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Pay-to-play gallery: The real issue

By Peter Weed
Located in the city’s Old Port, the Portland Art Gallery’s pay-to-play model has created a bit of a tempest in city art circles – especially competing art gallery circles. Critics contend that the model rewards artists with the financial means to buy exposure, creating a situation where money trumps the merits of artists who lack the funding to participate.
However, the real issue may be the complicated, often murky, notion of transparency, especially when magazines that are assumed to have editorial independence are intertwined with a pay-to-play gallery and a branding company that are part of Maine Media Collective, an entity built upon cross-pollination.
The conflagration started with  publication of a Maine Sunday Telegram article by Bob Keyes. Then, BDN blogger Chris Busby poured sanctified gasoline on the flames under the header “The Wal-Mart of Maine art,” and online commenters broke out the pitchforks and torches.
In turn, Kevin Thomas, one of the players in the multi-tiered Maine Media Collective behind the Portland Art Gallery, leveled a predictable salvo in a Press Herald op-ed against the “old guard art elite,” where he took issue with the phrase “pay-to-play” and unfurled the “democratization” of the art market defense. (Democratization, functioning, as the bloody shirt of marketing-speak.)
At issue, for the detractors, is that the gallery’s criteria for selecting art, which, if Keyes is correct, consists of only selecting work by artists who are also paying to have their work displayed and marketed via Maine Art Collector online and in a print publication that is a piece of Thomas’ Maine Media Collective branding family. 
The collective is an entity built on intermarried platforms, which include the slick (but actually matte) Maine Magazine and Old Port magazine. 
Fueling the flames is Portland Art Gallery’s assertion that it is “dedicated to highlighting superb, curated artwork from artists all over Maine.” Left out is the fiduciary nature of this curation.
For the vocal detractors, the issue comes down to the fairness of leaving less well healed artists priced out of the marketplace, and replacing the traditional merit-based gallery selection process with an artist buy-in model. 
Unfortunately, what’s missing from the debate is asking what responsibility a brand company has to make financial relationships clear to its art buyers and to readers of sister publications where art (and other sectors) advertorial bleeds (or even appears to bleed) into editorial.

Purity is relative

Of course, the protesting purists have a few issues of their own. 
While the present art-as-investment mindset has done its bit to commodify art, the marriage of art and money is an ancient one. Whether Carravagio hiring out his brush, or Thomas Kinkaid adding his TM, art and money have, for better or worse, been intertwined for a long time, and the results can be messy.
Sorry to be the bearer of ill tidings, but traditional art galleries are not always temples of virtue when selecting work. Nepotism can raise its familiar head, there is always an eye on the bottom line (unless the gallery is a non-profit), and not all gallery owners are caring mentors.
The art business isn’t always a meritocracy, and, despite whispers in Keyes’ article about artist poaching in Portland, that practice is not exactly unknown in the art world.
Finally, it’s tough to argue against the virtue of opening up access for new artists. There is value in finding new ways for emerging artists to make an impact, and even some veteran gallery owners acknowledge the value of disrupting the traditional gallery model. 
A veteran NYC gallery owner recently shared his take: “Many young artists working today are looking at ways to circumvent the traditional gallery paradigm. Much of that is based on the speed of social media and the need for immediate gratification. I cannot fault them because in many ways the gallery model is outmoded.”
He goes on to explain that the art marketplace seems “more event driven by art fairs” than galleries at the national and international level.
In addition, the blanket dismissiveness of the work featured in Maine Art Collector and its galleries appears petty, especially by critics ostensibly concerned with artists. As evidence of the artistic bankruptcy of the Portland Art Gallery model, Busby uses a sizeable brush to dismiss the art as the “sort of unimaginative visual drivel that hangs in hotel rooms and the vacation homes of people with far more money than taste.” 
As anyone who has thumbed through a Maine Art Collector catalog can see, there is a high proportion of safe, décor-friendly work. However, to opine that “almost all the work on ACM’s website and in its galleries is trite junk” is thoughtlessly reductive, and Busby’s critique comes off as an easy cheap shot.

The real issue

Overlooked by the stone throwers and glossed over by the branders, the deeper problem of the issue is not that artists are paying to play, it is in how the art is marketed, particularly by a media company producing publications that seem to have a high proportion of positive articles about its advertisers.
The real issue is whether or not the media company has the ethical responsibility to label quid pro quo art selection or editorial selection as such. It’s an argument that happens in many editorial meetings, and it is particularly relevant when looking at a publishing family built as part of a branding enterprise.
While the firewall between editorial and marketing has gotten markedly thinner across the media landscape, there is still an implicit contract with readers that editorial content is selected on its merits rather than on invoices. Yes. Through the years, the influence of advertising has oozed into content. The problem is when the editorial model is built upon ooze, when exhibitions are labeled as curated, or when ads masquerade as content.
It’s a matter of perception. Whether or not there is bleeding between marketing and editorial, the structure of Maine Media Collective and its impact on editorial content invites skepticism, which makes transparency all the more important.
There’s a reason that reputable publications label content as “paid advertisements” or that unholy word, “advertorial.” It comes down to a matter of trust and perception.
It seems only right that an art buyer or magazine reader be made aware of paid relationships to understand where the branding stops and the real begins.
In a perfect world, transparency and trust go hand in hand.
The views expressed in the blogs on this site are exclusively those of the authors. They are not necessarily those of the Creative Portland Corporation, its board members or staff. 

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