“I was heavily pregnant when I traveled to make this work. You never even paid for my train ticket, let alone my fee,” said British artist Felicity Hammond in her open letter to the Dutch art fair Unseen, published on February 11, 2020, after months of following up on her invoices to no avail. Although Unseen displayed Hammond’s photographs with its logo across Amsterdam, sold them as prints, and exhibited them in an installation in its September 2019 edition, Hammond has yet to receive the €6,500 (~$7,000) she charged for the project. The photography fair declared bankruptcy of its commercial entities last month and was then bought out by Art Rotterdam and GalleryViewer.com.
Now, Hammond’s efforts to go public with her story may be quite literally paying off. The fair’s new owners, Fons Hof and Johan de Bruijn, initially brushed off Hammond’s missive, arguing that any outstanding debts were the responsibility of the bankrupt entities and expressing hope that “she will be partially compensated.” But this weekend, in an open letter to Hammond, Hof and de Bruijn offered a formal apology to the artist and promised to pay her out of their own pockets.
“Obviously, it is the custodian of the bankrupt estate who is aware of the total list of creditors and they should be dealing with them. We were not aware of, nor responsible for, dealing with all creditors left unpaid by the former owners of Unseen,” Hof and de Bruijn write in their letter to Hammond.
“However, as we are committed to art, and artist such as yourself, who make this sector thrive, we have decided to use our own funds to reimburse the artists who are owned money by the prior Unseen management and who made Unseen a success,” they continue.
Hammond is not the only one affected by Unseen’s insolvency. In their letter, Hof and de Bruijn cited a list of 26 outstanding artist payments owed by the bankrupt entities, all of which they have vowed to honor. Several artists who participated in the fair’s 2019 edition said the fair made excuses for months before announcing its bankruptcy.
Unseen commissioned filmmaker Joshua Aylett to create a video about Maja Daniels, a Swedish photographic artist, that involved travel and post-production editing. The filming took place in June, but Aylett has not yet been paid.
“It’s only a small amount I’m owed, but it does make an impact. They delayed payment for months and I can’t help but feel this was a conscious deceit,” said Aylett in a statement e-mailed to Hyperallergic. “I’d been more flexible with my communication with them as they’re an arts institution. Highly disappointed at this outcome, particularly given I’ve recently become a father.”
“I feel responsible for the situation since Unseen asked me to find someone in Sweden,” said Daniels. “It’s upsetting to see how cultural institutions are exploiting artists.”
Polish photographer Karolina Wojtas was nominated to the ING Unseen Talent award, a collaborative initiative between the fair and Dutch banking multinational ING. Wojtas told Hyperallergic that she printed her photographs on archival paper and created a custom display box; she also paid for the object to be shipped to Amsterdam.
Although Wotjas has received her prize money, she has not yet been refunded the €5,000 (~$5,400) in production and framing costs, which Unseen’s contract stated it would cover.
“It was a huge event, they came to my home city to make a video about me, so they had money … It’s totally unfair. I am student, I am not working, I don’t earn money,” she told Hyperallergic, mentioning that she planned to use the award to produce her first book.
“ING uses finalists’ work as commercial. They show our work in their banks and print them on credit cards,” added Wotjas. When she reached out to ING to inquire about payment, they responded that Unseen, not ING, was responsible for fulfilling artists’ invoices.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Hammond said many artists in her situation fear speaking out. “It’s this constant thing that happens where you feel like if you remain quiet and stay out of it, then maybe they’ll pay you,” she said. “Which is what I was doing as well, until I realized it wasn’t going to happen.”
Hammond holds out hope that Hof and de Bruijn will keep their promise: “It’s pretty exciting to think that artists really do have a voice when paired with collective action.”
The close, careful, and subtle observation I found this year is representative of precisely why I continue to gravitate to this fair.
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