Application Sunday, part IX: Publish my work? Thanks, but no thanks: A vanity publication cautionary tale

Vanity publication

Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: This week I submitted  work to this open call by Saatchi Gallery Open Call to artists

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part IX: Publish my work? Thanks, but no thanks: A vanity publication cautionary tale

We give it all we’ve got, our dreams, our time, all of our valuable resources, all into our work. Now it stares back at us, completed. Completed, but not fulfilled. A separate entity in itself, nevertheless still depending on us for its journey to meet its final destination: Its message communicated. The opportunities for such a thing are out there calling us and, as is the case with all self-proclaimed artist opportunities, they are overwhelmingly numerous. But are all of them good for us and our work?

Maybe it is a series of paintings we have just finished working on, maybe a mural, a group of works created in a new technique that we ourselves devised, an ephemeral artwork, that now exists only in the form of its documentation, one perhaps lasting hours but that took months to prepare. There may be a gallery we would like to show this work with and some ideas about how to pursue this, or we may feel that we have yet some distance to cover before getting there: Maybe we would rather “be discovered” or “get in the radar” of the gallery we are interested in, than actively pursue attention. No matter how close or far we are from showing our work in the framework of a real, physical setting, there is one thing that can definitely bring us a step closer to this desired outcome: Being published. More that that, being published is an exhibition opportunity in and by itself: It can communicate one’s work to the public, and also make it known to the very specific audience of the art world. But could being published be a recipe for success – or “discovery”- all by itself? Even more importantly: Could being published furnish the opposite results from what we wish for? Are there instances where publicity would rather be avoided than pursued? These are legitimate questions that could be posed by someone already aware of the dubious nature of most “opportunities” out there, among them those that are usually advertised with a “Get Featured!” moto, and, usually, come with a price. 

As is the case with having your work exhibited in a gallery, having your work “exhibited” in the virtual space of an art blog, online art magazine or printed publication/review, should not in and by itself be considered beneficial for your work or your career as a whole. Given the striking analogies between showing in a gallery and “showing” in a publication, it would be fair to assume that one’s association with certain publications could very well discredit one’s work, on the sole grounds of these publications’ predatory and self-serving nature. In my previous post To apply or not to apply? 7 indicators of the wrong kind of artist call I talk about what is know as “vanity galleries”. These businesses, investing on the “vanity”, and sometimes desperation, of artists that want to show at all costs without giving any serious consideration to the actual value the particular gallery will provide them with, sell their services at a high price, when in reality they are doing more harm than good: Individuals that occupy key positions in the art world, owners of reputable galleries, collectors, curators, critics, etc., all of which an artist would naturally be interested in attracting the attention off, are well aware of these “pay to show” enterprises and are most likely anything but positively impressed when spotting them in an artist’s resume. Why wouldn’t the same logic apply to the field of publications: On the one hand there are the respected publications, the ones that have established themselves in the art world over years of providing it with a quality resource. One should naturally be delighted, if not humbled, to be featured in one of these publications. This would indeed be a success and could potentially propel one’s career. On the other side of the spectrum, there are publications with no long standing presence in the art world, no valuable contribution to demonstrate and that use practices that could be characterized as predatory, practices quite similar to those employed by “vanity galleries”. They promise instant fame and fortune, instant “discovery” (just as “vanity galleries” do), often for a hefty price. One could therefore call them “vanity publications”.

Just as is the case with predatory galleries, “vanity publications” feed off certain artists’ desire for their work to be communicated, and off their perceived “need” to be heard then and there. In doing so, these organizations pretend to be some kind of gatekeepers (and charge you to “let you in”), but in reality these are not gatekeepers one should care to pass through (and for that matter one shouldn’t be fully invested in passing through any of the real gatekeepers either). If you come to think of it, these publications’ existence is quite natural, given the state of the “market”, which, in this case, is the artists themselves: Whenever the demand in something overwhelms what is on offer (in this case, whatever publicity is there to be had from the traditional publishing sector) there is opportunity for profit. That isn’t to say that the so called traditional publishing houses or established art publications always practice “fair play” in their field. One look at the content of these publications would suffice for one to question whether factors such as the newsworthiness of an event or the intrinsic value of an artwork are the only ones that come into play when determining what will be published. But then, the same goes for the gallery world: The work’s intrinsic value, its meaning and artistic quality, is not always the primary criteria in choosing what will be exhibited. After all, galleries, as well as publications, are businesses as well as art organizations and one should not overlook the implications of this fact on every level of these organizations’ activity. Having said that, there are some art publications that do not operate like businesses, meaning, with profit as their ultimate, superior objective, and are primarily invested in showing the best of what is out there. Needless to say, that this is the kind of publications that one would be most benefited from having their work featured in.

