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Legal Foundations: Ethics in the Art World

Legal Foundations: Ethics in the Art World

Ethics is a large part of the business in America. It may be the lynchpin to your organization and also could propel or destroy a business’ reputation. It seems that as far as the art world is concerned, ethics have taken a backseat to market dollars, greed, and shady business practices. Capitalism in the art world has seemed to take on a different but similar meaning. The economic and political systems of the art scene are controlled by private galleries and museums, which seem to shape the global direction of the art market. 

This same capitalist mindset has allowed for some of the most prolific criminal and unethical practices of the art business and continues to shake up the enterprise culture of the economy. How can the gallery/museum business operate on an even playing field when unethical behavior is apart of the market’s pedigree? How does a new entrant to the market survive without adopting these practices? Better yet, the question that should be asked is can they survive without it?

There have been multiple cases recently where ethics have taken a backseat to corruption, trickery, and ambiguity leaving the artists and collectors in a state of agitation. These business practices ultimately affect reputation and buyer trust eventually leading to collector uncertainty. 

I believe that bringing these cases to light and understanding the parts that make each case invalid would allow for a high ethical improvement in business practices. How do we determine what to do? What action should be carried out? And what strategy could you implement to prevent these situations from happening in the future?

There have been organizations created to try and curtail this practice, one being the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA). The goal of organizations like ADAA is to “keep the highest standards of connoisseurship, scholarship and ethical practices within the art dealing profession.” The hope is that this committee and understanding will begin to shape the way for a better art dealer that can educate and insist on the best practices when dealing directly with clients.

A case that was highly familiar to me and presented a strong case to me about dealer/collectors relationships in ethics has been the case between famed actor Alec Baldwin and gallerist Mary Boone. This case had everything going well in the beginning. Baldwin, an avid art collector and one of New York’s elite had a very cordial and business relationship with artist Ross Bleckner, who is represented by Boone, fell in love with one of the artists’ paintings and had to have it. So much that “he carried a picture of the artwork in his wallet next to his children” New York Times reports. But Baldwin believes he did not receive the original Bleckner painting he sought. 

Claiming that it may have been switched Baldwin contacted Boone about the possible mix-up and was told via reports, that she (Boone) switched the works because “she didn’t want to disappoint him (Baldwin)”. Alec Baldwin has bought works from Mary Boone in the past so what would make Mary Boone take the unethical route of possibly fabricating or switching the work? (“Sea and Mirror” by Ross Bleckner). I believe that the pressures of sales in a high luxury and cost environment insist to the dealers and gallerists that they have to manipulate a situation so that they’re not always on the low end of the feeding totem pole. 

Mary Boone, who is considered a top dealer in the art market might have jeopardized her reputation with previous collectors and future collectors behind this. Baldwin also suggests in the New York Times article that Boone is an “armadillo” and is “used to getting herself out of these corners”. The unethical manner in which this was handled could possibly take away from Bleckner’s future interests with Boone as a dealer, with her being the subject of scandal. 

In this case, Mary Boone’s unethical behavioral practice has hurt threefold. Hurting the artist who works sold at the height of his career to a well-established buyer, the collector (Baldwin) who excitement will now turn to the skepticism of art dealers (maybe?) because of this debacle and to Mary Boone’s reputation in the industry as being able to wiggle her way out of these positions. The question is: How much has power and money in art intensified the way dealers handle clients?

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