Father Knows Best
What does the average doctor have in common with the average gallerist?
It sounds like the setup for an art world joke. And while I'm sure I could come up with a whole arsenal of punch lines at the expense of either party involved, I'm not asking because I want to fire some pithy shots. I'm asking because I want to make a point about the dangers of paternalism—especially concerning represented artists' access to their own sales and expense records.
For the uninitiated, few gallerists regularly or voluntarily disclose this information to the members of their roster. I don't mean for the gallery's business as a whole. I mean even for the specific slice of the business that corresponds to a particular artist's output. In other words, Leo Castelli likely wasn't just holding back his overall profit and loss figures from Jasper Johns. He was also holding back his Jasper Johns-based figures from Jasper Johns.
In this arrangement, it's not the least bit irregular for an artist to receive a check from her gallerist unaccompanied by any data other than what piece was sold to generate it. No indication of when the deal happened, what kind of discount the (often unnamed) collector may have received, which expenses may have been deducted from the artist's cut, etc.
It's true that some gallerists will volunteer more than this trickle of information without prompting. However, they tend to be the exception. Many if not most others will only provide numbers to an artist if specifically asked.
Even then, the artist has no way to verify the accuracy of what she's being told. And if requesting the data itself isn't already enough to enflame (or even completely incinerate) the relationship, suggesting an audit almost certainly will be.
If you polled gallerists as to why they perpetuate this asymmetry of information, the most popular answer will be that artists should be "allowed to be artists." Let them focus on creating rather than getting mixed up by margins and budgets and consignor splits. Few of them have the knowledge base needed to process the arcana of commerce anyway. Why confuse or frighten them with an unnecessary bombardment?
Incidentally, this paternalistic attitude is the same one that the healthcare industry has relied on for practically its entire existence. Doctors traditionally restrict access to their patients' own data for their patients' own (alleged) protection. Why expose them to charts, notes, and test results they're not equipped to process? It only creates the risk of misinterpretation, misuse, and ultimately, misguided decision-making capable of worsening their medical outcomes.
Much better to let the experts be the experts, right?
Aside from its baked-in condescension, the problem with this paternalistic approach is that it's only good insofar as the authority figure wielding it can be trusted (as I recently argued about art market data in a macro sense here.) Ultimately, no one is infallible. Even good experts miss things.
This is true of doctors even despite their years of rigorous training and peer review. Maybe they forget the critical minutiae of a previous appointment. Maybe they aren't up to date on the medical literature regarding a niche condition. Maybe they just make a questionable (or outright wrong) decision because the baby kept them up all night.
Yet short of the rare malpractice case, doctors aren't the ones who suffer because of these mistakes. The patients are. And if they saw the full information their doctors so often keep from them, maybe they wouldn't have to.
Artists are in an even worse situation. In contrast to becoming a licensed physician, opening a gallery requires no advanced degree, no residency, no board certification—no formal training whatsoever. All it demands is a sweaty envelope of cash and a will to proceed.
That means that even the honest brokers in the industry are likely to make mistakes eventually. Factor in the toxic ooze seeping from the pores of the dishonest ones, and artists are at even greater risk of receiving a fiscal prostate exam from their gallerists without ever knowing it.
However, the other difference between the contemporary patient and the contemporary artist is that, in the former case, the power dynamic is reversing. As the physician Eric Topol explores in his recent book The Patient Will See You Now (as well as this episode of Russ Roberts's EconTalk podcast), the personal data revolution is stripping doctors of their former status as the sole gatekeepers of their patients' data.
Now, in the era of Fitbit, 23andme, and an ever-increasing number of other tech-based options, patients of even modest means can gather more hard info about their health than any flesh-and-blood medical professional... which means, for the first time in history, those medical professionals need their patients' permission for access, instead of the opposite.
The closest approximation for artists is their newfound ability to sell directly to collectors on digital platforms like Instagram or a makers' emporium like Saatchi Art. If the ones building their careers through this kind of DIY commerce eventually manage to rise high enough for gallerists to come calling, then they may momentarily hold the same leverage as the 21st century patient.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is both very new and, as far as I can tell, very small-scale. The gallery system is still the surest path to a sustainable career as an artist. And since gallerists strongly discourage their roster from making direct sales of any kind, the few artists compiling firsthand sales data would be forced to sacrifice it the instant they trade independence for traditional representation. And at that point, they'd better hope that father really does know best.