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Artistic Tension

Artists complain that some local galleries are breaking Arizona law

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Arizona law clearly stipulates how artists and the galleries that display their work are to be contractually related. But local artists complain some Tucson galleries are either ignorant of the law, or are willfully ignoring it.

"Seven out of 10 galleries have language (in their agreements) counter to the state law," estimates ceramist Joy Holdread, who supplied redacted contracts from various galleries around town to back up her claim. She calls the practice adversarial and dishonorable.

Holdread, who teaches a workshop entitled "That's Art Biz" at Pima Community College, stresses the complaints she has heard from artists about galleries are up 10-fold in the last three years. "They're not being paid on time," she says, "and works which are damaged or missing are not being paid for (by the gallery)."

Article 12, Title 44 of the Arizona Revised Statutes plainly addresses the "Consignment of Works of Fine Art." It requires a written agreement between the artist and the gallery, with payment for works sold to be made monthly. If that is not done, the artist is to receive triple the amount due. In addition, the gallery is "strictly liable for the loss of or damage to the work of fine art."

"Most galleries are not aware of the state provisions," emphasizes David Hoyt Johnson of the Tucson-Pima Arts Council. While the government funded organization has the state law posted on its Web site, Johnson says: "TPAC may have to take a more proactive role for everyone's mutual benefit."

With galleries receiving between 40 and 60 percent of the sales price of a work, artists think that is enough payment for their services. Not being compensated in a timely fashion, or at all, complicates the artist's life further. It also takes away from their creative time while strengthening their belief in the need for a written agreement which complies with the state statute.

"It's beneficial to both sides to have a written contract based on the law," says stain-glass artist Denise Morton. "Have in writing what the expectations are so there is no confusion."

Reflecting on her experience with a Tubac gallery, Morton explains: "They were six months behind in paying me and refused my calls." After persisting, Morton says, she received partial payment for her goods that were sold. She then pulled the remainder out of the gallery.

Despite those and many other horror stories from artists, a sampling of gallery owners shows most think they are doing a good job meeting the requirements of the law.

Indicating her eastside gallery absolutely complies with the statute, Maggie Mardon says: "We wouldn't be in business without the artists." But, she adds, she has heard the stories of artists having bad experiences with some galleries.

Referring to the painters whose work she displays as "like family," River Road gallery owner Jane Hamilton sounded surprised when informed about the Arizona law. But she also states: "We have consignment sheets and pay by the 15th of the month following a sale. We're cheerleaders for the artists, but sometimes, we're not as appreciated as we should be. We pay the sales tax, ship the pieces and put on the shows. When you haven't done that, you may not value it as highly."

Tana Kelch, owner of downtown's Bohemia, says her gallery has no problem complying with the state law. With more than 200 artists having works in her gallery, she stresses: "So many galleries do things in different ways. It's kind of confusing, so it's tough for the artist to keep up."

Years ago, when the Legislature was looking to strengthen the art consignment law, Hank Rentschler of El Presidio Gallery was contacted about the proposal. "I took the side of the artist," he emphasizes. Saying he usually pays artists within days of a sale, the longtime foothills gallery owner observes: "If I sell a painting, I need a replacement."

On the other hand, Rentschler thinks many gallery owners don't know about the state law. One he heard about even put sale proceeds into a six-month certificate of deposit before paying the artist.

Some galleries treat artists like second-hand citizens, according to 76-year old painter and ceramist Phil Bellomo. He understands that galleries have a high economic mortality rate, but also cites his own experience where a local gallery was sold and his art was sent to an El Paso store without his being informed.

Having taught at Pima Community College for more than two decades, Bellomo reflects: "Most artists are very insecure people, and they are so trusting, because they have to be. They're really not business people. We make magic instead."

Both sides in this debate perceive the other as not understanding their function. Gallery owners claim artists ignore the high overhead they have in rent, utilities and staff, along with promoting the art work. Artists believe some gallery owners don't appreciate them and don't sympathize with how time-consuming it is to have to chase down checks.

"Some galleries are taking advantage of artists," reiterates Holdread, "but artists should refuse to be victimized. They can walk into a gallery with their own contract. It's nice to negotiate with a gallery owner, if you can, but sadly, there are 10 artists waiting (to show their work) at the door of every gallery."

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