools to do this. Don’t make me try and figure it out and then complain I missed it, or send out a Facebook event days before the event, with no jpeg or link to outside material that might help me contextualize. I need to start thinking about your show before your show.
There are a whole lot of variables an arts writer has to keep track of in order to cover a whole city or region. For each potential review, I think about the trajectory of the individual artists’ development, the overall curatorial vision of the gallery or exhibit space, whether a given collaboration has special features or a history, etc. I decide which show for which artist will reveal the most about that artist, that venue and that curation. I want to have this kind of overview, instead of just successive Facebook invites thrown at me two days before a thing happens. Information helps me divine what trends — in modes of thought, or material execution, or collaborations — characterize the ongoing process of contemporary art in San Antonio. Or in Austin. Informative calendars help me process what’s going on and write better about it, whether my article is about a one-woman show or queer art in Texas or women curators or institutional failings.
Each review is based on an algorithm, kind of like on eHarmony, only with a lot more gay people. Make all your info easy for me to find. In considering a potential review, I waste so much time trying to find usable images, looking for stuff to read about the artists involved, looking to see their past work and trying to find out when the fucking location is open or how long the show is up.
2. If I come in to look at your show, follow me around and tell me about each piece of art as I’m looking at it, telling me which ones you really love. If you’re not the artist, tell me how sweet and/or crucial the artist is. Then go find the artist and her parents and introduce them to me.
In Britt’s e-mail, he advised gallerists to “Tell me something interesting about the art I’m there to look at.”
Very true! I’d add: but not in person, in situ, right as I’m looking at it for the first time. If I’m trying to concentrate and take notes, your job is to make sure I have all the information I should have; artists’ names, a piece list, the artists’ bios and/or artist statements, and to be available for questions. The “telling me the interesting thing” part should come in the advance materials; press release, event calendar, artist or curatorial statement, images images images.
In the exhibition space, though, say “hi” and then leave me alone, that’s my druthers. I don’t mean to be rude, seriously, I’m just working. It takes my full brain to focus on what I’m experiencing and give it the attention it deserves, or merits. Let the art speak for itself, rather than trying to gauge or guide my reaction. Introducing me to the artist, who’s all nervous and stuff, right as I’m looking at their work puts them, and me, in a weird position.
Now, if I have questions, it’d be great if you were available to introduce me to the artists, tell me what hanging the show was like, etc. I really enjoy talking to artists, gallerists and curators about work. I just need a little space at first.
3. Give up on me ever writing about you and assume I’m not interested.
I’m overworked. In addition to working my favorite hustle here on Glasstire, I write for various other publications and for other clients so I can pay for healthcare and socks and shit. Every arts writer I know is in the same boat. There aren’t enough of us.
I know its easy and tempting to think that if I haven’t written about you, I’ve forgotten talking to you about it, or have blown you off. Please don’t assume that. I know you’re not getting the coverage you should. Keep doing the work, think long-term. And thanks for your patience.
4. Guilt trip me.
Good motivators to get me to look at something: tell me of a new change, a particularly difficult challenge, some history about why or how you’re doing this artwork, or show, or season. Keep me in the loop, in general. Talk to me in person (but not while I’m focused on something), send e-mails, all that.
After I write something and you’re not included or feel slighted, don’t send me an e-mail telling me I’ve broken your heart and you feel like jumping off a balcony. I got such an email this week. It riled me like crazy. It came from a person and an institution I like a lot, and have written about, and will write about again.
Upon reading his email, I immediately felt shitty. And anxious. Then guilty. Then ANGRY! That’s manipulative as hell! And manipulating me puts me on the defensive! Fool, if your shit were more interesting, maybe I woulda included it! Or maybe I just forgot. So then I worry about my sanity, and why I’m doing this job anyway. Then I look at my bank account and get angry again. Now I’ve moved on to acceptance, as regards to this email. I’ll write about this place again. But attempts at manipulation settle in the subconscious. I may start avoiding you or your art space or your work almost subconsciously as a result of the whole indignant guilt manipulation thing.
5. Fail to self-promote or generate your own visibility.
My friend the artist Richie Budd said to me once that artists who wait to be discovered, a la the whole van Gogh-revered-after-he’s-dead model, are sitting on their hands.
In the words of Rene Ricard in “The Radiant Child, “ (Artforum, 1981, that link will give you the whole text but the images are mostly broken):
Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh Boat. There is no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it. Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat… We’re so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for van Gogh’s neglect. No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh. And yet looking at art history we see that these other guys were pros. They started when they were kids. They sold their work. They worked on commission. There is no great artist in all art history who was as ignored as van Gogh, yet people are still afraid of missing the Van Gogh Boat.
