Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is co-sponsored by KQED.org.
I’m a new arts administrator, and I live in [a mid-size city]. Through my four years of art school here and my job, I know many artists who live in this city. I started writing art reviews last year, and all of a sudden I’m feeling pressure to write about my friends’ work. It’s not like they are asking me directly, but hints have been dropped. I have no problem reviewing work that I think is good, but the problem is that there are some people whom I like very much, but I don’t think their work is that great. How do I get out of reviewing the work that I don’t like without losing my friends?
This is a sticky situation indeed. You want to write about the artwork that you enjoy, but you also want to support the people you love; unfortunately, sometimes there’s not much overlap between these two groups in the big Venn Diagram of Life. Let’s review some of the ways you can negotiate this minefield without blowing up your friendships.
First, there’s the “it’s out of my hands” tactic, which is my personal favorite because someone else gets to play Bad Cop. If you’re publishing reviews, you ought to see if there’s an editorial policy already in place at the blog/newspaper/magazine(s) with whom you are working. The policy will spell out what you’re allowed to write about and what you’re not, and if you haven’t been presented with one yet, it can’t hurt to ask. Many editorial policies state that a writer cannot review the work of an artist with whom she has a personal relationship. Admittedly, this kind of thing is a double-edged sword: it removes all responsibility for not being able to review friends’ bad exhibitions, but it also eliminates the possibility of reviewing friends’ work that is good. The important thing is that your hands are tied; in either case, all you have to do is shrug and say, “It’s too bad I can’t write about this show.” End of story.
On a related note, you may also have some easy outs due to your job as an arts administrator. For example, if you work for a granting institution, you might not be able to review shows that were made by artists receiving funding from your institution. Once again, check with the higher-ups at your place of employment to see if they have any guidelines (tacit or explicit) that they expect you to follow. Obviously, if you work in a gallery or museum you can’t review an exhibition there; again, these affiliations take the decision-making power out of your hands.
Depending on how strict the conflict-of-interest policy is, you may not be able to write about work that you do like, so let’s talk about other ways that you can support your artist friends. Probably the most essential way to encourage and sustain your friends is to show up. It’s often difficult to accomplish because, by Thursday night, we’re all tired and busy and coming down with a head cold. Yet the most supportive thing to do is simply be present for openings, performances, screenings, gallery talks, etc. In an age where most artwork is available online, showing up is becoming a profound act. So be present, shake hands, and say congratulations when you can.
You can also help spread the word on opportunities like exhibitions, grants, and residencies. As an arts administrator, you probably see calls for entry and applications all the time, and you can post these to your Facebook page or tweet them, or even, if the opportunity seems tailor-made for someone in particular, send an e-mail letting the artist know that you thought of her when you saw it. Again, this is a simple act, but it says, “I see you. I see your work. I want you to do well.” We all need to feel like someone is looking out for us from time to time.
Bear in mind, too, that your not liking a friend’s work doesn’t mean it’s without merit. It’s possible that you can use your writing skills to support your friends in other ways, such as writing a short profile of the artist (very different from passing judgment in a review), or interviewing her about her process. You can also connect like-minded artists to help them expand their support networks or possibly organize workshops through your employer that help artists with career skills. Writing a review may be the most prestigious way to validate an artist’s work, but other strategies may be longer lasting and have more impact on the day-to-day exigencies of an art practice, so don’t discount your ability to help your friends—all of them—using vehicles other than the coveted review.
And what if there are no guidelines at any of the places where you work or publish your writing, and you can’t foist the decision to write or not to write onto anyone else? Well, perhaps it would be best to set a policy of not reviewing the work of any friends at all. But this can be a very burdensome restriction in a smaller town where everyone knows everyone, so if you can’t or won’t heed this counsel, at minimum you should draw the line at sex and money. Never review the exhibition of someone you are currently sleeping with or have slept with in the past—there are so many ways this could come back to haunt you. Likewise, if you own the artist’s work or have a financial relationship with the gallery, don’t write about the show; this is a classic case of conflict, and even if your intentions are good, it will make you look bad. Whatever else you do, don’t put your own credibility on the line.
Saying this, I admit that some people will never be happy with your decision, and at some point “friends” may drift out of your life when they don’t get what they want from you. Let them. I may sound like your mom, but the old chestnut about those people not being your real friends anyway certainly holds true here. You need never defend yourself or apologize for not reviewing a show, no matter what your relationships are to the artist or the gallery. If you’re working with integrity and helping artists in ways that show you appreciate their endeavors, then your real friends will have nothing but respect for you. Good luck!