Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Review of Max B. Harrison, Owner of Gallery M Squared, Houston, Texas

By Ethan Minsker

    There is a tendency in the New York art world to protect victimizers; that is, most artists and curators are hesitant to speak out against mistreatment because of a fear that their reputations might be harmed. My view is the opposite. I believe there is a moral obligation for artists and curators to protect each other from mistreatment by those who would do us harm.

      Over the last 16 years, I have worked with a group of emerging artists, most of whom are located in New York City. In the early years, we operated as the Antagonist Movement, an unprofitable for-profit. Several years ago, we formed a non-profit corporation to carry on the mission of the Antagonist Movement. Our group has worked with over 3,000 artists, including a number from overseas. We have put on more art shows and events than I can remember. With that as background, when we encounter someone we believe has behaved poorly, we do our best to get the facts out to other artists to spare them from being victimized as we were. In this critique, I will attempt to be balanced and fair, discussing only the facts as known to me while pointing out mistakes we made along the way. As a curator and an artist, I have built a reputation on being honest, keeping my word, and protecting the people with whom I work. Above all, I seek to always operate with the highest integrity.

      My personal opinion, based on the experiences I will relate in this review, is that artists should avoid working with Max B. Harrison. Mr. Harrison is the former owner of the now closed Gallery M Squared, located in Houston, Texas. I want to explain to the artists whose artwork Max has failed to return how and why the non-profit corporation became entangled with Mr. Harrison. In writing this review, I hope to impart some helpful insights and suggestions to artists dealing with any gallery. Finally, I want to make clear that this essay is an opinion piece in which I express my personal views and beliefs regarding Max B. Harrison and in no way does this essay represent or present the views of the non-profit corporation.
      In early 2015, Mr. Harrison asked me to curate a show he entitled Panic as You See Fit. The title was an attempt to play off the English World War II slogan, “Stay Calm and Carry On.” I wasn’t thrilled with the title; it seemed childish and cliché at best. I did some research on Mr. Harrison and his gallery but I could not find any negative reviews. Local Houston artists told me that the old cinema, the site of Gallery M Squared, would be a good fit for a show by our art group. Mr. Harrison claimed that the gallery had a favorable write-up in USA Today but I was unable to find this article.
      At the very outset, I was hesitant to commit to this project because our group had no funds available for it and, in all likelihood, I would end up doing most of the work to prepare for it. In response to these concerns, it is my recollection that Mr. Harrison told me that he would personally guarantee that the gallery would pay all the expenses of the show, including the shipment of the art. Moreover, it is my recollection that Mr. Harrison told me that the gallery would fly me to Houston for the show opening and would provide me with a hotel room for three days. In response to this offer, I told Mr. Harrison that perhaps we should do the show the following year because the non-profit corporation already had a show, called Dwelling, confirmed that fall in Sydney, Australia. Mr. Harrison stated that the show at Gallery M Squared would help fund the Dwelling project. This was what Mr. Harrison wrote to me in an email.

The gallery will give half of our commission to the DWELLING project (next Antagonist Movement art project in Sydney) from this "PANIC as You See FIT" exhibition. From this past Sunday up until it's time for the Sydney exhibition the gallery will give 10% of all art sales to the project and 5% of all our room rental rates. Our room rate is 3,100 per nite so every time we rent out the space the project receives $155.00 We have already sold two works from our up coming exhibition so there is already a few bucks coming in. Go Team Venture!

      One could easily see why we would take Mr. Harrison up on his offer. Things that sound too good to be true, well you know the rest.