Leaving the scholarly art publications/journals aside, the essential difference between the two kinds of businesses, the galleries and the publications, is that established, respected publications, just as it is with galleries, are also interested and vested in benefiting the artist, whereas the “vanity” kind, care solely for their own, namely financial, benefit.

So here again, as is the case with galleries, artists that “want publicity and they want it now”, are the first, easy, targets. They are the ones that get tricked into paying the price for the feature, are featured in a usually badly edited, heavily populated publication (the more the featured artists, the higher the revenue), and list the “success” in their resume thinking it will provide them with CV value, when it will most likely do the opposite. These “feature opportunities” can usually be easily identified and avoided. There are some calls though, crafted by real “professionals” (I will leave it up to you to decide what they are professionals in): Their expertise is such that one can easily mistake them for real opportunities, and in the end find themselves featured in a “vanity publication” just as well. These “incognito” vanity opportunities make a category in themselves, and multiply like rabbits, most probably because the traditional “vanity publications” using the old recipes of “vanity opportunities”, namely charging a fee outright and having a flashy visual identity, are more and more seen by artists as what they actually are and avoided. So they have started to mutate into something else, difficult to read right from the start. I happen to have had the experience of applying to be featured in such a publication. I was accepted and, after realizing what the deal was, managed to prevent my feature from being published in the nick of time. This experience is worth sharing, as I believe it could serve as an eye opener and a cautionary tale for artists starting out, that can be easy targets for these sugar coated “opportunities”.

At some point during last year’s operation “application storm”, that involved sending out at least 4 applications per month, without giving it a lot of though or doing any substantial research (as I realized afterwards the situation called for e-mailing the organizers and asking them to clarify some points), I responded to a call by an “arts organization” to be featured in what they described as their first publication dedicated to emerging artists. The call, with the tag line “Emerging Artists – Free Opportunity!” (now, reading this again, I should have been warned!) invited artists interested in being included in the catalog to submit “their best work”, that, if selected, would be included in the catalog feature. As advertised, no fee was being asked to apply or to be included in the catalog (if selected). The call’s page on the organization’s site “shouted” that the organizers were doing this out of sheer generosity and interest in helping emerging artists to advance. In their own words, because “we know how important it is to keep creating opportunities for artists. We constantly look for new doors to open, and when we find one we want to hold it open for you too.” Describing their “eureka” moment, as they called the moment they had the idea for their “Artists to look out for” catalog, presenting it as a revelation that came to the emerging artists’ rescue high and wide, they went on boasting (in the humble way a savior would): “We suddenly realized that you — as a unique artist with a unique story — should be treating yourself like a brand and that we — as the trailblazers that we are — should be helping you do that because, well, it’s is what we do. We thought of ways we could implement our new found ideas, and one of them was to create a book. Hell, we’ve already made catalogs for all of our exposure exhibitions…” At which point a link to one of their past publications was included. I did visit the link and concluded from what I could make of it, that it was a decent exposure for the featured artists: A publication of decent taste, not having the flashy aesthetic one usually sees in “vanity publications” and also the artists were quite few in number, about 15 from what I could tell. So, judging from this reference, and also by the fact that there was no fee, this seemed like a genuine opportunity. So I applied. Some time passed and I was informed that my work had been selected. In the e-mail informing me about my success, the organizers’ generosity was being stressed yet once more in saying that the Director of the Organization’s Programs “decided that after all of our hard work this year, she just wanted to give something back to the art community. That’s why she decided to create the Artists to Look Out For catalogue; to help emerging artists like you even more – and make it free! I can’t tell you how excited we are to share this opportunity with you.” So once again, I was meant to be humbled at the altruism and kindness of these people and regain my trust in the good in this world.

