For nearly two years now, Chicago art booster Paul Klein has been running a for-profit mini business school for artists. Klein Artist Works is a three-month webinar that meets weekly for lectures by guest experts, studio tours, and advice from Klein on how to maximize the potential and avoid the pitfalls of an art-world career. It has a broad reach, attracting students from places as distant as Norway and Hong Kong.
On June 7, as the summer session was about to get under way, Klein dispatched an e-mail to the mass subscriber list he'd built for ArtLetter, his free online newsletter about gallery openings and events. This missive wasn't a regular ArtLetter, however. It looked more like a solicitation for the $1,000-$1,250 seminar, dressed up as an exposé of nefarious practices by one Chicago gallery. It popped up in e-mail boxes all over the city and beyond, with this arresting title in the subject line: "How a Gallery Cheated an Artist."
The subhead was "Don't Let This Happen to You."
Here's how it opened:
Nothing quite gets me going more than people who take advantage of artists. I teach a course (Klein Artist Works) because I want to see artists empowered, more respected, more influential in our society, and making a whole lot more money.
One of the artists who's taken my course shared this receipt from a gallery she was represented by. Policies/behavior revealed here are hogwash and unethical.
This was followed by a scan of a gallery receipt issued to an artist for work sold in August 2006. "Here's what happened," Klein wrote. "The gallery paid to have 5 works of art framed, sold one, split the proceeds 50/50 and then deducted the cost of framing from the artist's share. This is a horrible business practice!"
According to Klein, only the frame for the piece that was sold should have been deducted, and the gallery should have paid half the cost of that. The way he figured it, "the gallery cheated the artist out of $1710!"
On Facebook a chorus of Klein's "friends" quickly ramped up the outrage. "What a rip off," and "Shame on them," they wrote. "This is repulsive," one noted. "Wish I knew which gallery it was . . . "
Klein had blacked out the names of the artist and the gallery on the receipt, but the title of the work and the address and phone number of the gallery were all intact. Chili Peppers had been sold by the dealer at 212 W. Superior St., Chicago, 312-664-6622.
That didn't make it much of a mystery. Anyone who didn't recognize the location only had to google it: 212 W. Superior is the address of Ann Nathan Gallery. And a search for Ann Nathan Gallery and Chili Peppers brings up the artist, Amy Lowry.
One of those who didn't need to look the gallery up is mosaic artist Jeffrey Conroy, who says he's been getting Klein's ArtLetter e-mails for "a long time" but doesn't often open them. When "the subject of how a gallery cheated an artist came up," however, he did, and was startled to find that "the address and phone number [of the dealer] are a gallery that I've worked with for about 12 years."
A staple of the Chicago art world, Nathan started her business 32 years ago, in the Ravenswood studio of ceramicist and sculptor Ruth Duckworth. Like Klein, Nathan's a veteran of the infamous 1989 fire in the River North gallery district.
"I've always been treated very fairly and ethically at Ann Nathan," Conroy says. "This just seemed really harsh and unfair. This little piece of what seemed to me to be a portion of a transaction was being posted as a smoking gun. Why wasn't anyone asking what happened to the other four pieces on the receipt? It seemed to me that this was an incomplete document."
Ann Nathan says that's right. Klein hadn't asked her, but some of the other pieces had previously sold. The artist had been paid for them a month earlier, without being charged for framing, Nathan says. And her gallery's standard consignment agreement specifies that the artist is responsible for the cost of framing. That shouldn't have surprised Lowry, who according to gallery records has sold 122 works at Ann Nathan since 1994—including one that staffers were getting ready to ship when the phone starting ringing with the calls from friends that brought Klein's e-mail to their attention.
"As all of you know I'm not a fan of Art Dealers—but I've known Ann Nathan for 35 years and done MUCH business with her and NEVER found her anything but above board, honest, kind and generous.......she is one of the good ones...and this public mistreatment of her is nothing short of vile........"
"And by the way," he told me, "in case any of [Klein's] students are wondering, that's how not to have a career."
Last week Lowry—who was out of the country—apologized to Nathan by e-mail. And Klein sent a public apology to the same people who got the original message. He also sent a floral arrangement to Nathan, along with a contrite note. "I sent it back," Nathan says. "They were gorgeous and I love flowers, but I don't need his flowers. I've hired a lawyer."