how not to run a gallery
Friday, January 7 2000
My co-worker Dave, who sits in the adjacent cubicle and has only been working for the company since Halloween, has been showing me how to do some basic Macromedia Flash stuff. Ideally, I'd like to compose some little Flash movies to feature on a new part of the company site dedicated to irreverent "flicks." I did most of the programming for this area, but that was the ASP and database work necessary for administration and the inevitable viral marketing engine, the part that justifies its very existance (and theoretically will earn me lots of bonus money). As Dave was showing me the features and pitfalls of the Macromedia Flash application, he suddenly got inspired to make his own irreverent Flash animation and began creating a movie featuring a man (as viewed through a QuickCam) picking his nose and passing visible clouds of intestinal gas. Meanwhile I was putting together the images for the animation I was to build, a light-hearted take on the subject of collegiate sexual harrassment. As we worked, various people came by to marvel. Eventually, though, one of the Oracle guys, as he passed by, got to see a fragment of Dave's work. He asked Dave if he was really "paid to do that." About that time one of the managers (who is actually among the more enlightened people in the company) showed up and suggested to Dave "it looks like you have too much time on your hands." The moment these extraneous people were gone, Dave looked over at me, his normally mischievous expression clouded by a layer of worry. "That can't be good," he observed. He went on to add that it was true that he didn't really have that much to do, but this was due mostly to the fact that most project leaders had no idea that he was a programmer and it will take some time before he will be sought out.
Later Dave and I went out to lunch together at a Gaslamp Mexican place and talked about all kinds of things. He told me that he'd told the Schoolmarmish VP of IT (who has an unusual fondness for him) that he couldn't see himself as a programmer forever and that at some point he aspired to rise through the ranks, all the way to CEO if possible. These rocket-propelled capitalist aspirations struck me as odd in such a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving, mischievous guy, but he told me that it was in his blood. His dad, he explained, is a venture capitalist.
We also talked about limits to creativity in our company, as evidenced by such things as our policy of "embrace [rip-off] and extend" and the dismay some expressed today over Dave's "wasting time" on a whimsically creative Flash project. This lead to a discussion of how working for the company affects our personalities as well as our social lives. I pointed out that most of our co-workers had become superficial and emotionally flat, caring only about status symbols such as BMWs and designer clothes. Their only goal in life is to become IPO millionaires. Despite his venture capitalist heritage, Dave agreed. He said he thought our company would do better if it could find the heart to hire a few more oddballs "like John" [the senior editor].
In the evening, after smoking sufficient marijuana, Kim and I headed up to our favourite restaurant/gallery/music space in La Jolla, the Indian restaurant known as Galoka. I brought my slides along so I could show the owners the sort of work I do. There are two owners of Galoka, a brother and a sister, and the sister, a young woman named Preet, had told us that there would be wall space available in the month of February.
We'd ordered some appetizers and a bottle of Ariana Cabernet Sauvignon (the wine all the cool people drink), and we sat in the music/bar area as the band set up. [REDACTED]
There was an alternatively fashionable young man sitting at one of the table who caught my eye. He had a thick tassel of black hair and the face of Matt Rogers. He was hanging out with some cool chicks and seemingly carrying on some cool conversations. He was proof of the Matt Rogers concept, if proof of the Matt Rogers concept by way of James Dean counts.
Then Preet, the female half of the ownership of Galoka, came to our table to look at my slides. She went through them at a fairly rapid pace, holding each up to a candle to see what it looked like. After she examined the first one, she asked if my works were something I'd done with a computer, a question I found somewhat insulting, and I said no, that they were actually oil paintings done on canvas. Preet continued flipping through them, not saying all that much. Understanding that only some of the paintings depicted amongst my slides would actually be available in California for hanging, she held up one slide and asked if it was among the paintings I intended to show. It was one from a series of works I'd abandoned years ago, a black sphere against a blue sky covered with decorative patterns of foliage and flowers. I'd given this embarrassment to an Oberlin pizza cook named Dirty Ray back in 1995. Preet said the painting was "designy" and expressed interest, but I responded that I had no idea where it was. It was my very worst painting, completely unrepresentative of my work, and here she was gushing about it. I suddenly realized that our pageant was a complete waste of time. Preet had no intention of hanging my paintings. I looked around the room at the works that were hanging, all of them charcoal or chalk drawings, mostly of Preet's face or anatomical studies, all of them done by Preet herself, all of them having hung here for months undisturbed either by sale or new exhibit. I'd never said anything bad about them, but they were utterly unremarkable, little more than the sort of studies done by college freshman taking Art 101, with the exception of their expensive frames. I sighed and turned to watch the mundane activities of a band setting up while Kim handled the rest of our doomed negotiations.
