WHEN JAMES SURLS moves, the Texas art scene invariably shakes. In founding the Lawndale Art and Performance Center in Houston seventeen years ago, the internationally acclaimed sculptor launched the “alternative space” boom that put Texas’ burgeoning contemporary art scene in the public eye and eventually compelled Texas’ major commercial galleries to handle homegrown artists. Now Surls is suddenly shaking things up again. At a series of four public meetings he organized in March and April in Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, the 53-year-old began a campaign to reform the way art galleries do business with artists.
The meetings attracted wide notice in the art community—in Dallas, a standing-room-only crowd of about two hundred attended—because of the souring relationship between artists and dealers in recent years. Artists have frequently complained about sloppy record keeping and lengthy delays in collecting their cut, which is typically 50 percent of the sale price.
Surls says the problem was first driven home to him four years ago, when he was a partner in Houston’s Hiram Butler Gallery. At a dinner party he was told that his gallery had owed venerated nonagenarian sculptor Clyde Connell $10,000 for a year. “I was horrified,” says Surls. “I told the gallery, ‘We don’t pay another bill until we pay her.’”
Other artists have spoken of longer delays—up to three and a half years—in collecting sums approaching $50,000. But the extent of the problem remains murky; galleries have a glut of artists clamoring to get in, and most of the aggrieved parties fear they will be kicked out if they complain. “Or they’re embarrassed to admit they’ve been had,” Surls says. The galleries most often cited—in private—are those that expanded too aggressively when sales boomed in the late eighties and couldn’t keep up with their bills when the market crashed in the early nineties.
Surls agonized about going public and didn’t speak out until he had come up with two measures that would dramatically change the conduct of the art business. “First, galleries should send artists a copy of the invoice when a piece is sold,” he says, “telling them how much it sold for, when it sold, and who bought it. Second, they should establish a trust account for all the artists in the gallery. Any money coming into that account should be used to pay the artists, the dealer’s share, and the sales tax. It shouldn’t be used to buy the lot next door.”
Those recommendations have received good reviews from some dealers. “Galleries that are ethical won’t have problems doing these things,” Talley Dunn, the president of the Dallas Art Dealers’ Association, told the Dallas meeting. “But I’m afraid that the ones that aren’t ethical will continue to do business as usual.”
Surls, however, believes that the deadbeats can be rooted out if artists band together. “There are going to be casualties,” he predicts. “But we need to get this beast out of the business.”