Welcome to the art world, which is filled with difficult people, oversized egos, and enough bullshit to drown out even the most eloquent artistic voices. (original photo by Dave Roth, graphic Sigourney Schultz/Hyperallergic)

The key to fostering successful work relationships with terrible people is to avoid them. But that’s not always possible. There will always be professionals who, not only aren’t good at what they do, but they are also mean and vindictive. How do you manage these problems? Here are three examples from the trenches. 

A curator wrote artwork descriptions for my show, but the text needs major revisions. Factual errors litter the piece, but she is not receptive to feedback and has even replaced the suggestions I gave via Google Docs with her own documents so I can’t retrieve my suggestions. I live in a small town with this person, so I don’t want to make a stink and pay for it later. How do I get what I need? Nervous but Ambitious

Writers who can’t handle feedback shouldn’t be writers. 

But we’re a little past that, aren’t we? 

You can’t let errors in wall text go uncorrected. I once worked with an artist who, due to an uncorrected error in a press release, spent a full decade cleaning up the problem. The mistake was reproduced in a major publication and propagated from there. 

Don’t let this happen to you. 

It’s time to have a conversation with the curator. One approach to difficult conversations is to find at least one task you can honestly praise, then make requests after they’re feeling good enough to make the needed changes. Beginning sentences with: “What do you think of [doing XYZ]” gives them agency in the corrective process.

If the curator is unwilling to meet, you have to find higher-up support. And if that’s not an option, you must decide whether it’s worth it to show your work in a compromised environment. In most cases, it is not. 

I want to point out here that the problem you’re dealing with should not exist. 

Here’s a secret most people don’t know: the vast majority of the writing process happens before a writer ever sets pen to paper. 

I don’t know what this art institution’s working process looks like, but by the time the writer or curator gets to the writing process, they should have talked to you and seen your work, taken notes, and been given all relevant images and pre-existing written materials. (Artists who independently commission essays need to oversee this process on their own.) 

If the person you’re working with isn’t asking questions, that’s your first red flag. It’s part of the job.

The institution needs to set clear expectations about what the editing process will look like. Some writers and curators do not expect to receive edits for certain types of work — catalog essays are a common example. If that’s the expectation, the extra work will not be received kindly. 

But also, some people are insecure jerks who see feedback and collaboration as threatening to their authority. You may end up in a situation where the only move you have is to withdraw the work. 

And yes, sometimes there are social consequences to this and lost opportunities. The truth is, though, your hands are tied. Protecting yourself and the integrity of your practice has to come first.

I work as an artist and a curator and I recently invited an acquaintance to create a work of art for a show I’m curating. It was submitted late and it barely fits the theme. The artist, who is very well-known, seems wholly unaware that the quality and theme are issues, which would compromise the integrity of the show and thus the work of other artists. I know this person and don’t want to burn the bridge, plus they’re good friends with members of the press who I desperately want to see the show. Do I capitulate? What can I do? Homicidal artist in New York

Here’s the reality: People suck. They’ve always sucked. And no matter how many great people you surround yourself with, there’s always going to be some asshole ready to ruin the party. Sometimes you know the asshole. Sometimes you even like the asshole. But the asshole is still an asshole. 

Welcome to the art world, which is filled with difficult people, oversized egos, and enough bullshit to drown out even the most eloquent artistic voices. 

Heed my advice: Don’t let a difficult artist compromise your show. 

Much more is at stake than losing a bit of time on a project that didn’t pan out the way you wanted. As the show organizer, you have to promote the exhibition. Are you really going to want to talk to people about it, if you believe there’s an eyesore taking up space in part of it? 

Of course not. 

It will be harder to share on social media, talk about it to the press, and build on your work after the fact. Plus, you’re going to have a bunch of artists who feel their work is compromised, are reluctant to promote the show and work with you in the future. 

These are very bad outcomes and if they bear out, it would have been better to have nixed the project altogether. 

As the show curator, it is not your job to accept whatever comes to you. Your job is to manage what comes to you. If an artist delivers work that doesn’t fit the show theme, you need to let them know it’s a problem and lay out a path for resolution. 

Your emails, from the moment you receive a piece that doesn’t align with the project, need to contain praise and gratitude for the work the artist has already done and a request for artwork that better matches the show’s theme. Don’t be afraid to nix the artist from the exhibition if you can’t get what you need. No amount of exposure is a benefit if the upshot is a compromised exhibition.

I had a conversation with a dealer who wanted to arrange a studio visit, but it never led to anything. That’s not so unusual, but now, every time I see this dealer at openings, he asks me how much I’m selling and for how much. I find it really off-putting. I don’t know how to tell him to stop since we’re always in public spaces when I see him. Confused and Stuck 

A dealer who asks how much your work sells for in a studio visit or meeting is doing his job. If he’s asking you to share these numbers with him and others at an opening, he’s creating a power imbalance that puts you in a vulnerable position. 

When I read your question, I got so mad I immediately began constructing possible responses.

You could be direct and to the point.  

“You ask me that every time we meet. Why are you asking?”

Or you might say something that cuts a little. 

“If we’re freely sharing sales numbers, you go first. How much did you sell at the fairs last week?” 

Most dealers didn’t sell much so that one should hurt.  

There’s no right response, but if he does it again, it’s appropriate to shut him down. He’s not asking the question because he wants an answer. He’s asking because he enjoys diminishing your strength, and you don’t have to give that to him.  

* * *

Editor’s Note: If you have a problem you’d like advice on, send your questions to paddy@vvrkshop.art. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.

Paddy Johnson is the founder of Netvvrk, a membership that helps artists get the shows, residencies, and grants of their dreams. She founded the blog Art F City (2005–17) and the public art initiative...

2 replies on “Art Problems: How to Work With Terrible People?”

  1. Artists need champions like you, Paddy. The gatekeepers always always seem to hold the power card because they have what we artists want—opportunities and exposure. Artists have to claim peer for themselves!

  2. Thank you for your honesty and humor. It’s especially appreciated today when I’m going to several openings where there will be a few people who suck.

Comments are closed.