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Published in "Legacy Online" April, 2004

If the Shoe Fits . . .

OK, Iím going to get something off my chest.  If you're not in the mood for a rant, don't read further.  This is one of those times when I'm calling a spade a @#*&$^%$&&@!! shovel.

It used to drive me just nuts when I came across any of the non-art businesses in town which used "gallery" in their name:  Willyís Car Gallery, Smellerís Gallery & Disco, Big Jim's Gun Gallery & Crab Shack.  It seemed too much like they were just hijacking the cachet associated with an art gallery in order to pump up their own image, attract a wealthier clientele.  Then I realized that this sort of behaviour wasn't limited to just the use of the term "gallery."  No, many places, particularly restaurants, are happy to use artwork and artists the same way.

Just the other day I got a call from a nice lady who runs a nice restaurant, asking whether we'd be kind enough to recommend to our artists that they consider showing in her restaurant when we close down.  Said they wouldn't even charge the artists a commission on any sales they made.  Well, given that she was wanting to get fresh artwork for her walls each month for nothing, I would hope that she wouldn't have the nerve to charge artists for the privilege.  Not that forgoing a commission was going to cost her anything, anyway, since the chances of sales at such a venue are almost nil.  People aren't going to a restaurant in order to buy art; theyíre going to eat.  I explained to her that it was unlikely that any of our artists would be interested in her offer, given generally poor display conditions, an uninformed wait staff, the lack of sales, occasional theft, and wear & tear on their work.  Professional artists generally prefer to show in a professional gallery, and it was likely most of ours would seek gallery representation in other cities (if they didn't have such already).  This didnít go over well with her.

After the initial conversation failed, she called me back to apologize.  Said she just thought that since there would be no other real galleries in town, that this would be appealing to our artists, who she wanted to help.  Of course, she admitted that she had never once been in our gallery, and wasn't familiar with any of our artists, so I had a pretty good sense of just how important it was to her to support the arts.  It was, to her, just another way to get people to come to her restaurant.

Having free art to hang on your walls in order to entice people is a great idea.  It would be the same thing as getting local musicians to come perform during all your hours of operation for no pay, with the excuse that they're getting "exposure" and can put out a tip jar or maybe schedule paying gigs - and you won't even ask for a percentage of the cut!  Such a deal!  Or to get it out of the realm of the arts, what would you call an employer who "allowed" workers to slave away for no compensation other than the chance to sell their services to some other potential employer when they were noticed for how well and hard they worked?  And what do you think that would do for the level of wages in the community?

Folks, this is exploitation, nothing more.  It's using artists for your own personal gain.  It's bad enough that plenty of people are happy to go to things like art-in-the-park in order to just look at the art (but never buy), and treat that as a free day outing for the family.  But when businesses start preying on artists this way in order to boost their bottom line, then they are engaging in exploitation.  Those restaurants I respect and patronize are the ones who put up artwork they have actually bought or commissioned.  Classy's (great little restaurant across the street from us) features one of the owner's own artwork.  That's cool.  Shakespeare's has its own unique ambiance, created in large part by the signs and photos on the walls.  The Mexican place next door commissioned JD King to do murals.  Even a restaurant with bad mass-produced prints is preferable to someone who engages in artistic exploitation.  Plenty of places manage to decorate their walls while keeping their karma clean.

Yeah, I know, I just offended a number of well-meaning, community-minded restaurant owners in town who really do want to "support the arts" in spite of the fact that they've never bought a single work by a local artist.  They're not being exploitive, are they?  Just because they see this great opportunity to show a new artist every month at no cost to themselves, and use that to promote their restaurant, that's not being exploitive, is it?

If the shoe fits . . .

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