Wet Paint: LA Gallerist Accused of Blaming Black Artist for Bad Sales, Art Mag CEO’s Piggish Slack Exposed, & More Art-World Gossip

What artist's rug could sell in the high five-figures? What performance art legend is still patronizing Hudson cafes? Read on for answers.

The facade of Lowell Ryan Projects in the Los Angeles neighborhood of West Adams. Photo: California Home Design.
The facade of Lowell Ryan Projects in the Los Angeles neighborhood of West Adams. Photo: California Home Design.

Every week, Artnet News brings you Wet Paint, a gossip column of original scoops reported and written by Nate Freeman. If you have a tip, email Nate at [email protected]

 

UNWELCOME INSTAGRAM

Last weekend, Los Angeles gallery Lowell Ryan Projects posted to its Instagram to announce what appeared to be good news in these uncertain times. A work from the gallery’s exhibition with artist Alicia Piller had sold to the Hammer Museum. In the post, the gallery thanked the Hammer, and tagged the post #blackartists #womenartists #calarts—as Piller is, indeed, a black artist and a woman and earned her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.

Alicia Piller with her work. Photo by Virginia Martinsen.

Alicia Piller with her work. Photo by Virginia Martinsen.

But in the days after the Instagram post, Piller said in an interview that Lowell Ryan Projects posted the image without asking for permission beforehand—and that she had cut ties with the gallery due to a number of episodes in which gallery owner Mike Weiss exhibited behavior she interpreted to be racist. The surprise Instagram, and its timing, was seen as extension of such actions. 

“I never planned to go public with this story until they posted about me on their Instagram celebrating the sale to the Hammer,” Piller said. “I and the Hammer curator became pawns for them, posting this on the same weekend as Juneteenth.”

When asked if she would characterize the actions she witnessed as racist, Piller said yes.

“He’s racist, but it’s bigger than that—he’s a narcissist, and anyone who’s not him is lower than him,” she told Wet Paint. “So it means, yeah, he’s a racist, he’s a sexist, but he’s more dangerous than just being a racist. He has an ingrained attitude of superiority.”

Mike Weiss. Courtesy Mike Weiss.

Mike Weiss.

Pillier said that on several occasions Weiss—who also founded the West Adams gallery with his wife, Virginia Martinsen, after shutting down his eponymous Chelsea space in 2018—exhibited behavior that she perceived as racially charged. 

Piller described how, during the installation process for the show that opened October 17, Weiss pulled Piller aside and singled out one art handler that she was “not to trust”—and the handler happened to be the only person of color on the install crew, who Piller said “did an amazing job.”

According to Piller, Weiss told her at the time that the handler was charging him more money, thus explaining the need to single him out.

In a statement, Weiss said he shared his concerns with Piller because the art handler had “made specific comments about Alicia’s exhibition that we felt were unprofessional.” He added: “Alicia said that she had sensed a weird vibe from him and thanked us for sharing our experience. This had nothing to do with race.”

Once the show was installed, Piller invited ”some black male friends, three in total,” to see the show, she said. When she went to the back of the gallery to say hello to Weiss and Martinsen, she was taken aback. “I caught them watching the gallery cameras intently at the three gentlemen in the gallery,” Piller said. “I had to explain to them that I knew them for them to stop.”

When asked about this, Weiss said that the anecdote was “completely untrue.” He admitted to having an iPad in the back office connected to a camera in the gallery, as many galleries do. He added that “Alicia’s works are very delicate and throughout her exhibition we kept a close eye on everyone who entered the gallery” and said, referring to Piller’s three friends, that such a practice was “not unique to those individuals.”

Installation view of Alicia Piller’s solo show at Lowell Ryan Projects, Spirit of the Times. Photo courtesy Lowell Ryan Projects.

Piller also told Wet Paint that in early December, Weiss called her to complain that her show had not yet sold out—and that such calls had become more frequent and more intense since the show had opened. On one particular call, however, Weiss explicitly invoked her race while complaining about a lack of sales. 

“He said, ‘You are a person of color but you’re not on trend,'” Piller recalled Weiss saying. “‘I mean, we are glad your work is complex, but you’re not on trend.’”

Weiss said those were “not my words” and that the quote was “taken out of context,” while adding that he had “a discussion with Alicia that it can take time to build a market for an emerging artist, particularly when the work is unique in the marketplace.”

Piller severed ties shortly after, having talked to several other members of the art community who corroborated her stories about Weiss. I additionally spoke with three sources who were close to the story and corroborated Piller’s recollections, and two others who are familiar with Weiss and the gallery in general, and said they also recall him discussing how race plays a role in a young artist’s market.

Asked to respond to the allegations, Weiss said he regrets that Piller believes his words and actions came from a “racially insensitive place.”

“That was never my intention, nor is it a reflection of my feelings,” he said. “I continuously strive to be anti-racist and have worked hard to amplify voices that reflect those feelings at my gallery.”

 

WHISTLEBLOWERS SCRATCH SURFACE

Marc Lotenberg. Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Surface.

Marc Lotenberg, the CEO of art and design magazine stable Future Media Group, perhaps wasn’t the most popular guy in media when, soon after acquiring W Magazine from Conde Nast, he eliminated Summer Fridays, mandated 9 a.m. start times, and chummily told his new colleagues, “This is a drama-free office. Do not cause a scene.”