But, because from my initial reading of the call, that for your reference, and to maximize your benefit from this report I provide a link to here, some questions were left unanswered, after thanking them for this opportunity, I proceeded in asking them to clarify some grey areas. Here is my e-mail responding to the news of my “success”:

Dear Ms …….,

I was very pleased to receive your e-mail and the news about the acceptance of my application. I am excited to be part of this project and looking forward to seeing the printed catalog.

I would be interested to know, if possible, some further details about it, such as how many artists will be featured in it and whether the catalog will also be distributed at any of the events that Starry Night Retreat will be participating in, such as an art fair.

I will be available at this e-mail adress in case you need anything regarding the catalog.

Best regards,

………

To which I received the reply that the catalog would be featuring 100 artists and that yes, it would be brought to upcoming art fairs, but it was obvious that for the artists included in the catalog, just as it would be for the visitors of the Maiami Art Fair (one of the events the catalog would feature in) the catalog would have to be purchased. That, combined with the fact that no less than 100 artists would be cramped into this publication, lit a red light for me. Fathoming the approximate amount of money the organizers would be receiving from this venture (who would be published and then not purchase at least one catalog to be able to show? After all, one of their main “hooks” in the initial ad, as you may see on the ad’s page, was the artists’ “need” to have a “catalog” to show to galleries, art lovers and collectors). This is when I had my own Eureka moment: This can’t be but for the money! The “savior” profile the organizers seemed so anxious to project made this all the more evident. I realized I didn’t want to link my work or my name to this!

At which point I wrote the organizers the following:

August 2, 2014

Dear Ms …….,

After considering the facts about the catalog publication, I decided I would rather not be included in it. I was under the impression that it was going to be something concentrated to a small selection of artists, such as the one you are presenting on your site, the “Exposure Artists 2014”.

I am sorry to be withdrawing my participation but I am afraid the project seems to be something rather different than I thought.

All the best,
……

And then Silence. Silence again. After 6 days (they were very prompt in replying in our previous communication), I wrote to them again:

August 8, 2014

Dear Ms ……,

I am writing to request confirmation that you received my last e-mail and that my wish not to be included in the emerging artists catalog will be respected.

Kind regards,
….

No reply to that either. As the days passed I was growing anxious that they could potentially be as reckless as to publish my work never mind the withdrawal of my consent: Publish my work against my will. I wasn’t going to let that happen, and the more the silence from their end continued, the more I became certain that these people were opportunists and that I should definitely get my work out of their claws. Since there was no sign of life coming from their end, I tried to generate one once more by sending a message, this time through their contact form on their site. This was about a week after my initial request to withdraw my material:

Dear …, (this time I addressed another individual in the organization)

I have been accepted to be included in the Starry Night Retreat catalog “Artists to look out for'”. Nevertheless, after learning the details of the publication from ….. I expressed the wish not to be included in the catalogue, something I communicated as early as August 3rd through e-mailing …… In the e-mail I explained that having received the details of the project, the catalogue seemed to be something different than I thought. I didn’t receive an answer confirming that my wish would be respected, so i e-mailed to ….. again requesting confirmation, another e-mail that went unanswered..

I would like to make clear that Starry Night Retreat no longer has my permission to reproduce my material (text and photos I had sent responding to the call), and if it does, it (and you) will be facing the consequences of copyright infringement.

Silence. Again. In August 17, 15 days after my initial call not to be included in the catalog, I sent the above contact form message by e-mail to a different individual, the one I was initially communicating by e-mail, the Program Coordinator of the organization. I sent her the message in the hopes that maybe this time my wish and the implications of its neglect would be taken seriously. It worked. It only took 24 hrs to get the reply that yes, my wish would be respected, and I would not be included in the catalog.

But the reply came in a mysterious package: In the message I received the Program Coordinator maintained that the answer had already been sent to me over a week ago (before I wrote the “copyright infridgement” message) as a prompt reply to my August 8th e-mail to that person. This present message of August 18 seemed to just be forwarding me that allegedly already sent message. Yet that message had somehow never appeared in my inbox or anywhere else (spam folder included). This is how I interpreted all this: It took me letting them know that I knew my rights and present them with the potential legal consequences of their actions for them to be mobilized to do something and decide to pull my material off the “selected emerging artists” pile, thus respecting my wish. But of course, an organization only interested “to give something back to the art community” would not want to let it show that it took me invoking copyright infridgement in order for them to respect my wish.