Details of the Show

      I selected 29 artists from around the world, but mostly from New York City. These are artists with whom I have built up a relationship of mutual respect and trust over the past 16 years of curating art shows, many whom I would call friends. Mr. Harrison selected artists local to Houston. The opening would take place on the first Thursday in August and then, on Saturday, we would screen my new film about our group, Self Medicated, a Film about Art. The show would be up for about a month. For the show, I made, by hand, over 60 guns out of papier-mâché. Each gun took me one day to make. I then gave the guns to the artists to use as a blank canvas so that the show would have a common thread. With my own money, I shipped the guns directly to as many artists as I could and I shipped a few boxes to Mr. Harrison to give to his curated artists. In addition, each artist was requested to make a 2’ x 2’ work on paper to be displayed. With the help of Shannon, my co-curator, we organized artists’ bios, price lists with photos, and press information. We designed a publicity flyer and reached out to local press for coverage. For lack of any office or studio space, my apartment became the drop off point for the artwork. I made several promotional videos for the event. You can see them here: Panic as You See Fit Trailer 1, https://vimeo.com/126291037 and Panic as You See Fit Trailer 2, https://vimeo.com/129589216

     It was my intent to film the opening of Panic as You See Fit and make a short documentary to help promote the show after the closing. Part of my plan was to interview as many local artists as I could since our group is about building a community of artists to provide an art network and, through that network, create opportunities for artists both in this country and overseas. In all, I invested $800 of my own money to cover shipping, materials, and other expenses in prepping the show. If you add together my out of pocket dollars and the hours I spent to properly prepare this art show, one can readily understand my initial hesitation to undertake this project. And that was just me. Each artist and, especially Shannon, put in a huge number of hours on this project. It also pulled our focus away from the show in Sydney.

      In July, Mr. Harrison informed us that the building in which the gallery was located had been sold and that the Panic as You See Fit show would be its last show. Mr. Harrison reassured us that the show would go on as planned. This was my first mistake. I should have pulled out of the show right then and there and looked for a local gallery to host the event, even if for just one night. I didn’t do this because I didn’t want to disappoint all the artists who were looking forward to the Houston show.

      Mr. Harrison then asked how I wanted to get the art to Houston. I found this a very strange question as every gallery with which I have done business always has a standard system in place for shipping art. The mere fact that Mr. Harrison had to ask me this question should have been another sign to me that something was seriously wrong with this space. I suggested that, if they wanted to ship the art in the cheapest possible way, they should have someone drive to New York and pick up the artwork. Instead, Mr. Harrison decided that he and an art handler would fly to New York. Unbelievably, Mr. Harrison and the art handler missed their flight and had to purchase new tickets. At least that is what Mr. Harrison told me. When they arrived, they rented a U-Haul truck at the cost of 25 cents a mile to drive a distance of over 1,400 miles. Under Mr. Harrison’s plan, the cost of shipping the artwork to Texas was apparently $6,000. I found them a place to stay in New York for free with one of the local artists. When Mr. Harrison came to pick up the work, in my opinion, he was acting erratic and talking in never ending loops. As I observed his behavior, I had a sinking feeling and, again, I should have canceled the show but they had just purportedly spent $6,000 to pick up the artwork. We packed all the art in the back of the truck, including a robotic goat from a German artist valued at $6,000. (See video of goat art here: https://vimeo.com/106489145.) Included in the shipment was the last of the original Antagonist Movement merchandise and a box of my books and DVDS that we sell at all of our events. In total, my personal estimate of the value of the shipment was close to $500,000 but I am not an art appraiser so, in reality, the value could have been much more or much less. In any event, it had significant value in terms of real dollars and in terms of the sweat and hours spent creating it.
       As I watched the truck drive down the street, I wanted to run after it and take back everything. When Mr. Harrison got back to Houston, he told me that he didn’t have the money to fly me down. I understood this because they had spent way too much in what I thought was a completely foolish way for a professional gallery to ship artwork.
      When the show finally opened, Mr. Harrison reported that attendance was high and that the show went well. We saw very few photos of the art hanging. Even after we asked for more photos of the show, Mr. Harrison couldn’t or wouldn’t provide any. On seeing a photo of the show, one of the artists observed that her work was upside down and damaged. On Saturday, the gallery was closed so that the people we had invited to see our film were turned away. (See the trailer of the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUW2DRzXmrg.)
      For me, personally, the opportunity to screen my film was one of the strong factors in being involved in this art show. Mr. Harrison’s inability to make good on that simple promise to me was a major disappointment. I had viewed the screening as an opportunity to reach Houston artists and demonstrate to them the value of forming a local art community. It seems to me that, for Mr. Harrison, the show was merely a party. For me and the other artists, the show was a means of showcasing our work and reaching new audiences.
       The show came down. Mr. Harrison and his team moved out of the space and claimed to have put the artwork in storage although we were never given any actual proof of this. A few months passed with no contact from Mr. Harrison. Here is a list of what happened next.
1. Shannon and I texted, called, and sent email and Facebook messages to Mr. Harrison but we received no response. We contacted local artists with whom Mr. Harrison had worked and they also reached out to Mr. Harrison on our behalf.

