Ruthless in Seattle?

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?

10 thoughts on “Ruthless in Seattle?”

  1. As presented in the original article Kangas looks like an extreme case on a spectrum. And I wonder, therefore, if Marc’s proposed solution is a bit harsh on those critics who form a genuine friendship with certain artists and are thus given privileged pricing for works in return? I think one can be too PC about these things. I do accept, though, that any straying from the no-discount rule creates the appearance of impropriety.

    As for such extremes, I suppose it is too much to hope that struggling artists would band together to out such a critic with his paper and get him fired early on?

  2. Should all the reports be true as they are written, this Kangas guy is clearly a goof who needed to be outed for specific abuses of power, not conflict of interest, meaning I would not call the owner of such a collection a collector.

    I think that it is impossible to write an ‘art world’ standard of practice, as I am not aware of an art world charter or rulebook that we are supposed to follow. If a critic is writing for a newspaper, there is surely an ethical code to refer to within the organization that hires this person, and within that context there is a responsibility to the readers of that paper. However, in my experience, most of the people writing about art these days are not so much critics anymore, but independent writers, curators, and sometimes even agents, and this often changes every few years as the opportunities to champion their interests change. As far as I know, there are very few jobs out there that pay enough for a writer to live without additional income. It is not uncommon for the same types of magazines that have asked me (without luck) to produce editions for them for free (by implication in exchange for press coverage) to also not pay the art reviewer the 50 dollars that was promised to them for their effort.

    A writer and a curator can often do more for an emerging artist than others and I see no reason that a relationship of mutual support should not emerge from this, though of course it can be a little tricky. It is important to remember that form and content are still two different things – and that a conflict of interest involves someone making a transgression and that structures are only meant to help people avoid such errors. I don’t think that it is wrong to try to develop a structure or network that allows a group of people with similar interest to have a larger voice or more power than a single one of them alone, and this certainly has further-reaching benefits to all parties than gift giving.

    In answer to your question – I know plenty of art writers who got into that role because they love art but do not have enough money to have another relationship to it. I can’t imagine an art critic with enough money to buy art at full price. If they could do that then they would not have to write in order to be involved with the art that they love or hate. As far as criticism of art, I am not really sure that I have even seen such a thing in ages, and I am not so sure that it is important. I would like to see something more journalistic, or criticism of structures, a questioning of what galleries and museums and auction houses are doing, why people are going to china, dubai, wherever it may be…how this connects to how we live, and the impact of that on art making. Would it be a conflict for such a critic to own art? Depends, as usual, primarily on this person’s independent actions.

    This topic is somehow related in my mind to the previous one of auction houses vs. dealers in that all of our roles are changing, even as the physical matter of art and how it is produced changes, such as in the way that film and video have been adapted, and media specificity becomes less tenable as a mode of organization (curator of painting, curator of film, etc) In the end I believe that it is not so complicated to navigate this new territory, that the standards and ethics of partnerships, legal and otherwise, remain the same. As no one really functions alone, even the lone critic needs a place for the critical voice. This is where ethics come into play. Necessary are communication, transparency, loyalty (which is impossible if you see the world in terms of asymmetric power structures – balance is a two way thing), and a clear ethical code of conduct, and most importantly, focus and careful decisions when pursuing any of the other directions that are possible in this new environment.

  3. I’m somewhere in between Lisa and Marc on this one. I know of “critics” (Lisa’s point about there not being any true criticism in the popular press being something I do understand but not totally agree with) who make a point of NOT collecting the work they critique. I find that model to be the most defendable (if somewhat masochistic), but I don’t think a writer who has work by an artist already should recuse themselves from writing future reviews of said artist. It’d be more honest of them to acknowledge that fact, though.

    I do agree fully with Lisa that this can be readily handled via ethical guidelines at publications that consider and define where the boundaries are. I’d also suggest readers should have access to those guideline in order to determine how much faith to place in the subjectivity of the reviews.

    I’m actually curious about a suggestion heard once that art critics might be better off working the way restaurant critics work in some quarters, as anonymously as possible. Any value in that model?

  4. I like the idea of anonymous critics, but the Art world isn’t large and after a while any regular critic is going to be recognised. I am also not sure the egos of many critics could deal with writing anonymously.

    Lisa’s point about critics often being people with a love of Art but no money to buy also mitigates against both complete anonymity and a bar on accepting benefits in kind. That level of interaction is the reason those critics write.

  5. As I am a young art writer, more than one friend forwarded this article to me last week under the subject of “What not to do.” I’m with Marc on this one.

    Any art writer who’s only writing about art because he/she “love(s) art but do(es) not have enough money to have another relationship to it”– after all, there are various roles in the artworld that an art lover can choose to play– is, in my opinion, liable to become the kind of questionably ethical critic that Kangas evidently was. If the no money/love of art dichotomy is the driving motive of any art writer, it’s logical that he/she will find ethical loopholes in order to paper his/her walls with good art. I don’t think that means that art writers, too, should be rich. We just have to hold ourselves to high ethical standards and understand that if we slip too far, an exposé like The Strangler’s will be waiting.

