Long before I wrote about the artworld, I covered Chicago’s City Hall, an institution legendary for its corruption. Given that environment, reporters paid a lot of attention to avoiding the appearance of being co-opted by politicians. Some would even refuse to touch the food at political breakfasts. I always thought that was taking it too far – would anyone really think I’d been “bought” for two stale donuts and a lukewarm coffee? Likewise in the artworld, every journalist and critic has to fashion their own ethical code. That said, there are apparently indefensible cases, and Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, detailed one extensively last week in “Critical Mess” (via Friday’s ArtsJournal newsfeed).
It’s a huge piece, worth reading in its entirety, but here’s the basic gist: The city’s most powerful critic, Matthew Kangas, rampantly exploited his position to build an art collection by getting artworks as “gifts” from artists. Kangas says he never asked any artists for pieces, claiming they gave them freely. But the article’s author, Jen Graves, reports: “Last week, nine artists went on record with The Stranger saying that Kangas [asked] directly for art or implied he should be given art before or after he wrote reviews of their work.” Two confounding examples from the artists cited:
“[Kangas] just opened the conversation by saying, ‘When would it be convenient for you to have me over to select something?’ I didn’t want to give him anything, really, but I did it. It was an extortion. He’s a character, and I appreciate him, but I think it’s predatory.”
“It was like, ‘Okay, the review’s out, when can I come over to pick out some art? We also need to go to lunch and we’re going to Palomino and you’re buying,’ I thought it was what I had to do.” She gave him two pictures and spent $75 on lunch, she said. “My rent was $285 at the time, so it was a lot of money. I like Matthew; I just think that some of what he does is manipulative and BS.”
According to one artist, Kangas suggested this is standard practice in New York (apparently citing AbEx macher Clement Greenberg’s practices as the model). While that’s patently false, perhaps Kangas’ alleged strongarming is not unique – one artist told Graves that “other critics have asked him for art, too (he wouldn’t name them, or their publications).” Then again, this artist was defending Kangas.
To my surprise, Eleanor Heartney, president of the United States section of the International Association of Art Critics, is quoted saying, “There is a less rigid line about critics accepting unsolicited gifts from artists after the fact, but they must be freely given and not of great value.” I think that’s a pretty slippery slope to start heading down. Because “freely given” is hardly a useful construct in a situation of such asymmetric power. And who defines “not of great value” in a market where almost any artwork is worth more (often exponentially more) than what the critic was paid to write their review?
Short of not owning art at all, it seems to me, the most viable ethical solution is that writers should only own art that they have bought at full price through the artist’s gallery, with no intention of ever selling it and with the knowledge that by buying that artist’s work they’ve essentially given up the right to do anything more than name-check the artist in their writing.
Two questions: What do others see as the de facto “standard practice” on this front? And what ethical code do you think would allow a critic to collect art, without undermining the independence necessary for credible criticism?