Eventually the catalog came out, for which, as I found out, I would have to pay $40 to get my hands on, by itself a hefty fee (here is the purchasing page by the way). Only, this time, the fee was not clearly stated in the initial call and the applicant was led to believe that this was to be a FREE OPPORTUNITY. 

So here are some concrete lessons I learned from this episode:

  • If it looks like one, it is one (a vanity opportunity, that is). One good look at this one page call should tell you that these people, yes, employing better aesthetic elements that usual, but still, are praying on artists, even worse, on emerging artists (easier pray), using their hopes (We constantly look for new doors to open, and when we find one we want to hold it open for you too), fears (When you are talking to galleries and they ask “Where have you been published?” What do you show them?), flattery (We suddenly realized that you — as a unique artist with a unique story — should be treating yourself like a brand) and vague, empty promises of success (This catalog willSecure your position as an emerging artist that an established art organization has identified as an “Artist to Look Out For”). I promise, from now on, for my sake, I will keep clear from those that, apparently, all they want to do in this world is be my savior!
  • The sting is in the tail, as the saying goes. If something looks vague to you and creates uncertainty, as it did for me, it is better to ask up front and have the issue clarified before you take any further steps. A common denominator of vanity publication opportunities faking as real ones is that in one way or another you don’t get the whole story in their initial call. If they gave you the whole story then they would spoil their sugar coated image and scare you away (and what good would that do? -to them of course) In my case, in the call there was no mention as to the scale of the publication (the number of artists featured) – on the contrary, one was misled into supposing that this would be a modestly populated catalog. Also, there was no mention as to the cost of the catalog, that the artist would have to pay in order to et their hand into this -career boosting-artifact. Questions relating to these issues did emerge when I encountered the call, especially as far as what it would take for me to have the catalog if I was featured, but I did not take any steps in inquiring about them before I submitted. I decided not to ask, hoping for the best. Asking, and having “details” like these clarified up front is especially important because of this special feature this new kind of calls representing vanity opportunities have: As mentioned above there is a surge in “incognito” vanity opportunities. These are indeed empty opportunities that incur high cst for the artist but they are difficult to spot. They represent the evolutionary adaptation of the traditional predatory vantures, that, at least, one can spot pretty easily. You can read my seven indicators here.
  • Know your rights and let potential predators know you know them. Even at the last minute, once you have realized that you have been had, you knowing your rights and being willing to invoke them, may make the difference and save your work and your name from being associated with parasites of the art world. You and only you can say who has and who doesn’t have the right to use your material, that is images of your works and text that belong to you. And all of your work is by definition copyrighted material. If a person or organization goes ahead and uses your material without your permission they are exposed to the law: They are guilty of copyright infringement, an offense that brings with it sometimes serious consequences. So, don’t be afraid to use the big guns if you have to in order to protect your ultimate right to your own work! Even at the last minute, it may save the day.
  • As with everything else, if you want to be on the safe side, and be sure you are applying to publications that will represent you and that you will feel proud featuring in, do your research.. If I had done mine, I would have bumped on pages on the organization’s site like this, and this (not to mention the bio page of its founder) , and that would have told me loud and clear: Stay clear!!
  • Lastly, and maybe most importantly, be skeptical of organizers who like to present themselves as great altruistic benefactors: The best masquerade for someone that can easily separate you from your valuable resources for little in return is that of a great benefactor. No one can challenge the moral integrity of someone that does it “all for you”, to the point of self sacrifice.Again, the case study presented here, involving a particular organization, is intended to serve as a vivid example and a sample from what I understand to be an entire genre of “vanity publishing opportunities” masquerading as real ones. At the same time, specifics are shared in the belief that if questionable opportunists in the art world were exposed more often, the art world would be a more suitable (and safe) place for artists.

Now it’s your turn: Have you ever swallowed the bait of a “vanity publication”, and been published in a way that didn’t represent you? Did you by any chance realize what you had gotten yourself into and managed to get out of it in time? What has your experience with art publications taught you so far? Has it been easy or difficult for you to get the right kind of exposure? Would you add something to the list above as far what is it that one should be aware of when responding to publication opportunities?

Featured image: Latteral move, 25 x 20 cm, image transfer, 2011, Penelope Vlassopoulou

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