2. Mr. Harrison finally called us. He claimed he had no money to ship back the artwork. He then apparently dropped out of sight, reportedly not returning phone calls and had turned off his phone. None of our contacts in Houston saw Mr. Harrison or knew of his whereabouts. It became impossible for us to communicate with Mr. Harrison.

3. We found a shipper who would pick up the work at an estimated cost of $800 but required the artwork to be packed and to have the exact measurements of the packages. I offered to personally pay the shipper out of my own pocket in order to get back the artwork of the New York artists. But to make this happen, we had to have access to the artwork.

4.  Starting on September 28, 2015 through January 14, 2016, in a series of 57 text exchanges, we attempted to work with Michael, the apparent co-owner of Gallery M Squared. There were numerous back and forth communications in which, for example, Michael asked for the artists’ individual addresses and we responded to just ship everything to me. On Sunday, January 10, 2016, Michael sent the following text to one of our members:

Sorry for the long delay but my health is not cooperating with me. I removed the boxes of pamphlets and that created a lot of room and less weight, looks like everything will be in two boxes, they will be ready this Thursday I will send you the box sizes, I even cancelled the storage room after this Friday. I am so happy to see this ending I guess you are too. Mike

5. After this last text from Michael, he dropped off the radar and, until very recently, was not heard from. Needless to say, the artwork was not shipped.

6. During October through December, we were in contact with Gus and Sharon (former owners of the building in which the gallery was located). When he learned of this, Michael contacted us because he was very upset that we had contacted them. Michael claimed he was making progress on packing the artwork but, as of now, the artwork still has not been sent.

7. We then started to reach out to more Houston based artists and we began to hear negative things about the gallery.

8. In December 2015, James Rubio, one of our artists, drove four hours to Houston, from his family home which he was visiting, to pick up the robotic goat which Michael released to him. James brought back the robotic goat on a flight to NYC.

9. After the last communication from Michael, Mr. Harrison reappeared and was very upset that we were in contact with Michael about the artwork although apparently it was Michael who was in possession of the artwork. Mr. Harrison claimed he would send the work back. We again gave him an address and, as of now, we still have not received the artwork.

10. Working with the theory of never give up, contact was again made with Michael by text on May 19, 2016. Michael claimed that most of the artwork was ready for shipment. We asked him to ship to me by UPS ground whatever was ready and we would reimburse him. We will wait to see if he does.

      Many of the New York artists have contacted me asking for the return of their work. I explain to them the current situation and I give them Mr. Harrison’s number. If Mr. Harrison hears from an artist, instead of acting professionally and explaining to the artist the status of the return, Mr. Harrison calls and threatens me.

      Dima Drjuchin, one of the artists who exhibited work at Mr. Harrison’s show, posted a message on Mr. Harrison’s Facebook page, asking about the return of his work. Here is what Dima says happened next:
I did a group show this summer that was curated by Max B. Harrison in Texas. There were over 30 artists in this show who's work still hasn't been returned. This is the response I got when I questioned him about it on his Facebook profile:

"Hey Dima, FUCK YOU! Why don't you get your BITCH to come get it. As far as your payment goes you'll get it after I send it. I am not taking anymore SHIT, just ask your BITCH."

I'm not one to call anyone out publicly, or let alone invite an Internet battle, I stopped doing that in my early 20. I rather keep my online output positive and drama free. But man, what a piece a shit right?! This is a response to literally the first time I mentioned or even talked to him. I guess you would have that kind of reaction when you know you are in the wrong but your too much of an incompetent garbage person to own up and make things right. So I'll probably never get my art work back and whatever, I can and will always make more, It's not a huge loss for me. But should you ever run across this person asking you to do any kind of creative output with him, please kindly tell him to fuck off. But you know, that's just like my opinion. You are free to do whatever you want.

