On Lawyer-Artists

by F.

When I was in college, I worked in an art gallery. This was in Seattle, and it’s not like there was some huge, sophisticated art scene that such galleries were part of. Seattle’s visual art world was—and is—pretty small-town. Not big business. At all. A painter I knew explained Seattle’s tiny visual art market this way: “People here don’t need beauty inside their homes, like they do in New York.” When I asked her why, she said, “In the Pacific Northwest, there is so much beauty outside, everywhere you look. You don’t need to buy it.” There may be something to this.

In any event, I was studying painting at school and got a job at one of the top five or so art galleries downtown. I hung the shows and looked through slides submitted by artists and got latte’s for the owner, a Ph.D. in art history who also had an appraisal business on the side. In addition to me, there were two women who worked there, one trying to sell art (she was a recent art history grad from Smith) and another who was more-or-less a secretary. Having aspirations to be a painter and working in a gallery was a bit like being a lover of sausages who gets a job at slaughterhouse. You just don’t want to know what goes on behind the scenes if you want to preserve your illusions.

For instance, we would get packets and packets of slides each week. I’m not sure how artists submit their work these days, but back then (late 1980’s), it was slides, usually in three-ring binders, along with a resume and a list of shows the artists had done. There was no real system to how the owner, Mary (I’ll call her), went through the submissions. Around the gallery were hundreds of binders, in no particular order. We would keep the binders until the artists got them or sent us a return-envelope. There was no way we were going to actually pay to send them back. And since the submission packages were expensive to produce, we didn’t want to just throw them away.

Much of the work was good, though a lot of it—perhaps a majority—was junk. Really, there was no way to tell junk form the quality. There was no real criterion. It was more-or-less arbitrary. During the time I was there (about 18 months, if I remember correctly) I don’t think Mary took on a single new artist. Mostly, the artists she sold were either established at another gallery (in, say, Portland, Oregon) or had some personal connection to her, such as a lawyer-artist named Doug (again, not his real name).

Doug was a lawyer in one of the larger firms in Seattle and did quasi-abstract landscape paintings. I don’t remember hearing about Doug much until his paintings were delivered to the gallery for me to hang. They were large—four feet square was a typical size—and painted sloppily. There were drips and smears and smudges all over them. The subject matter seemed to be Hawaiian islands, but the islands—which were just cone-shapes in a field of splotches—could have been anywhere in the world. The colors were almost day-glo, mostly yellow and green. They were just about the ugliest things I’d ever seen.

So I hung the show and the time came for the opening. I served champagne and made sure we had enough crackers for the cheese. There were a lot of what seemed like business people at the opening, probably friends and colleagues of Doug, who I think was an associate at that time, not a partner. But he was a fairly senior associate. These openings usually lasted a couple of hours and as things wound down I found Mary and asked her how many pieces had sold. “None,” she said, opening her eyes wide and smiling, it an expression of mock happiness.

This wasn’t that unusual. Often there were only a few sales at the opening. But as the month wore on—artists generally hung in the main gallery for a month—no one bought a thing. Finally, a friend of Doug’s bought something, I think. The rest of it just sat on the walls and then, when it was time for me to hang the next show, in the back room.

I’m not sure Doug anticipated that he wouldn’t sell anything, but he didn’t seem to eager to pick up his work. It hung around the gallery for a long, long time. The actual gallery was tiny, and we needed all the space we had. Doug’s works were larger than most that we carried. This fact, along with the dismal sales rate, meant they took up far to much space.

One day Mary asked me to call the artist and tell him to pick his stuff up. I called him at his office at his law firm. He seemed panicked. I would come in later years to understand this mindset well: this is the default setting of the lawyer. Too many demands on to few cognitive and temporal resources. Talking with him on the phone, he seemed to be doing seventeen different things at once. Finally, he focused on me and said, “I can’t do it today. I can’t.”

“When can you do it?” I asked.
“Uh—I don’t know. I don’t know—OK?”
“We really need the space, Doug.”
“I don’t have a truck. I need a truck.”
“I don’t have a truck. Don’t you understand that?”
“Can you rent one?” I asked him, starting to get a little irritated.

Of course, I was enjoying poking at him a little bit, because, here I was, a poor art student, with no hope of a financial future, talking to a guy making a six-figure income who was able to get a show in one of the very few “top” galleries in Seattle—and not just a few pieces. He got a whole show. A whole gallery to himself. For a month. And his work was seagull poop. We had piles of slides and there were, I knew, many talented people who would have died to have the whole gallery for their work. But he got it.

Just didn’t seem fair. But then, the world aint.

“Doug, we really need you to move those paintings,” I said, trying as hard as I could to be supercilious. “We just don’t have space for your work, and, as you know, we only sold one piece. So there are a lot of them here.”
“OK. OK. I’ll get a truck. I’ll call you back.”

I don’t remember when he actually came and got the paintings, but one day I came into the gallery and they were gone. I never heard anything more about Doug the lawyer-artist. He became a joke to those of us working at the gallery. But there were a lot of jokes. Most of the artists were jokes, even the ones who sold. Much of this may have been due to jealousy on my and the other employees’ parts. But there was some basis to our criticisms, too, because much of what was hung in that gallery wasn’t very good. And the gallery finally did go out of business.

Over the years, as I went from painter to philosophy grad student to lawyer (if you can’t beat them, join them), I wondered what happened to Doug. I wondered if he ever actually got his painting career going. It doesn’t seem he ever did. I couldn’t find a single reference on Google to any artwork made by the guy or any shows. Most visual artists, of course, have websites—often gorgeous ones, with beautiful digital photos of their work. But for Doug I found nothing.

He’s still practicing law, though. Has his own firm—a tiny one. And he’s probably made a good living, because law is a really good business, even in a small market like Seattle. And art is a bad business, which is probably why he appears to be selling billable hours instead of drippy day-glo paintings of non-descript Hawaiian islands.