PRINT January 1964

“If You Have Anything Lying Around . . .”

TIMES CHANGE. Used to be, if a man wanted to keep his mistress busy during the daytime, he set her up in a little dress shop—or a little hat shop, perhaps. Now she opens a gallery. Used to be, if the favorite offspring announced he would become a painter, the whole family would gather in grave and desperate council. Now they scatter in all directions to find him a gallery to show his freshman work. Used to be, when organizations needed to raise money, they had lecture series, cake bakes, musical theatre parties, Monte Carlo Night, raffles. Now they have art exhibitions.

Riddles are popular these days. You know: “What is gray, etc., etc.,” “What has four feet and lives . . .” I have a riddle: “What do the three situations described below have in common?”

1. Small college A has an annual exhibition of graphic art. It sends invitations to a large list of artists all over the country, announcing purchase prizes totaling $1,000. Read further on the entry blank: “All entries to be shipped prepaid. Please enclose handling fee of $5.00 with your entry blank.”

2. Community Center B, a bastion of culture, has an extensive art exhibition program—four or five shows a year on various themes of great literary interest. “You are invited,” reads the letter to the artist, (almost like a draft notice) “to bring your painting to our center on Monday morning between 10:00 and 12:00 and to pick it up between 10:00 and 12:00, five weeks later. Paintings not picked up by the artists during the hours specified, will be placed in storage at the artist’s expense. In return, we will hang your paintings together with those of other professionals and a few amateurs in a hall completely unfit for exhibition, badly lit and inaccessible to the public a good part of the time.”

3. Charity C’s major effort for the year is its First Annual Sale (have you ever noticed how many “First Annuals” there are of anything and how few “Fifth Annuals” or even “Second Annuals”?). Often the artist is asked to contribute a painting (“or at least a gouache, a few drawings—something you have lying around in the studio”) or perhaps just 50% of the sales price. (Question: Should the artist pay his dealer the commission on what he gets, on the full sales price, or none at all?) And by the way, Charities D, E, F and G are also having their “First Annual Art Sale” this year and they’ll be around tomorrow, next week, next month.

Answer (to the riddle): What these situations and many others like them have in common is a group of well intentioned, civic-minded people, who, in their haste to make a contribution to the life of their community, have not taken the time to consider seriously what it is they are doing and who, in the process, are doing harm, when they mean to do good; who, in their quest to instill in others their excitement over things cultural, end up by exploiting the professionals in the field, the artists, the curators, the historians, yes, and even the dealers, and finally art itself.

Now, I am a dealer and not a philosopher, but I’ve considered these things for quite a while and here is what I think. The artist—as a type, not every blessed one of them—be he a painter, sculptor, composer, poet, serious writer—is the most important man in our society. Not only will future generations know us by what he creates, but for many of us he provides for our most urgent spiritual and esthetic needs. His is a moral occupation (are there others?); he, alone, in our society of mass interdependence, reminds us that it is the individual and no one else—no computer, no group or corporation or army or government—who has the capability to create things of lasting value. So those of us who deal with artists, professionally or occasionally and tangentially, have a great obligation: to treat the artist and his work with great respect and dignity and to make his welfare the testing point of any project or scheme we devise for him. In a society which bestows its greatest rewards on the salesman and promoter, this obligation must be taken seriously by all of us.

Now that’s enough philosophy. I have a little fictitious story for you—a gross exaggeration that I have seen happen many times: Artist X has been persuaded to contribute a painting to an auction for the benefit of Clinic Y—an eminently worthy cause. He really didn’t want to give the painting, but the man who asked him, an important collector who owns two of his watercolors and who is a member of the board of trustees of the local museum, was rather firm. In any case, the painting, priced at $600.00 sold for $300.00. Several other collectors who had bought at the regular price had pained looks on their faces—what can you do? Now artist X could subtract $300.00 from his income tax, but having two children, large studio and materials expenses and a gross income of $5,000.00 a year, he had nothing to deduct from. He went to bed that night secure in the knowledge that although he had hurt his own market, he had contributed 6% of his gross income to a cause that was not terribly close to his heart. But that is not the end of the story. Collector Z, with money in the 90% tax bracket, bought the painting for $300.00, making the check out to the Clinic and claiming it as a charitable contribution. Net cost to him: $30.00. But he really didn’t want the painting, so, a few months later, he donated it to one of his favorite charities, a local hospital. Having had the painting appraised at its true value of $600.00 he now has earned himself $570.00 tax-free cash—and the gratitude of the community as well. As I said, this is fictitious and a gross exaggeration that I’ve seen happen many times.

A few words about the dealer in all this. I’m speaking now not of the man who buys and sells masterpieces, who deals in large figures, but of the much more common variety who handles a group of young painters whom he nurses along for years regardless of sales or success. Often he is asked, in addition to hours of paper work, picture pushing and record keeping, to contribute his full commission or a large part of it. Often he can’t afford it. He makes his living this way and for every artist who sells well he has three others who don’t and on whom he has to spend as much or more time and effort.

Is it all hopeless? Should all the people involved in the art programs of these universities, colleges, community centers, churches, synagogues and charitable organizations go back to their cake bake and bingo nights? I don’t think so at all. What I am asking is for a re-examination of basic attitudes and then for a creativity of the same quality as the one we ask from the practicing artist. There are many ways to make use of art for educational and fund raising purposes that can be of benefit to the whole community. House tours, gallery promenades, exciting theme exhibitions are but a few. Museum personnel, dealers and others are available to help with advice and ideas. There is room in this story for a Happy Ending.

Felix Landau