      As to the bitch that Mr. Harrison referred to, I explained to Dima that, most likely, he was talking about me.
      Mr. Harrison recently posted on Facebook that he is opening a new space, perhaps a gallery, at this address: 3118 Harrisburg Blvd, Houston, Texas 77003.
In Conclusion
      Artists are passionate about their work. Unless an artist is one of the lucky few to be extremely successful, an artist can find him or herself in a desperate situation for an audience. This makes them vulnerable to charlatans, frauds, conmen, and others who take advantage of that vulnerability. Sometimes it is better to just say no. It is also for selfish reasons that we say yes. We want recognition and more accomplishments on our CVs. We want to make new contacts in the hopes of perhaps making a sale. My theory is that Mr. Harrison instinctively knows this and preys on the vulnerability of artists. And I suspect that, no matter what I say here, Mr. Harrison will find artists willing to hand their artwork over to him in the hopes that Mr. Harrison will give a platform to the artists’ work.
      I suppose it is possible that this is the very first time that Mr. Harrison has walked away or stood up the artists who participated in an art show at his gallery but I would guess probably not. However, I can only talk from my own experience of having worked with Mr. Harrison in good faith only to learn the hard way that he is not a man to be trusted.
      Personally, I would strongly recommend to any artist that they not work with Mr. Harrison or any project to which his name is attached. And I would recommend avoiding any interactions with him. Based on my experience, if things don’t go his way, he overacts and lashes out inappropriately. In my opinion, he pretends that he is a mover and shaker in the art world, that he is there to help the artists and that his first concern is the art. I don’t believe that any of these things are true even if he states them over and over. My view is that his top priority is to flatter his own ego. I believe that he lacks the mental maturity to follow through on a project and that his basic concepts are childish. If you plan to do business with Mr. Harrison, I highly recommend that you require him to put all of his oral commitments in a written contract signed by both of you. I would suggest that you make him first purchase the artwork and require him to pay up front for all the promotions and shipping costs. In fact, I urge you to require him to pay you any promised money up front because, based on my personal experience with Mr. Harrison, I doubt you will see any money at all from him. Above all, I recommend that you lower your expectations to zero.
The Aftermath
      For the past 16 years, I have worked hard to build a solid reputation in the downtown New York City art world. Artists in my community know that I follow through on my word. Because of my reputation, I can put together a great art show having access to great talent. In this case, I have failed them. I have been unable to return their artwork to them. Since this all occurred, several people have approached me do new shows but I have turned them all down. I cannot justify asking my artist friends for more work when I haven’t returned their work from Panic as You See Fit. One of my goals in the Houston show was to meet artists with whom I could work on future projects. I even planned on selecting a few for the Australian Dwelling show this past November. But now, when it comes to Houston, I have nothing but a bad taste in my mouth. Intellectually, I understand that Mr. Harrison is only one person and that I shouldn’t use him as a barometer for the local art scene. However, I am human and can only feel what I feel and rational thinking doesn’t always come into play. I have had wonderful experiences in Austin and Victoria so I know there are talented artists in Texas. Nonetheless, for me, Houston is, and will remain, a dark cloud.
      If there is any chance that the artwork will be returned it will be solely because of the efforts of Michael, Mr. Harrison’s former partner. Unfortunately, Michael is combating serious health issues which make it difficult for him to energetically work on returning the artwork. Right now, I have to assume we will never get the artwork back. Clearly, if I am writing this, I have given up on that happening.
      In the meantime, I have no intention of letting this experience go to waste. Let’s see what happens next. Either way, this is not over. There is always going to be people like Mr. Harrison in the art world. The only way to deal with them is to speak up. And let me be clear: I don't think Mr. Harrison is evil or that his intentions were to do an art show just to keep the work. In my opinion, he is simply incompetent and, in some ways, that is worse.