I told him, politely, I didn't work that way. I explained that my individual relationship with everyone who was interested in my work, whether they were collectors or not, was enormously important to me and I went into some detail about how my online presence – through a heavily trafficked web site, a 'blog, Twitter, YouTube, and even LinkedIn – encouraged constant contact. The gallerist didn't know what Twitter was, and I suspect, hadn't actually ever read a 'blog – let alone mine. When I mentioned that he could see how transparently I lived and worked through my blog, he thought I'd said 'blood'. Even the word 'blog' was unfamiliar.Still, we talked around the stumbling block of his insistence on representation a little more even though I knew the relationship was doomed and I should withdraw.After he'd finished his coffee and cake, I walked him to the end of a long work table covered with paint cans and work debris to a clear space where my stencil prototype lay on glassine paper. I talked a little about how it was created and why. As he had with all the other work, he told me how much he liked it but I realised that he hadn't been listening: he suggested I do the stencil image as a giclée prints. "As you know, artists can't do traditional colour prints anymore," he said, somewhat archly (and wrongly). "So they're printed in ink." Ink as in ink-jet printing. The last thing I wanted to do were giclée reproductions – which he would have known had he read my last entry here. The gallery owner left before I could tell him that I wasn't going to exhibit with him. I called him as he was driving away in his large, shiny, foreign-built car. Politely, I insisted I was looking for an exhibition, not representation. This provoked him to give me the same lecture I had first heard from another gallery owner over a decade ago. A little too loudly, he boasted that other artists were proud to be represented by him and respected what his gallery stood for. He went on to tell me that by joining his gallery, I would benefit from the gallery brand. Gallerists always talk about brand with very little understanding that a brand is not just a well-known name: it is inextricable from a set of clearly identifiable values and attitudes. I replied that – if we were speaking in those terms – I already had my own brand, so I didn't need his gallery's. "If anything," I said, my own voice rising a little, "my partnerships with galleries are about co-branding. And in every instance, my brand brings benefits equal or superior to the gallery's."The gallerist moved on quickly, telling me he didn't want to be 'used' for his space, and that the gallery would need a return for its "significant" investment in me during the exhibition. I pointed out that, quite apart from the fact that I usually bore the brunt of advertising and promotional costs for my exhibitions, the hefty commission on works his gallery could sell immediately before, during and for 60 days after the exhibition, not to mention the media attention my shows always generate, would be a more than generous return – on the space and on their time and effort.
His tone became emotional, angry: "What am I supposed to do if I am at a dinner party and someone asks if I represent you? What am I supposed to say?""Simply? No," I said."Look, you can't have your cake and eat it too," he blurted. I laughed. The exchange was slipping out of his control, an unfamiliar experience for him when dealing with a young artist.The gallery owner's last, weak jab was to tell me that his gallery worked to a specific structure, for which I had no respect because I didn't have one. I told him that my studio structure was probably as well or better organised than his but as it was now clear to me that our methods of working would not be compatible, I suggested we end the conversation. Of course, the 'structure' that old-school galleries like to talk about is nothing more than the same 'middle-man' system used by everyone from mortgage brokers to car dealers: a system in which artists are little more than suppliers of product which is then given 'shelf space' on a sale-or-return basis. In return, galleries 'mark up' the work with commissions that can reach as high as 60 per cent and are rarely less than 40, and the artist gets few, if any, back-office benefits like accounting, tax planning, inventory management, or strategic career advice. Even skilled marketing and communications are a stretch. Moreover, art dealers (and artists) of the old school don't want to accept that 'regional' art markets now exist on a much larger scale than mere cities. There's a world-wide community of collectors and fans (whose value, even if they can't afford the work, mustn't be underestimated), for whom online media enables and sustains a highly personal, ongoing dialogue directly with the artist. Even better, there are no opening hours, no middlemen, no doorkeepers, no 'exclusivity', no 'good address'. The gallery owner saw the value in displaying my name and work on his website but he had no real understanding of how the internet worked beyond what he kept referring to as his 'virtual shop front'. Ironically, the reason he had schlepped out to see me at the enamel factory, in the unfashionable industrial suburbs far from the centre of Sydney, was because he had been impressed by the speed and scale of the spreading awareness of my name and work over the past couple of years. He was entirely resistant to the idea that this had been accomplished almost entirely online. My encounter with the gallery, from whom, I suspect, I will never hear again, reaffirmed my view that the traditional system (a system to which not all gallery owners belong) is dying. What I hadn't really understood, until yesterday, was that the galleries still working within that system are determined to take as many artists with them as they can.