Not that it mattered for all that long. As soon as the pandemic hit, he ordered mass layoffs at W and Surface magazine, which had recently gone on a hiring tear under new editor Diane Solway. No one likes layoffs, but according to sources, even still having a job under Lotenberg had its disadvantages.

Last week, the Bushwick-based design firm We Should Do It All posted an anonymous letter addressed to the architecture and design community. In it, the author alleges that they had spoken to a number of Surface and W employees, and found that Lotenberg “created a toxic work environment for SURFACE magazine employees through his homophobic, racist and sexist actions for years now.” The letter calls on Lotenberg to resign and for readers to boycott the publications. 

After We Should Do It All posted the anonymous letter, former employees came forward to Wet Paint with corroborating information. One indicated that Lotenberg referred to female staffers as “girls” and invoked sexist tropes when attempting to discuss editorial and business strategies. One staffer said that, when making a point about how interview subjects should pay Surface for coverage—which, you know, is not how things work at most magazines!—Lotenberg said, “No one wants to be the easy girl at the bar giving it up for free.” 

A screenshot of a Slack message, provided to Wet Paint by another former staffer, offers blunt evidence of the old-boys-club humor Lotenberg apparently exhibited freely in the office. In mid-2016, after posting side-by-side Surface cover images of the designer Neri Oxman and the architect Odile Decq, he said on the all-staff Slack channel, “Hot or Not. Yes I’m shallow.” The former staffer said it may have been a poor-taste joke related to the fact that Lotenberg at the time was, as the source put it, “pushing for more traditionally ‘hot’ covers.” 

Photo courtesy anonymous source.

Lotenberg’s actions were often racially charged as well, staffers said. People of color were rarely chosen to be cover stars, and he would openly complain about running profiles of African American women because they were “difficult” and “divas” for wanting to bring their own hair and makeup teams. Staffers also said that Lotenberg refused to let them have off for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day because there weren’t enough African American staffers to justify the holiday.

“Know why you don’t get MLK Day off? Do you see any black staffers here?” Lotenberg reportedly said.

On Thursday evening, when asked about the allegations, Lotenberg sent a statement via a representative saying that “the anonymous allegations made against me regarding discrimination of all types are fabrications” but recognized that he “made mistakes.”

“Early on, I established relationships with my team that were at times deeply intense and honest, and I made off-the-cuff or poorly-worded statements openly,” he said. “I deeply regret any of those comments, and I spent many of the past years actively taking steps to move on from them and be a better person. I will continue to stand against all instances of racism, homophobia, and sexism in the workplace and beyond.”

 

POP QUIZ

Take a look at that hand flipping the bird in last week’s Pop Quiz. Does it not look familiar? No? Well, let’s zoom out to give you the full picture here. 

That’s right, it’s Dr. Dre, standing in front of David Hammons’s African American Flag (1990) owned by his Beats business partner Jimmy Iovine. Only one person got the full answer right. And that would be the TheGuide.Art Editor Rachel Small. Congrats to Rachel! 

Here’s this week’s quiz, and again, it’s a close-up. Name this artwork and its artist, its owner, and its current location. 

Send guesses—and please, guess away!—to [email protected]. Winners get a Wet Paint baseball cap, which you column proprietor has not yet designed, but are guaranteed to be really sweet.

 

WE HEAR…

Nicolas Party, Landscape, (2012). Photo courtesy Phillips.

A Nicolas Party-designed rug—that’s right, a rug, not a painting, a rug—produced by the Edinburgh-based Dovecot Studios in 2012 could fetch over $30,000 at Phillips … dealers Ingrid Lundgren and George Newall are taking advantage of the deep pockets of the second-home set on Martha’s Vineyard and opening Winter Street Gallery in the tony former whaling village of Edgartown, with the first group show set to open July 3 … Lévy Gorvy has officially laid off the 13 workers that it furloughed for 90 days during the start of the pandemic, when Dominique Lévy told Wet Paint that she hoped they were “temporary measures”—but having crossed the 90-day threshold June 25, they are temporary no longer … Former Met director—and current Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco mayerdomo—Thomas “Tapestry Tom” Campbell got into it with a commenter after posting on Instagram about taking down monuments, telling her “with the greatest respect, this is my Instagram account, so don’t tell me to shut up” and then threatened to block them … Tracey Emin congratulated collectors Christine and Andy Hall on finally leaving their quarantine pod in Palm Beach for their estate in Vermont, sending the following Instagram comment: “About time .. no jelly fish .. no sharks .. and would imagine a lot less Trump🐱”

 

SPOTTED

Sean Scully is a Joe Biden fan. Photo courtesy: source.

A billboard-sized work by Sean Scully hanging high above 7th Avenue, declaring his support for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden for all to see below: “VOTE JOE RECLAIM AMERICA” *** a number of artists and curators social distancing during the all-day opening of a”Infinite Seed,” a group show staged on the expansive Bhumi Farms in Amagansett organized by Jessica Hodin Levy and the curatorial collective Good to Know.FYI *** Marina Abramović at Verdigris Tea & Chocolate Bar on Warren Street in Hudson, spotted by a tipster *** the artist Calvin Marcus offering up a batch of his fantastic earthenware pot works affixed with funky noses, with all proceeds going to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter movements *** Sunbather (2016), Ohad Meromi’s larger-than-life pepto-pink sculpture of a reclining man installed in Long Island City, keeping New York safe and wearing an extra large mask *** 

Ohad Meromi, Sunbather (2016) with a mask on. Photo courtesy Naomi Fry Instagram.

 

PARTING SHOT


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