Art critic and historian Irving Sandler doesn't just write about art, he has a collection of dozens of two- and three-dimensional works by noted artists of the postwar era. For instance, there is a large-scale Joan Mitchell painting in his living room that he has pledged to donate to the Brooklyn Museum upon his death. However, he said, "I'm not a collector," meaning that what he owns he didn't buy. These works were gifts from artists he reviewed favorably, a few were wedding gifts. The artists had become his friends. There was "no quid pro quo, so no ethical problem, because the gifts were given after a review was published and not in order to influence what I was going to write."
Friendships are important for artists, as personal relationships with the right people may lead to recommendations and tips to collectors, curators and dealers, perhaps resulting in commissions, gallery representation, invitations to exhibit and sales. Nothing so unusual about this: In the business world, it is called "networking." What may distinguish friendships between artists and art writers from relationships in other fields is the practice of gift-giving.
"I've done it. I think it is pretty common to give artworks to writers," said Elyn Zimmerman, a New York City sculptor and photographer. "There are a number of artists I know who make drawings that they keep in a desk drawer for just this purpose. The drawings aren't overly involved but are identifiable as their work." This practice may extend beyond just artists, according to Phyllis Tuchman, a critic and curator, as well as a former president of the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics, who claimed that "some galleries give small works by artists to critics." Thanks for the kind words in Art in America.
The problem - if you see it as a problem and many art writers do not - is that the gift-giving is all one-way. Art critics don't give away essays and reviews but expect to be paid, and if they write favorably about an artist, or even if they don't, they simply are doing their job. An artist's job is to create objects to sell, but they also appear to need to make things in order to ensure good will. "Is it quid pro quo? I'll write a good review of your show if you give me a painting? I don't really think so," said Eleanor Heartney ("I've been given gifts of art from artists who were friends"), a critic and former president of the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art.
That isn't to say that art writers who accept gifts from artists are lacking moral scruples. To Phyllis Tuchman, there is "a huge difference between being a good friend of the artist and someone whom an artist hardly knows" in terms of being a recipient of an artist's gift. Yet another critic and former president of the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics, Kim Levin ("a few artists have given me things over the years"), draws the line with artwork she doesn't care for. "I've never accepted anything from an artist whose work I didn't like," she said.
Right and wrong on the issue of accepting gifts of artwork tend to be personal issues for art writers rather than a generally accepted practice. Levin noted that The Village Voice, for which she regularly wrote reviews at one point, "had a rule against accepting things," but different publications operate with different or no rules. The International Association of Art Critics has no policy regarding the ethics of receiving gifts. At a board meeting, Tuchman said, "someone brought up the issue, and I said to that person, 'You've never gotten any gifts.'"
Newspapers generally have stricter policies for their staff reporters and freelancers than do magazines and online publications. The New York Times, for instance, requires reporters and stringers to read and sign an ethics policy, which includes the statement that writers "will not accept free transportation, free lodging, gifts, junkets, commissions or assignments from current or potential news sources."
Levin did not recall any discussion of the proprieties of accepting gifts from artists when she was president of the art critics association. "We were more concerned with the proposal that gallery owners might become members of the association." The drawback to galleries as members, she explained, is that they might seek to influence critics in one way or another.
Some may think that artists' gifts are a perquisite of the job. John Perrault stated that when he began writing for ARTnews in 1963, the magazine paid $4 per review and $150 for a feature length article, "so everyone knew critics were underpaid. And if you were also a poet, like myself, you were clearly starving." (Perhaps one of those grateful artists might have given him a sandwich instead of an artwork.) Dore Ashton, an art critic, historian and curator, also complained about the low rates of payment. "When you think of what writers are paid, it's almost for free. I was a working mother; I had to pay school fees and that sort of thing." One of the gifts she received some decades ago was a large sculpture ("it probably weighs 500 tons") by Isamu Noguchi, whom she called a family friend. "I gave my daughter the Noguchi. It's for her future."
Art critics aren't the only ones who might justify receiving gifts for doing their jobs because of how poorly they are paid. In his 1952 "Checkers Speech," which sought to explain why he took $18,000 for a group of supporters, then vice presidential nominee Richard Nixon claimed that his then current job as a California senator was inadequately compensated: "Let me tell you in just a word how a Senate office operates. First of all, the Senator gets $15,000 a year in salary. He gets enough money to pay for one trip a year, a round trip, that is, for himself, and his family between his home and Washington D.C." That speech, now proverbial as an effort to talk one's way out of an ethical jam, was a success at the time. The context has changed but perhaps not the sentiment.
For artists, the question may be whether or not giving gifts to art writers and curators is valuable for their careers. Zimmerman said that "my experience of giving things is that it hasn't really helped me," while Tuchman called it "a good career move." Still, the artist continues to have give-away art on hand and the critic continues to have her hand out.
A different version of this essay appeared as a post on the Web site of the International Sculpture Center.