Trust Your Guts

Navigating the art world in a new city can be challenging (has anyone posted a list of good/bad/ugly galleries in Toronto?) I saw a cal for submissions for a “juried exhibition” with a black and white theme. Perfect! I work with charcoal on paper, I’d fit right in! Not to mention the location was great! Only a few blocks from where I’ve been storing my work and on Queen St. (East) Fashion and art lives on Queen St. West, but for a first show this seems pretty good! The entry fee was only 15$ and he only wants 30% of the sale! Rather than apply to a gallery blind though, I thought that I had better check it out in person. To get a feel for the place and location and see whether it’s somewhere that is a good fit for me and is professional looking. There are two reasons to show my drawing(s) 1: There’s the chance it will sell! 2: A (Toronto) line on the resume.

So I went one afternoon to scope it out. The owner reminded me a bit of a friend, he had a Spanish sounding accent and fabulous facial hair. An almost handlebar mustache and a pointed little chicklet sized beard under the lip. The gallery had clean-ish floors, cheap fake wood, but not terrible. The walls were white. The lights were off but I could see that it was a track system in the center of the room. The over crowded track wouldn’t have done much for the work at the back of the room. He offers free art lessons, and life drawing classes (how? I find out later that he doesn’t pay the model..??!) He said that he knows it can be tough for artists in a big city so he creates opportunities and charges the minimum. What a swell guy!

So we talked about the scale of my work (4 x 10 feet) and how to hang it. I normally sink 25 screws into the wall and hover powerful magnets over the work so that there are no holes in the paper. He uses a hanging system and does not allow holes in the wall (really I don’t see why not. An excuse to sand, Spackle and paint would really be a good idea there) I decided I was up for the challenge to devise a new way to hang my work. He suggested a few possibilities and then he asked for the 15 dollars. I said “well, isn’t it juried? Don’t I have to send in the application with the money?” He said that I could pay now and then email the application, but that he would just budget the space for anyone who paid… sooo… not really a juried thing after all?

Things that tingled the “maybe this isn’t a good move” senses:

  1. He never did turn the lights on, it was too dark in there to appreciate the work… lighting is everything sometimes…
  2. Especially with the caliber of work that was there at the time.
  3. His 6 year old daughter interrupted our conversation a LOT, and made a fair amount of noise to get our attention after he had told her to wait, that we were talking.
  4. The hanging system was held together with duct tape and stationary supplies in places. Not only did it look terrible, but I didn’t trust it either. (But he’s trying to give artists a break so maybe that’s all he could afford to do?)
  5. His desk in the room was a bloody mess and eye sore.
  6. He was weird about giving me a receipt for the 15$ and had to add tax on (but wouldn’t have if I didn’t want a receipt)
  7. Opening reception? The gallery closes at 5 every day :(

So I went to a lot of trouble to affix wood with D rings to the top and bottom of the 10 foot work and brought it in for installation on the appropriate day. The previous show was still up (AWFUL PAINTINGS) So I asked about them. It’s 450$ to rent the space for 10 days and he still takes that 30% commission… wow. Pretty steep for this space I thought, but what do I know about Toronto galleries! The lights were still off and the daughter was watching Dora at full blast on a laptop (obviously excellent an appropriate gallery “mood”… Mustache spent all of his time as I got organized in the gallery “downstairs” would that not have been a better place for children’s programing?)

