Saturday, March 7, 2009

OPINION: What constitutes a conflict of interest in the visual arts?

This is in response to a question submitted by Marc Awodey and posted on February 28, 2009. Further responses will be posted as they are received by the editors, and may be lightly edited.

by Janet Van Fleet

Plugged In at SPA, 2005
It may be a hassle to question whether we might have a conflict of interest in some activity that we are undertaking, but I think it keeps us honest, and is worth the irritation. We’ve recently become intensely aware of what bad things happen to the economy when people relax into feathering their own nests at the expense of others. Maybe the consequences aren’t quite as dire in the art world (mostly, perhaps, because there is less at stake in cold, hard cash!), but they are still worth thinking about.

What is a conflict of interest? It is an act that does (or might) create a benefit to you at the expense of the interest of others. Marc said, for example, that he avoided reviewing exhibits at galleries where his work was displayed. Why? Because it might be seen as an effort to get people to go to the gallery to see the show he praised and, while they were there, have an opportunity to see (and possibly buy) his work. There might be a perception that he reviewed that show (instead of another, more “worthy” show) because of that self-interest.

Far Out at SPA, 2004

For me the issue arises more in the context of curating shows. I mostly put together thematic shows on topics that I am really interested in – which means I probably have some work of my own that relates to the concept I’m building an exhibit around. But, I have a policy of NOT putting my own work in an exhibit that I curate. Why? Well, I’m already the arbiter, the decider, about what the show is about and what work is selected for the show. If my own work is fair game, then I can a) structure the concept for the show in a way that makes my work a shoe-in, b) select my own work over someone else’s, whose work might have been selected by a more objective judge, and c) foreground my work in a prominent spot and in promotion of the exhibit. Even if I don’t do any of those things, there is still the opportunity to do them, and the perception that I might have done them. As my grandmother used to say, “Avoid the appearance of evil.”

When I put together a show that I feel is really first-rate, I sometimes regret that my work isn’t in the mix, but I am content to feel that I have acted ethically by my own lights.