“Hello. My name is John Gracy from Fargo, North Dakota. I have been on the lookout for some artworks lately in regards to I and my wife’s anniversary which is just around the corner. I stormed on some of your works which i found quite impressive and intriguing. I must admit your doing quite an impressive job. You are undoubtedly good at what you do.
With that being said, I would like to purchase some of your works as a surprise gift to my wife in honor of our upcoming wedding anniversary. It would be of help if you could send some pictures of your piece of works, with their respective prices and sizes, which are ready for immediate (or close to immediate) sales. My budget for this is within the price range of USD500 to USD5000.
I look forward to reading from you in a view to knowing more about your pieces of inventory. As a matter of importance, I would also like to know if you accept check as a means of payment.”
I’m a painter, and I have a website. About once a year, I get a real commission from this thing; someone really does like my work, and I get paid. But about once a week I get a fishy e-mail inquiry. Occasionally I’ll get an e-mail that seems more legitimate. How do I tell these things apart, aside from bad grammar and desperate pleas for a routing number?
When you’re a young and hungry artist, the occasional pay-to-play stuff has its appeal. Like a dog, I’ll work hard for affirmation. Once I did pay some money to be in “Art Tour International.” I hope to keep others from making that same kind of mistake. Now, when I get an enticing-but-unconvincing offer, I may reach out to my art-world elders to ask if it looks legit.
Let’s break down the categories of these emails and offers:
- They ask for banking information.
- They ask for commissioned work/images of work immediately (and probably banking information).
- Congrats! You’ve won an award! Plz wire money.
- The email trots out offers and associations with Artsy.com, or a biennial or a fair, while offering no concrete representation, compensation, or exhibition.
- Offers ad-like exposure in a publication or on a site, but you foot the cost. (Example: British Vogue’s World of Interiors or Studio Visit Magazine. You pay at least $300 to be included.) Save your money.
- Same as number 4, but it’s a gallery (or “gallery”) where you pay a lot of money to be included, online or otherwise.
- Most juried competitions that charge more than $10 per entry. (I’ve got an established artist friend who, after years, stopped applying to Manifest Gallery. She went out with a bang, sending in a joke application that was just a bunch of porn files.)
- New American Paintings is now offering a guaranteed supplementary inclusion for artists who have been in past issues — for the small fee of $299. It just grossed me out.
In writing this PSA, I can see that my beef isn’t with the Russians (or whoever the hell keeps sending me things with phrases like “kindly please send work for anniversary my wife”). Rather, I’m just left a little depressed that the art market, institutions, and even legitimate exhibitions are driven so much by the artist’s hard work, time, and so often, money — with the promise of something as nebulous as “exposure” in return. Exposure to whom? To what end? People figuring out how to exploit young, struggling artists is nothing new, but technology and changing market structures have opened up some new ways to do it.
I will still chase that carrot, or wait for that big catch (and I encourage you to, as well). I just won’t be engaging with the kind of publication or fair that feels like a pimp at a big-city bus station telling a newcomer that he’ll make her “a star.” Let’s dig our heels in deep, do the work, and pester people to pay for it.
This article originally appeared in slightly different form on June 15, 2018 in The Bowerbird, an art blog in Lubbock, TX.