He and I spent some time deciding where my work would go… I had picked a wall out, but he disagreed and wanted it against the back wall, ie, in the dark. Even if he ever turned the lights on there would be ONE spotlight on a 10 foot work. Crap. I pressed for 2 other spots but of course, it’s his gallery so I gave in to his choice. I offered to help take the existing paintings down while he went down to get a step ladder. No thank you. Ok, great! You’re the art handler! He got up on the ladder and called me over to take a painting from him. Oh! Ok, you do want help, sure! I set the painting down “ok, now hand me that corner of your drawing.” He said, pointing. I said “wait, no lets take those other 8 paintings off the wall first!” What was he thinking? I’ve been at this for a while. You take work off the wall before you put new work on the wall! “No, you don’t know what I am talking about, just hand me your drawing.” I just stared at him with a furrowed brow for a moment before insisting that instead, he hand me ALL THE OTHER PAINTINGS FIRST. I was getting flushed. I don’t like to be barked at. Especially when it’s a crazy request. “No, I have this wire in my hand now. I will attach your drawing first and then take these away from behind and under it, so hand me the drawing”

Why? I asked why he wanted to complicate this process so? Why do acrobatics around this large and fragile work? He was getting bothered by me too, he became more pushy, abrupt and rushed. I handed him the drawing, nervously, against my better judgement. I handled it slowly, taking care not to bump the paintings on the side wall. As soon as he got his hands on it he let out an impatient sigh and drove his frayed wire through my D ring and jerked the drawing up. I was holding the other side and would have appreciated a little warning! My side of the drawing (now with wood!) bonked into a painting on the other wall, then as he jerked it upward again it slammed into the center of the canvas. WHOA dude!!! EASY!!! I asked him to slow down!

He crossed hurriedly behind me, without giving any indication of what he was doing, he jerked another painting off the wall and pushed it toward me, we were both behind my drawing wresting with paintings, for no good reason. Grunting he slid it across the floor under the work and ordered me to stand on the shitty looking chair in the corner and hold my drawing up again. I was trying to lead by example by moving slowly but it only agitated him and made him charge forward with more aggressive movements. As he hoisted the second wire through I realized that my newly devised hanging system was causing the paper to crease under the wood. If the D rings had been on top instead of the back! oh shoot! “You can let go now, take that painting away and go under the drawing now” he said. I took this painting away only to discover that it had been hanging from a NAIL! What the hell man! Why could I not have put the work up the way I  normally do?! I set the ugly painting down and looked at my work. I could see his elbow pushing against my drawing as he tied the wire in knots and the crease of the paper where it met the wood was a major problem! “Stop!” I said “This isn’t working!”

He passed me that corner and I held it up. He untied the other side, we didn’t say a word. He grunted annoyed little noises. I took the whole work and set it down as gently as possible on the floor. I crossed the room and sat on a chair. 2 options came to mind. To move the D rings, take the rest of the paintings down and try again – asking him to take it easy… or to forget about it.

“SO?” he snapped. “You should be prepared when you come to a gallery to just hand me the work!” I laid into him then: “You should handle work with more care! Look at that painting there! You hit it twice! This guy paid you almost 500$ for this space and that is how to treat his work? If we attempt this again I insist that we take the rest of the work down first. There is just no reason to wrestle with them behind the drawing! AND didn’t I take this one off of a nail? That would have put a hole in my work, and secondly, why couldn’t I have put holes in the wall? if you have several nails in it now?”

“He is going to patch them” he said. I interrupted “I can patch my..”

– “NO that’s IT, there will be no more holes in my gallery”

– “Can I have my 15 bucks back”

– He pulls out a 20 “Do you have 5$?)

– “Here”

– “Fine”

And that was it. He went back downstairs. I packed up my drawing carefully, taking my sweet time, breathing deeply…Dora and Diego sang a cheery song and I walked a bubble wrapped drawing taped to a 10 foot pole all the way to my dads and cracked a beer.

What I learned. If it seems like a bad idea, if it gives you a little gut queeze… Don’t do it. Wait for a better opportunity. You’re worth it. I was ready to put up with a lot for a line on the resume. Ultimately if the line were there, anyone who had dealt with the man before would have registered it as a thumbs down that I had shown there.

So I’m going to rent the gallery at wychwood instead. It’s beautiful, clean, has proper lighting and skylights to boot. Not to mention there is a farmers market right there too, built in audience and if that weren’t enough, rental there is much more reasonable! And I’ll hang it myself.

Till next time,