Sallie Portnoy, Lilith. Cast glass. H 37 1/2, W 6, D 6 in. photo: courtesy
The same challenging economic environment that pressures artists to seek new venues to sell their work also impacts art dealers when work doesn’t sell. With both parties under stress in the current art market, a bitter tug-of-war can sometimes break out. Case in point is the standoff between Australian glass artist Sallie Portnoy and American artist and art gallery owner Rachel Darnell of Darnell Fine Art in Santa Fe. Doing our best to sort through their conflicting claims, the GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet has been able to determine this much: Nine pieces of glass art by Australian glass artist are being stored at Darnell’s Canyon Road art gallery with an uncertain time frame for when they will be returned to the artist. The nine pieces, including Lilith (pictured at right) have spent the last several years moving between four galleries in the United States and Canada, and are currently in storage in Santa Fe.
The intense discord between Portnoy and Darnell runs so deep that they don’t even agree that they have ever spoken on the phone. Darnell Fine Art has been in possession of all nine pieces since June 2010, and it remains unclear exactly when and why the works were taken off of display. Their agreement stated Darnell Fine Art would pay to ship the pieces back to Portnoy. Reached by telephone, Darnell told the Hot Sheet she was “going to abide by the contract” and that she was willing to ship the work to Australia when she had the financial means, but Portnoy claims the only offer has been to ship the works anywhere in the United States.
Disagreements between artists and gallery owner appear to be on the rise at all levels of the art market. Earlier this month the New York Times reported on a Parisian art dealer’s estate that was ordered to return works by Alexander Calder, including a rare 1941 glass mobile, after an eight-year dispute. In Coral Gables, Florida, police intervened between an art dealer and a gallery owner arguing over the return of two paintings.
At $8,400, Blue Blades is Portnoy's most expensive work held by Darnell Fine Art.
With artists and gallery owners alike still feeling the effects of an economy in which people are spending less on art, financial strain is often at the heart of the matter. Darnell says she did exhibit Portnoy’s artwork for a few months before removing it from the gallery, citing lack of interest from buyers and an inability to get Portnoy to lower prices. The retail prices ranged from $3,500 for Celebration to $8,400 for Blue Blades. “Times are tough. If we had sold something it would have been helpful. If she had wanted to come down on her prices, it would have been helpful. She said she couldn’t do it,” Darnell said.
Darnell received four of the nine pieces from The William and Joseph Gallery, a nearby gallery on Canyon Road. Owner Mary Bonney says she experienced similar difficulties with the prices, even before she showed the work in her gallery. She says she told Portnoy “the prices were not appropriate — too high for the market. It was not a great working relationship. She would not budge on pricing.”
Portnoy denies that either gallery owner told her prices were too high. “Mary [Bonney] told me much after she got the work that she thought the prices were too high. She did not answer me when I asked her advice on this matter … Darnell told me the work was not priced too high at all,” Portnoy says.
On December 9th, Portnoy received an e-mail from Darnell that said “we are willing to split the cost of shipping with you to Australia thats it [sic].” Portnoy, in an emailed response to questions from the Hot Sheet, says she has been unable to reach Darnell to discuss shipping costs.
With artist-gallery disputes on the rise, non-profit arts organizations are gearing up to offer help. In an effort to educate and help artists with the business side of their professions, the Glass Art Society is developing resources like sample contracts and photo releases to include on its website. “We want to give business tools to artists who don’t have access to them at this point,” says GAS executive director Pamela Koss.
Kristian Clarke, executive director of CARFAC Ontario, recommends thoroughly researching possible business partners, reviewing contracts and legal documents with lawyers, and educating oneself about the law and one’s rights. A provincial affiliate of Canadian Artists’ Representation/le Front des artistes canadiens, an established non-profit that supports professional visual artists in Canada with a range of professional services, CARFAC Ontario introduced the Visual Artists’ Legal Clinic of Ontario (VALCO) about five years ago to offer members some free legal advice. Clarke says members approach CARFAC Ontario with issues ranging from contract review and copyright to landlord disputes and bankrupt galleries that have not returned artwork.
“Artists are slaves to the idea that they have to get their artwork out there and that any opportunity is a good opportunity. If you’re potentially dealing with a disreputable entity, I truly believe that it’s not worth it in the end,” he says.
Artists should take a proactive stance to keep their business dealings running smoothly by making use of the wealth of international resources offered by non-profit arts organizations. Organizations such as a-n, Artquest, CARFAC, DACS, and NAVA share practical information on their websites to help artists with the various components of their careers. Artists seeking legal advice can look for a Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts organization (VLA) in their state. Over 25 states have at least one VLA that offers free legal advice; the oldest VLA is in New York City and helps more than 10,000 members of the arts community every year with information and legal services.