The triple order of lime, pineapple, and cherry Jell-O should have been a tip-off. I met my art dealer at 11:30pm on a sultry spring night at a diner on the corner of 23rd and Ninth Avenue. He arrived two hours late, oblivious to the barrage of voicemails I had left. With a wide grin of bad teeth, he plopped down in the booth and ordered three orders of Jell-O: red, yellow, and green, with extra whipped cream. What grown man eats mountains of Jell-O late at night? In between slurps he painted a glorious picture of our future together. He really “got” my work and together we would “kill the art world!” I should have realized that something here was more than odd.
But let me rewind: In the fall of 2005 the Marco-Munro Gallery approached me. (These names have been changed.) The gallery was brand new on the scene, ready to make a splash and plan a fundraising event for the building of a museum devoted to contemporary ceramics. Would I donate a piece of my sculpture? All profit would go to the museum, and, by the way, I would be given a solo show the following June. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had been showing with Spike Gallery in Chelsea, which had closed its doors, so the timing was a dream come true.
The fundraising event was very well attended. Many collectors were there as well as curators and other artists I knew. My piece sold, as did most of the work in the gallery. Everyone was thrilled. These guys were on a roll, and I was in on the ground floor.
How one “gets into” the New York City art world is akin to “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” A combination of who you know, where you went to school, who you fuck, what the flavor of the week is, and, oh, yeah, maybe the quality of the work, all seem to be part of the process. Rarely does a relationship between dealer and artist happen as quickly as this did. But magic sometimes strikes, and being told that your work is great is a potent bit of seduction.
Fast forward to June. The gallery was planning to host a booth at the Sculpture, Objects, Functional Art and Design fair (SOFA) and asked me if I wanted to participate. But of course! The only hitch was, well, there were a few: I had to prepare a sketchbook of drawings of my artistic process. When I explained that I didn’t work that way they told me to “fake it.” The gallery also had a vision for how to display my work — in a theatrical manner. “Installation art,” the gallery owners explained, was the way they envisioned my future. OK. When I arrived at SOFA my sculptures were arranged in a puppet theater setting, with heavy brown velvet curtains surrounding them. The entire booth was in disarray. Confused and angry artists were installing their work in an environment of utter chaos.
I was embarrassed by how my work was exhibited, but the art fair was underway, and I decided to just go with it. The entire booth was a mess. The dealers seemed intent on spreading madness. They hired scantily clad gals to walk around the show and surreptitiously put red sale dots on objects in other dealer’s booths. This did not win them any friends. The fun was just beginning. There was a fistfight, the police were called, and other gallerists requested that the booth be shut down.
At the same time, my long-awaited solo show was up in the gallery, and Dan Munro had arranged to have a group from the Museum of Art and Design to come see the show, and he (Dan) would talk about my work. He was weirdly overanimated as we shared a cab downtown, asked me to pay for the cab, and then asked me if I had $95 to pay for the sushi meal he had arranged to have brought in to the gallery. When I told him I didn’t have the cash, he hysterically called his partner and had a screaming phone fight with him while the cab driver and I Iooked on in horror. This was the man in whose hands I had entrusted my art career.
A few days later I brought my 10-year-old son to the gallery to see my show. Dan was entering the building at the same time as us. He thrust a sleeping bag into my son’s arms instructing him to carry it into gallery. He had some clothes, a clock radio whose cord was trailing behind him on the ground, and a toothbrush. He was moving into the gallery to live. I began to suspect that we might not be “killing the art world” together.
In the middle of July I got a call late one night from an intern at the gallery. She said the dealers were coming with a truck in two days to move all of the work out of the gallery and take it to a warehouse in Connecticut. Quick, she said, get your work the hell out of here or you may never see it again. When I ran over to the gallery, the intern nervously let me in — her bosses were out for an all-afternoon lunch, she said. While I was there I noticed my piece that had been “sold” at the fundraiser the previous fall. It was in a box, addressed to a well-known collector and shoved in the corner. I grabbed it along with the rest of my work and ran. I found out subsequently that the gallery had never delivered the money to the museum either. I called an artist friend in DC, Tim Tate, who was also represented by the same gallery, and told him the news. He jumped in a car the next day and drove to New York to rescue his work. It was he who tipped me off to the fact that an insatiable desire for sweets, as well a penchant for dental problems were characteristics of meth heads. Hmmm, Jell-O.
I called and emailed the gallery repeatedly. Promises to pay, promises to pay yesterday, the check was in the mail, the check would be in the mail. Once the gallery smoothed over this little inconsequential blip, there were heart-to-heart conversations about our future together. The owners gave me the names of all the people who bought my work, and asked if I could please send them my bio and a thank you note. I began to keep notes of every conversation.
Weeks later, the New York City Marshall chained the gallery doors shut. The phone was cut off. No emails were answered. I delivered my sculpture to the sweet collector who never called to inquire about her piece. She didn’t want to cause trouble with the boys.
I called several of the other artists who were owed money and suggested that we sue the gallery. They scoffed at me. Not worth it. We’ll never win. Apathy, cynicism, resignation. I was told repeatedly, “This is the way the art world works.” I was depressed and felt betrayed on many levels. I needed closure, and I needed justice. So I picked myself up and went to the small claims Court of Manhattan to file a lawsuit. As I explained my story, slightly breathless and emotional, to a seasoned and jaded court worker, she raised one eyebrow and asked, “Are you going to sue him or sue the business?” She continued, “You sue the business, he closes it, you got nothing. I’ll give you two lawsuits for a $40 filing fee. Sue the business and sue his personal ass.”
And so I did. An ironic side note — in all my years as an artist this was the one and only gallery that had insisted on having a written contract. Thank you very much, I said, as I produced every piece of paper that ever passed between the gallery and me for the court. No one from the gallery showed up.
I received the judgment in the mail a few days later. I won! Did I ever get my money? Nope, not a cent. But I won in other ways. First, the legal owner’s name is on file as having an unpaid legal judgment against him. Should he ever try and take out a loan, buy a house, or start a new business, this would be the first thing a bank officer would see. Karma will bite him in the ass — perhaps a worldwide Jell-O shortage.
There was also enormous liberation in feeling like I had done something to fight back. Artists get ripped off all the time. If you’re blue chip, you hire a lawyer. Maybe it makes the news for a nanosecond. The lawyers always come out just fine. Among artists, these sorts of tales pour out — though no one wants to be quoted for fear of making enemies. Some of these stories are big money scams, which you may occasionally see in the press. But most are small, and not considered newsworthy. The phrase I heard most often was “kiting.” A gallery flies its “kite” on the money made from sales and not paid to the artists. It’s shockingly commonplace.
But then came the proverbial cherry on top. Weeks after my formal judgment, the producers of Judge Judy called to ask if I want to audition for the show. The defendant, then presumably living on somebody’s floor, would of course have to show up, and we would be “encouraged to let our hair down and make for good TV.” We would both get paid to scream at one another. The nonbinding, kangaroo-court judgment itself would be paid by the producers. I have to admit I was tempted; it could have been a dynamite performance piece. But in the end I decided that my interests remained in sculpture, not performance art. My victory in court was filling enough — I decided to skip dessert.