“Hustles and Scams: How the art scene does not work” by Lilian Sten-Nicholson

Let me introduce myself. I am a painter, printmaker and freelance writer. Painting is my main gig. I have been a painter for as long as I can remember.

But, I have also been involved in the visual arts in many other capacities, as a curator, administrator, consultant, tertiary level art tutor and art critic for many decades.

I have experienced the art scene from the different perspectives of running a gallery, curating exhibitions,  researching/ writing about art and exhibiting my own works.

In other words, I know how the art scene works, here and abroad. But let me leave the ‘Abroad’, for, now and deal with the ‘Here’.

I have this to tell you all: this country, Barbados, holds the promise of developing a functioning, vibrant and profitable art scene. It has and abundance of talent. It has enough good artists and, indeed, some excellent ones, to gain and maintain international recognition for the whole scene, not just for individual artists.

There is also enough talent and potential in this country for professional artists to make a good living and earn substantial amounts of, much needed, foreign exchange.

But, until we start behaving as the ‘Professionals’ we claim to be, artists, administrators, gallery owners, promoters and gallery assistants alike, ‘Here’ will not have a functioning art scene.

We really should have had one by now, all the preparatory work has been done, repeatedly, over the last nine decades.

But we keep getting in our own way, and have done so from the very beginning.

So instead of moving forward and upward, we are stuck in repeating pattern of hope, travail and defeat. The underlying problem is not specific to individuals, organisations, galleries or the government, it is a lack of integrity and professionalism of some, in all areas.

The following is brief summary of some of what I have seen and experienced in my four decades involvement in the Barbadian Art Scene. I am not accusing  any specific individuals or institutions of these practices,  but “Who the cap fits…….”


Here is a shortlist of self-destructive hustles and scams, first from the galleries , then from the artists and  others involved.

1.Gallery Scams and Hustles 

1.a. Charging artists VAT+Credit Card fees on top of commission of sales.

 VAT is a transactional, point-of-sale tax. The buyer pays the VAT, the VAT registered gallery forwards this exact sum to BAR, BAR returns the full amount to the gallery, eventually.

The Client pays VAT, the Gallery pays BAR, BAR refunds the Gallery. The end.

This process involves only the client-gallery- BAR relationship, unless the artist has a personal VAT registration, then it becomes complicated.

The same is true of the credit card fees. This is a business expense, which does not in any way concern the artist, but some galleries see it fit to pass them on to the artist anyway.

Furthermore, when, VAT and credit card fees are added to the total sale price,  the commission, taken out from the artist’s final payment, is increased. The gallery actually pays itself  twice, as it will receive the return on the VAT payment,  which the customer paid for in the first place.

I believe this is illegal. If not, it should be.

1.b. Inflating the sales price without informing the artist.

Selling work for a higher price than agreed on, but paying the artists  according to the agreed-on price, less artist’s commission  and pocketing the additional profit.

This is a small art scene and  the truth, eventually, comes out.

I believe this is illegal. If not, it should be.

1.c. Withholding info.

  • Not informing the artists who the buyer is. (reason: see item 2b)

We have a legal right to know where our work is, and, unless signed away, we have rights over our work in perpetuity according to the copyright act.

  • Refusing to give the client any contact information for the artist or even background information about the artist.

There is no justification for this, unless: (see item 1b)

I believe this is illegal. If not, it should be.

1.d. Juggling finances.

Using the artists portion of the sale to pay business expenses, while delaying payment.

If the gallery priorities are to pay rent, utilities, salaries etc. the artist might be last in line for payment.

I believe this is illegal. If not, it should be.

1.e. Ghosting.

You know this is happening, when the person responsible for payment is ‘not in office, on another call, on the toilet’,  or too ‘busy’ with matters of ‘great importance’ to take your call, respond to your messages, see you in person or is otherwise unavailable for an infinite number of reasons for a very long time.

This usually means one of two things: the gallery administration lacks basic business skills or: see items 1c.(Withholding info) and 1d.(Juggling finances.)

Most free lancers, whether they be artists, writers, musicians or artisans, like carpenters, electricians etc., are targets of ghosting.

Here is a heads-up: do not expect to be paid promptly, in full, or at all, because your client is wealthy or because you are dealing with a big corporation.

The law is on your side, but they have the lawyers.

1.f.Absconding with profits.

 This scenario has played out a couple of times in the last few decades. It goes like this:

The, foreign, gallery owner pockets all the money from all sales and quietly leaves the country.

The Bailiff  closes the gallery and holds all the artwork hostage, until the legal position can be sorted out.

Art displayed on a commission basis is never part of a gallery inventory and cannot be held in lieu of the owner’s unpaid bills.

But it takes time, effort and money to sort that out and for the work to be returned.

This is obviously illegal, but class actions are expensive and neither the  RBP nor Interpol have any interest in pursuing minor offences like these.

1.g.  Losing your work and not re-imbursing you for the loss.

      See item 1c.(Withholding info),1d.(Juggling Finances) ,1e.(Ghosting) and

1f.(Absconding with profits.)

1.h. Damaging your work and not re-imbursing you for the loss.

     See item 1 e. (Ghosting)

2.Artist’s Scams and Hustles.

 2.a. Not meeting deadlines, but expecting work to be accepted anyway. Kicking up a stink and launching personal attacks if it is not.

2.b.Habitually Using Gallery walls to display Not For Sale works, then selling same work at a slightly lower price than the wall price straight to the client, by-passing the gallery after using its walls to advertise. This only works for established artists who are well known and easily found.

(This is one of the reasons for 1c, ‘Withholding info’. Galleries hedge against losses, because they tend not to trust artists once they have had these kind of experiences).

 Exceptions to this:

‘By invitation only’ curated group shows, where the curators have specifically chosen a NFS work to fit a theme.

 2.c  Bypassing the gallery commission by making  arrangements with gallery attendants to sell work ‘under the radar’.

This will eventually cause even the best run and well-intended gallery to fail.

2d.  Bad-talking other artists and their work, on and off display.

Mutual support and positive networking are paths to success.

The “crab-in-the-barrel -syndrome” is an, outdated, road to nowhere.

2e. Over-pricing a work in order to have it ‘lost’ and claim insurance.

The insurance companies, are wise to this, and will therefore not insure art work for theft, only for damage. You don’t mess with insurance companies. They have seen it all.

 2.f. Promoting your own work/show at another artist’s opening reception without informing the artist in question, or asking for permission to do so.

Some of the above is illegal, all of it is pernicious and destructive. 

  1. Curator’s and Administrator’s Scams and Hustles

3.a Selecting own work for prestigious National and International Shows while being

the sole adjudicator for said shows.

This is not  illegal unless specified as such in the curator’s contract.

But it is unethical and has a demoralising effect on the art scene as a whole.

3.b. Using only the names of  Curators and Sponsors when advertising shows,

while leaving out the names of  participating artists. While artists are born,  careers are made and name recognition is the primary path to a successful career and a thriving art scene.

When  the names of participating artists do not appear on flyers, invitations and other, printed and digital promotional material, there is no public record of their participation.

This means, that the artists, who depend entirely on name recognition for sales and who are not paid to contribute their work to the curated exhibitions, keep salaried  curators and  various administrators in their posts, without even getting a career boost in return.

Compare this to film credits, where every participant down to the humblest contributor is listed.

This is not  illegal, but it is unethical and counterproductive. 

  • Hustles and scams do not work in the long run.
  • An ethical art scene is a viable, sustainable and profitable art scene.
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