One by one, Preet fired from her arsenal of weapons, the things with which to shoot down our presentational aspirations. She said that the art hanging in her restaurant sometimes gets upset by crowds of patrons, and she couldn't guarantee the safety of paintings on her walls. "One night we had a lot of people in here and this one got knocked," she illustrated, pointing to one of her numbingly uninteresting anatomical studies. She then went on to mention another artist who creates large works using a computer, but that she really had no space to hang his stuff except back by the bathroom. And if I did actually get to hang a painting, Preet said that Galoka would get a 50% commission on all sales. Preet wasn't totally saying no to my art, you see; she still wanted to view my works in person. She even suggested we bring them by and leave them overnight. At the earliest, she said, we could have a show at the end of March, but there'd be no opening, just a private party if we wanted one. "And everything must be approved by my father," she kept saying, as if both to pass the buck and concede the power of Galoka's primary investors.
I paid for our wine (leaving no tip) and we were out of there. The first words out of Kim's lips were "They don't deserve your paintings."
For the rest of the night Kim and I discussed what had just happened. Evidently there was a lot more ego interfering with the running of Galoka than we had sensed up until tonight. Sure, Galoka might be a "gallery," but it's not really a gallery for the display of any work not made by its owners. Despite her earlier interest expressed in having genuine shows of various artists' works, Preet has no intention of hanging anything but her own unremarkable drawings. She maintains the notion of "gallery" only to give value to her own drawings. By acting like a hard-nose about what can and cannot hang in Galoka, Preet places herself in the role of discriminating gallery curator. The fact that her own works had made the grade gave them importance. The fact that I would have to grovel and beg for the chance to display my least-impressive work gave her a feeling of superiority.
This sort of curatorial fascism does nothing to build artistic community, the thing galleries normally try to foster. When we left Galoka tonight, we vowed never to return. It was no longer our place; it was suddenly a place of petty mindgames done in the name of numbingly mediocre art. Aside from the fact that it had wasted my valuable time, I wasn't even upset by our long, drawn out rejection; it was so transparently bigoted that I actually took it as a form of praise. The reason Preet didn't want to hang Original Sin was because it decisively demonstrated the unremarkableness of her own works. Indeed, the only painting she felt safe to hang was my very worst one!
I find it interesting to compare the way Preet runs Galoka to the way Jen Fariello runs the Downtown Artspace of Charlotteville, Virginia. Jen is open to all works by anyone, whether she likes them or not. She can always hang a painting in the restroom if it sucks too much. But she'd never even entertain the conceit that her own personal works are the only ones worthy of display. As a result of her openness, Jen has built a thriving community of artists around her gallery. People are interested in what happens there, from University professors to the C-ville Weekly to random Downtown Mall musicians. This interest has resulted in increased attention to Jen's photography. It's no mystery why Jen is the most well-known photographer in Charlottesville. She's a smart business woman who knows the value of community.
Now, of course, I'll have to find a new place to show my works. But it's just as well that I not hang them at Galoka. With its dreary lighting and limited wall space, I never did think much about that place as a gallery. Actually, to be honest, I never thought that much about Galoka as a restaurant. In retrospect, we had indications all along that I was never going to be able to hang my art there. The fussy holier-than-thou nature of the vegetarian menu, the fact that a recent "fashion show" at Galoka displayed no works except those made by Preet herself, and the fact that the only art hanging on the walls for the last several months has been Preet's, well...
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