Galleries present themselves as a meritocracy, but many young artists are skeptical, seeing them, much like the political sphere and the world of college entrance admissions, as a barely camouflaged oligarchy, in this case one in which a select and privileged in-crowd gets to see their work hung on gleaming white walls. It can feel very daunting indeed to get noticed. Then, young cynical artist toiling away, you receive an email with the subject line “We Want You.” saying that you’ve been selected. And you, rhetorician-cum-interdiscplinary artist that you may be, ignore this pounding political slogan, because a curator “came across your work through Instagram and love[s] what you do.” They call your work “very modern, creative and refined.”
Your ego swells, and like the sufferer of cerebral edema, you don’t think clearly.
RAW: natural born artists (the weird capitalization is theirs, as are the sycophantic quotes above) is a pay-for-play arts organization that targets young artists, typically those without a large following, offering a nebulous chance for “exposure.” RAW functions by making each participating artist agree to sell 20 $20 tickets to a one-off arts event (with the promise of a later free “bonus show” in another city in which RAW exists. If an artist doesn’t sell their tickets and still wants to show their work, they pay the difference. None of the artists get a cut of the door, because the supposed perk of RAW is that, should you manage to sell your work, you keep 100 per cent of the profits, unlike a gallery, which will often take a 50 per cent commission on work sold.
Looking at RAW’s own promotional materials, it’s clear that these arts events are chaotic dimly lit fairs for musicians, painters, performers, illustrators, make-up artists, tattoo artists, you name it. There is the illusion of artistic democracy (artistic practices like tattooing would perhaps never be seen in a gallery or performance space), but really all “democracy” means in this context is that there is no curation and that flat works like paintings are hung on a metal grating system that looks originally intended to corral cattle. And, seeing as the crowd is predominantly peopled by the friends and relatives of artists who were pressured into purchasing tickets, this is not a group of people interested in buying art. It is at best a rather feeble party. Thus, while RAW lures in artists of all kinds with the promise of selling their work, several artists I spoke to (and the many artists giving overwhelmingly negative reviews on Reddit) complain of selling being a near-impossibility. As for that other promise, of gaining critical exposure, RAW has no credibility in the fine arts world, making any exposure dubious. Ian MacDonald, the “Curation Specialist” who initially approached me, described the RAW “showcase” as an “excellent opportunity for networking” — yet with whom exactly?
Any reticence to use the word scam outright is because these events do in fact take place. This is why RAW still thrives in Canada, Mexico, the United States and Australia. The next event, for which I was approached, will be held at the Rialto Theatre on Sept. 10 and 11 (each evening with a different crop of artists). At worst, the obligatory ticket sales at RAW feel like an MLM-light. RAW may not quite qualify as a pyramid scheme, as there’s only one level of ticket distribution (ticket holders do not then themselves try and desperately sell tickets), but this is not an accepted arts business practice either. At best, RAW uses deeply manipulative marketing to finagle artist participation.
Angelo Russo, a former Montreal events director for RAW who parted ways with the company after disagreements with higher-ups, acknowledged that while some artists have made money at the events and have even chosen to participate on multiple occasions, [the shows] “felt harder to validate” for musicians and fashion designers.
You might be thinking, “I’m no sap! I would never fall for this,” but just because you’re rendered vulnerable by your own hopefulness doesn’t mean you deserve to take a financial hit. Philippe Mastrocola, a Montreal painter and mural artist, was too bashful to ask people he knew to purchase tickets and paid the $400 in unsold tickets himself. When I asked why he didn’t back out despite his suspicions about the event, he said he was “naïve in thinking it would be worth it.” It can be hard to discern what “exposure” is meaningless and what is legitimate (and, rather importantly, what is considered legitimate by your peers).
Then there’s the matter of taste. Take a look at the kind of artists who chose to be represented by RAW. With few exceptions, they are almost wholly unified in their production of truly, profoundly bad art. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being in an art crit with someone whose dumbfounding lack of skill and/or ideas renders even your cruellest art professor mute, such is their horror, you know the kind of work I’m talking about. And in case you don’t, take Naccs for example, or Clo or — well, cruelty has its limits and I could go on at great length. However, know that RAW is profoundly unintellectual, anti-aesthetic, anti-art, and not in any kind of cool anarchic way. Yes, there’s a market for this kind of total, irredeemable garbage, but if you make good or even mediocre art, flee these unsolicited marketing pleas from RAW and their ilk and apply to real galleries with real open calls. The economy of art, and of making it, may be desperately flawed, but RAW is not the answer. ■