The website of Austin’s Flatbed Press is offering a limited edition aquatint by noted Texas artist Melissa Miller for $1,500. If, however, you were surfing eBay on January 3 of this year, you could have snapped up a limited edition aquatint by Miller for $15. One might assume the $15 print on eBay was offered by some clueless person, unaware of its value and the artist’s stature. It was, however, sold by the Dallas Contemporary through its now-infamous eBay account. That account sold other limited edition prints by other well known Texas artists such as Vernon Fisher, Linnea Glatt, Ted Kincaid, Annette Lawrence, Tom Orr, Ludwig Schwartz, Julie Speed and James Surls. Their works were typically sold by the Dallas Contemporary for $15 to $50, and, as in the case of Miller, were shockingly undervalued.
All of these artists donated prints to the Dallas Contemporary under a previous director in order to help the nonprofit organization raise money. Unfortunately, this eBay idea was what the Dallas Contemporary came up with about a year ago to get rid of those that were left. Peter Doroshenko, the executive director of the Dallas Contemporary, has even given an interview about the topic calling it a “stupid mistake” created by his staff, many of whom he says “don’t know what it means to be an artist.” While I’m not here to delve into all the dirty details or attack the Dallas Contemporary as an institution, I do want to discuss why this is a big deal and why it will be difficult for Doroshenko to bounce back.
So, playing devil’s advocate, I know what some of you may be thinking: “What’s the big deal? They’re just prints and they were donations for the Dallas Contemporary to raise money, which is what they did.” And you’d be partially correct. But only partially. For artists of this caliber, prints are not mass-produced posters (a semi-common misconception). They come in a limited edition and, while priced in accordance with the fact that they are a multiple, are very valuable. In fact, several of the prints in question have current market values that exceed $1,000.
The Dallas Contemporary does seem to have legally had the right to sell the items, even at that deeply discounted price. As far as I can tell there was no written contract specifying each print be used in a specific manner or sold close to its current market value. If there were, we might be looking at a super dramatic legal confrontation. However, I’m sure the donating artists did not give these prints without any indication of how the organization would use them to create revenue, and I’m absolutely positive none of them would have agreed to any part of this eBay sale. Don’t believe me? Scroll to the bottom of this article and read the letter signed by artists (and art dealers) caught up in this mess.
To me, the two main problems with this event come down to the lack of transparency and the prices. The artists and galleries who signed the public letter linked above also consider the use of eBay an affront in itself, but considering that eBay is frequently used for well managed charity auctions on a regular basis, that does not seem like as big of an issue to me. One might say, “how was there a lack of transparency? The items were on eBay!” Here’s how. While an eBay store is a very public forum, the lack of transparency comes from the fact that artists were not contacted at all about the sale. It’s clear if they had been, none of this would have happened. All it would have taken would be a quick email to the artists, or the galleries who work with these artists, and the Dallas Contemporary would not only have had the correct values of each work, but easily could have had 100 different (better) ideas for events and promotions to utilize the donations properly. I mean, please tell me how $15 could genuinely help? It might maybe cover a couple packs of pens at the most. There’s a clear lack of management here.
The second major issue I find is the given value of each work. The Dallas Contemporary doesn’t have the best reputation, out of the Dallas non-profit art organizations, for supporting or interacting with the local Texas art community. This isn’t necessarily my personal view, I haven’t been around Dallas long enough to draw my own conclusion, but it is something I have heard from a multitude of different sources, particularly artists. And what the eBay prices of the donating artists’ work state, even if that was not the intent, is that the Dallas Contemporary values these limited edition prints at a price that is comparable to a poster found on Allposters.com. Basically, it was a great way to alienate the high profile artists who did support the organization. Thankfully, the listings aren’t extremely visible because a public record of such a low value (priced and sold by a reputable non-profit institution) could actually hurt an artist’s sales.
While all the listings are not visible, and there certainly are not any current artwork sales up now, I looked up some of the items that were sold via eBay’s seller review feature. The Dallas Contemporary eBay store has 27 total reviews from 12 buyers, ranging from February 2012 until January 8, 2013. Besides making an unfortunate statement, there is a larger problem with the sales price that can be found here. People who stumbled upon these prints and knew what they were being offered had the opportunity to purchase multiples of the works in order to resell them, and I promise they won’t be selling them for what they paid for them. I’m not claiming everyone who purchased this work is planning on doing this, but it’s almost guaranteed some will.
The issue here is that these artists’ sole way of making money on their work is through the primary art market where they receive a commission or consignment fee. Now, these artists may potentially have to compete with their own work, being sold by art “flippers” if you will, in the art market. This is not anything new, but it should not be something facilitated by a non-profit arts organization or the result of an artist’s own generous donation. In fact, one of the donated prints has already made it to the marketplace. According to Peter Simek, Red Arrow Contemporary has a Vernon Fisher print purchased a month ago by the gallery owner, Ed Stafford, not on eBay but at a Dallas Contemporary pop-up shop, for $1,000. At Red Arrow, that same print is now listed at $1,800, a far cry from the probable $50 price tag it most likely would have been given in the online shop.