Don’t put me in the Van Gogh Boat, y’all! Come out, come out, wherever you are!
6. Decline to social network; look upon zee Internet as crass or something, and conduct business as though we’re in 1927. Or 2007.
Listen, Facebook can be a good way to get yourself prioritized. For example: put images of your work on Facebook! If I’m cruisin’ around and see a gallery of photos, I’ll look at it. Post links to your Flickr account or personal website. Don’t go crazy and make every status update in all caps about every damn thing, but revealing yourself via Facebook, Twitter, internet art as an interesting thinker can only be to your benefit.
7. Ask me to write something for free.
Times are tough. I know that artists and nonprofits and publications are operating on tiny, evaporating budgets. So am I. Whatever you do, do not approach me about writing something for free while also using #4. This kind of thing leads me to write the following actual Facebook update, from Monday:
“I am done with being guilted into professional obligations, doing stuff for free, not making a living, and just all the bullshit that goes with…what I let people get away with. No more manipulating me into being your PR arm, whoever. Straw on the camel’s back freelance business day. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it.”
I’m not proud of that outburst actually, but I weren’t lyin’.
8. Talk shit to me about another artist, curator, or gallerist.
Now, if you’re an artist complaining about a curator, OK, or a curator complaining about a city arts administrator, cool. If somebody is engaging in an abuse of power, say, or is exploitative or dishonest, this is kosher to talk about. That may even be need-to-know stuff, for me. But to trash someone who could be construed as a peer or colleague or competitor because they behave in a way you don’t like or you’re trying to influence my opinion, your mean-spirited dishing makes me look at your art (whether you’re making it or showing it) differently. Or to have to make extra effort NOT to look at your art differently, which is a burden. That shit your grandma said about gossip revealing as much about you as it does the person you’re talking about? True.
9. Make snarky anonymous online comments about an article or review.
In a blog post I did a couple of days ago, I had mistaken one city cultural org for another with a similar name. Commenters pointed out my error, and I appreciated it sincerely and amended the post, and pointed out my mistake. They came correct! Also, if you feel that something I’ve written is unfair or misguided or plain wrong, it’s totally cool to take me on, in person, via e-mail, or in the comments section. My mind has been changed before, additional knowledge has helped me to understand work better. I’ve even apologized, though not often.
But to leave a nasty anonymous comment with an ad hominem attack, or some reference to how I should get fired, or that I’m “not hot,” that’s behavior both rude and unwise.
Something else to consider: As a result of, in particular, the San Antonio art community being rather small and incestuous, 80% of the time, based on the comment, I can figure out exactly who you are. I’d wager the same for most arts writers in Texas.
10. Don’t pay me.
This is addressed to clients, from a freelancer. It’s a different item than #7. In #7, generally a nonprofit or publication wants my time and work for free without helping me meet my human expenses, so I have to do more extra paid work. In #10 here, somebody has promised to pay me for the work I’ve done, and then doesn’t pay me. This is some unfair shit. It amounts to theft. The money for human expenses I was counting on based on trusting you not coming in is fucking all my shit up. Look how bad that sentence was. That’s what rage can do to me, y’all.
Do not not pay me, or make me chase you around to pay me. You presumably knew what you were getting into, professionally. Would you do that to a lawyer? Because I have a lawyer.
To other artists and writers: I advise you to do the same. Having an attorney in your corner is a great idea. You could find an art-loving one, and trade in art for services! I’m tired of seeing freelance artists, writers and educators get screwed. We need to start being scarier in the right ways, not self-destructive ways.
Note: Glasstire is really good about this! Trust them, potential freelancers!
For eight years in New York City, Sarah Fisch defended Texas as the home of muchos smartypantses, artists, thinkers and other people who aren’t, for example, Tom deLay. New Yorkers remained skeptical. After she graduated from The New School, Fisch migrated back to San Antonio in ’08. She has worked as the arts editor at San Antonio’s altweekly The San Antonio Current, and the arts and culture staff writer at Plaza de Armas. Furthermore, Sarah Fisch (whose last name is pronounced “fish”) is the 2010 San Antonio Artist Foundation Grant winner for Literary Arts for a forthcoming book of SATX-based short fiction and was a national Endowment for the Arts / USC Annenberg / Getty Arts Journalism Program Fellow. She’s a children’s book writer, a stand-up comic and also a sound artist, which are conveniently broad categories.