    Which puts me a tiny bit to the side of Marc, but still firmly on his end of the spectrum. It might be a bit strict, too PC, whatever– but it allows us writers to maintain that most important virtue, independence. And there may be baby slip-ups, but as long as they’re isolated incidents and not grand patterns a la Kangas, so be it.

  6. I think the fundamental issue that runs through all this is the difference between actual impropriety and the appearance of impropriety. Obviously, the first is far worse than the second, but still for critics anything that calls into question their independence is bad – be it cut-rate pricing from their friends or writing about artists whose work they own.

    To me, there’s am implicit tradeoff: As a critic, you get to state your opinions publicly and potentially build your reputation and influence, but in exchange you have to play by the rules of the press which offers you that platform. And while the press do a rabid trade in information and access with their sources and subjects, anything beyond that gets tricky.

    Granted, there’s a weirdness here in that critics are (or should be) held to similar ethical standards as journalists in other fields, while the rest of the artworld seems to be rewriting its ethics code situationally and raking in the bucks. But if you don’t like it you can stop being a critic, or at least collect far outside your field of activity, the tactic many art dealers take to avoid competing with their own clients.

    As for Ian’s writing that, “Lisa’s point about critics often being people with a love of Art but no money… mitigates against… a bar on accepting benefits in kind,” I just don’t see it that way. Not at all. Being poor is no excuse for selling your reputation.

  7. Ethics, in my opinion, are an individual’s codes used to respond to the situational. Formalized and fixed and from external sources, they become laws, rules, or morals. If the artworld became a single body, there would be an artworld code of ethics. But that is not what art is all about, is it? This is why true art will always survive market issues and such pressures.

    All of our choices affect our credibility. An art critic should live by as rigorous a set of standards as an art historian, and an artist for that matter, but these are not the same standards. I would also propose that there is a huge difference between an art critic and an art journalist. Should an artist change their work to fit the context of the first gallery to offer them a show? Of course not, though it is natural to adapt what they do in response to that context, if only to get their own point through the clutter.

    Breakdowns in ethics happen in weak people in the places that stronger or cleverer people manage to survive. The world’s rules and laws should function to control this, though we are likely to see a lot of adjustments with this new global scenario. In my opinion, it is more important to focus on strengthening our own position and belief systems than policing others. And it is also important when someone with poor ethics bumps into you like these reports of extortion of gifts, to stand your own ground, and make sure that whatever you decide to do fits your standards, and not what you think other people do. The issue in the Seattle case seems to be extortion, not accepting gifts. He, one person, clearly had a reputation for doing this, and continued for as long as he did because so very many more artists were willing to sell out the value of their own work because they wanted a review so badly. It is their mistake as well, like bribery. It is useless to see it in terms of power relationships; this only perpetuates the problem.

  8. For those who can’t get enough of this story, there’s more material elsewhere on the web. First, from Yesterday’s post on Edward_ Winkleman

    “Jen [Graves] is generous, IMO, in pointing out that there’s no evidence that Kangas “was biased by his collecting.” She even goes so far as to explain that there’s a difference between a critic that a community of artists sees as an advocate and one they see as being more objective, with it being somewhat understandable that artists see an “embedded” writer as one of their own first, and perhaps as a journalist second.

    Being in New York, where the guidelines are more clear (The New York Times, for example, states clearly that “An arts writer or editor who owns art of exhibition quality [and thus has a financial stake in the reputation of the artist] may inspire questions about the impartiality of his or her critical judgments or editing decisions” and has an injunction against gifts worth more than $25.00), it’s difficult for me to understand the empathy in Seattle for Kangas. He clearly made a good number of artists very uncomfortable with his gift receiving, if not right out encouraging, policy. To me, that’s his biggest sin. It’s tough enough for young artists to feel their way through the quagmire of unwritten rules without authority figures taking advantage of their unwillingness to jeopardize their opportunities in a realm where it’s unclear what consequences await for those who stand up for themselves. In other words, it’s opportunistic and more than a bit brutish, if true.

    I highly recommend the article and the other blog posts discussing it. Here, however, I’m curious if other artists have experienced this…especially in New York.

    You might want to revisit the comments on that one and see what surfaces re NYC critics, seeing as this is precisely how Kangas got rumbled. A nice bit of web 2.0 investigative reporting…

    Personally, I’m kind of stunned that anyone would consider the notion of an “embedded critic” defensible given the history of embedded journalism, which was a Pentagon propoganda-machine invention. Put differently, if I thought this was a defensible practice, I’d be using another term.

    Certainly, Kriston Capps at Grammar.police is not having any of this distinction between “embedded” and objective critics. His take:

    Kangas exploited information asymmetries in order to put together a collection. He exploited the fact that artists would be embarrassed by their response to his demands for expensive meals and artworks, whatever the response was, and wouldn’t discuss it with one another. He exploited the fact that critics are few and artists are many. He behaved like a predator—this sort or that sort of critic, nothing doing.

  9. Another thought on this… There’s a perfect artworld role for the a) non-wealthy with b) strong tastes, who c) like to write about art yet d) don’t like the journalistic ethics code.

    It’s called curating shows. As Power Ekroth once pointed out to me (for an article on criticism’s woes), “The curator is closer to the artist, because where the critic is trying to be ‘objective’ the curator is clearly subjective.” That’s the way it should work, at least.

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