When it comes down to it, Doroshenko has a very long way to go before he can make up for his “stupid mistake.” And yes, I refer to it as his mistake even though the director seemed to blame less informed staff during his recent interview. The eBay listings were too well thought out and put together to have been created by someone who did not know what they were selling. Each listing had a full artist bio, including accolades and permanent collections, along with detailed descriptions of what each piece was and how it was made. The $1,000 price tag on the Fisher print purchased by the owner of Red Arrow also shows that someone handling the distribution of the prints knew that they were worth more than the $15 to $50 price tags given to them on eBay. If Doroshenko did not know about the eBay sale, even though it was going on for a year, someone on his staff who knew better certainly did, and as the Dallas Contemporary’s executive director that makes this his mistake, not one that can be handed off to an anonymous staff member.
What do you think? What can the Dallas Contemporary and Peter Doroshenko do to try and make up for this sale? Can they win back the local artists’ trust? Or do they need to?
*Full disclosure: I am a part-time intern at Talley Dunn Gallery which represents several of the artists affected by the Dallas Contemporary’s eBay store. While I do not believe my opinion on this subject has been swayed by my job, my opinions also do not in any way represent the official views of Talley Dunn Gallery. If you would like to read the letter signed by galleries (including TDG) and artists alike on this subject, please click here and scroll down.
Casey Stranahan is a gallery assistant who currently lives in Dallas. She received her MSc in modern art history from the The University of Edinburgh and has also worked for galleries in Houston, New Orleans and Edinburgh, Scotland.
Casey, Thank you for articulating the problem clearing and objectively. You are exactly right in every point you make.
Well, I have heard from several people that the D.C. spends lavishly on things going on there. Monetary responsibility or lack thereof seems a recurring theme here.
Excellent summation of the situation.
As for what the Contempoary can do from here — I don’t see that they can do anything more than offer the sincere apology I think they already have and of course return the remaining work to the artists and galleries. (Having said that, I have to add that is seems disingenuous to suggest that the institution has staff in the position of establishing the eBay store who “do not know what it means to be an artist.”) I am also assuming that much internal discussion of systems and accountability are taking place down there.
On topic, below is from an LA Times article this week about Catherine Opie:
“The big one for me was not just John [Baldessari] stepping down first — that was a big red flag — but I had just given [MoCA] a portfolio to sell to save a person’s job in education,” she says. “And it equaled about $150,000, and literally the next day they let that person go.
“I can’t imagine any board member writing a check for $150,000 and having them turn around and let that person whose program you’re supporting go. That to me was very insulting,” she says.”
I’ve been thinking about this Opie quote all day, too. Though many of us have been watching this creeping trend forever. It’s like a virus going around institutions the world over. It’s only about protecting the money now, so collectors, board members, and the LCD of the general public (squeaky wheels, often moralizing) are getting their demands met by public art institutions (Make my investment, i.e. stuff I collect, worth more! Entertain me! Don’t teach me anything new or freak me out ever!). Artists, who make the art, are getting screwed or ignored. I don’t know why, but I guess I thought Texas would be immune to the worst of it. I was wrong. There are too many dumb people in the world with no attention span. We’re doomed. Idiocracy is coming true.
Totally on topic, Rainey. Opie also states that, “”The museum is taking such a different direction now… What concerns me is seeing the museum embracing more celebrity and fashion.” This statement could not describe the Dallas Contemporary better.
I have to agree with Ted Kincaid’s summary of what has been going on under Doroshenko. Whether you consider the Dallas Contemporary’s mission to be promoting local artists, and bringing their work to a larger audience through exhibitions… perhaps even including their work with the works of international artists, or you consider their mission to be exposing Dallas to challenging art from other cities, they have failed to deliver. The print debacle is just salt in the wound.
I feel that my previous comment laid too much of the blame on Doroshenko. I find it very hard to believe that the decision to put these prints on ebay was made by him. Although, he will probably be the one who is held accountable(no doubt, by many of those who actually made this error in judgement)…And it is also probably true that decisions about the exhibition program are not made by him, alone.
Also, I would like to remind the gallery owners who signed that letter to the Big DC that in spite of this grievous error, both the artists and the gallery owner’s ability to effectively promote their artists is largely dependent on their relationship with institutions like the Dallas Contemporary. If you go around pressuring the board to send Salome in with the better part of Doroshenko on a platter, you run the risk of damaging that relationship with all of the institutions you have worked with. So, the next time that one of the curators you know is asked to select work for a show, like the Whitney Biennial, you might get overlooked. Just a thought…
This horse is dead, but watched an Art 21 video this morning that contains what might be a possible solution to overcoming the solutions to your problems: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHz0kgAcfO0 – the quote to assist the process begins at 3:24 and if you have a difficult time readin’ between the lines or following the metaphor – Step outside of yourself for a while.
Peter Doroshenko should have been fired immediately ! This is a major
problem and to blame it upon his staff is not acceptable! He has avoided
HIS responsibility in this unforgivable mess!!
FIRE HIM NOW!!!!!!
Doroshenko has been bad news most of the places he’s been. Twenty years ago he was a hot up ‘n’ coming curator, with an eye for lesser known talent. But he’s never gone to the next step and I think now we can see why. He is in the end more concerned with appearances than substance and has never been one to cultivate relationships in the right way. There are a lot of great curators and people who can lead a contemporary art institution. Too bad for Dallas that Doroshenko ended up there.