Two weeks ago, a call to boycott Froelick Gallery—one of my favorite galleries in town—circulated on Facebook in response to owner Charles Froelick’s decision to withdraw his artists’ work from a charity art auction over its vaccination policy. Since then, I’ve heard from many people in the art world who are heartbroken, angry, and confused. I’ve also spoken to lots of people with direct knowledge of the situation, including Froelick himself, and it’s hard to overstate how much this one decision has reverberated through the Portland art community. The details of what transpired are important, but this is far more complicated than simply writing off a gallery because we don’t like the politics of one person. This is a story about power dynamics in the art world and increasing polarization, sung in the key of how traumatized we all are right now.
A little background: the Cascade AIDS Project’s (CAP) art auction, scheduled for April 9th, is a glittering and celebratory affair—remember those?—that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in support of the organization’s mission to secure essential services and advocate for those affected by HIV. The annual event brings together art collectors, art enthusiasts, blue chip galleries, and artists whose work has made it through a rigorous selection process, which carries with it a lot of prestige. After two years of holding the auction remotely due to Covid health concerns, CAP announced that it would return in-person in 2022 and that the attendance policy would include proof of vaccination.
On November 30th of last year, Froelick, who has been a longtime supporter of CAP and its annual auction, submitted a complaint to the organization about its vaccination policy—believing it to be discriminatory against unvaccinated people and claiming that it’s not based in science—while, at the same time, confirming that his gallery would be donating art and that he, his staff, and his artists supported their mission. The following week, CAP picked up the donated works from Froelick Gallery for jury selection without incident. On December 21st, after jury selection had been completed, Froelick informed CAP that he was withdrawing his support and his artists’ work from the event.
The timing of the decision threw the auction process into disarray and uncertainty, because all nine of Froelick Gallery’s artists had been selected for either the live or silent auctions, and if CAP were to lose those works—which represent in the neighborhood of $20,000—the entire event would have to be re-juried. One person involved in the auction said, “It was a financial power move that he was trying to flex. He knows the value of his artists.” Froelick said he was clear with CAP that he would reverse his decision if they changed their attendance policy from proof of vaccination to proof of a negative test, which CAP declined to do. “This is an area that we feel very strongly about as a public health organization. We stand firmly behind vaccines,” said a CAP representative affiliated with the auction.
Froelick waited nearly two weeks to email his artists about his decision, during which time CAP was unable to notify any of the artists who submitted to the jury process—both independently and with other galleries—to let them know whether they’d been selected. Part of Froelick’s message to his artists reads, “I asked CAP to prepare to return the artwork by the 9 artists I represent…because I do not want my name associated with discrimination.” It goes on, “If CAP does not change its policy and you wish to continue your support, please let me know – we will simply leave your artwork with them, I’ll remove the gallery name.” That last part is important, so more on that later. The email concludes, “You consigned your artwork to my gallery’s care, this includes maintaining integrity, so I had to follow my best intuitive judgment with the first steps…I hope that you will support, understand or at least respect my position, and I am fully aware that the topic of health is full of differing opinions and beliefs.”
THIS IS WHERE THINGS START to split apart and become confusing, in part because it mirrors the lack of a shared reality that we’re all experiencing right now, no matter which side of an issue we fall on. We’re living at a time when half of the country wants to teach our kids about the systems of racism that have shaped it and the other half wants to ban books that contain any mention of it, believing the information to be harmful. For every person on Twitter posting an article about the dangers of being unvaccinated there is another sharing an article about the dangers of getting vaccinated. There are people living among us who don’t even recognize that the Holocaust happened. It’s unsteadying for everyone. I mention it because it is the larger backdrop against which this situation is playing out and which heightens our sense of estrangement from one another.
When I spoke to Froelick, we acknowledged early in the conversation that we didn’t see eye-to-eye on many of the topics at hand. There wasn’t a common well of information to draw upon—for example, Froelick recently testified to the Oregon Health Authority in a public hearing against extending the mask mandate that “Global studies prove that wearing masks have zero to minimal efficacy containing a virus,” whereas I believe that the evidence of masks’ efficacy is overwhelming—but that didn’t prevent us from talking to each other. He expressed a level of comfort with disagreement and a desire for more discussion during these polarizing times: “I did not build a business in the art world thinking that there weren’t going to be differences of opinion. I feel like I’m so lucky: I get to live and work in a world of ideas. And we’re debating them and we’re discussing.” This description belies what everyone I spoke to said about their interactions with him. Of the many people I spoke with, none wanted their names used. One gallery world insider described Froelick’s demeanor as being “combative and aggressive” during discussions about these issues. Another said, “Charles is digging in and vehemently holding down his masking/vaxxing position, minus any interest in ‘healthy debate,’” and then categorized his attitude as “antagonistic.”
Froelick conveyed that, as someone who has outlying beliefs, he simply wants those beliefs to be acknowledged and heard, even if people disagree with them. He expressed some sadness when I asked him if he felt separated from the community: “In some ways, yeah. It hasn’t been a big group of artists who said, ‘I see you, I hear you.’” Later in our conversation he said, “I’ve had very soulful conversations with each and every one of [his artists who were selected for the CAP auction] and it’s very positive. I feel very supported.” I spoke to one of his artists who reported having had no such conversation.
Regarding the email he sent to his artists, Froelick said, “I tried to couch the whole conversation with them that I would not have judgment about their decision. I want to work with them. I understand that we all have differences of opinion sometimes. And I think that they all took that to heart.” He added, “I wanted in no way to dissuade them from making a decision. These artists have strong commitments to CAP like I do.” One of the artists who received the email, though, told me that they felt the tenor of the message was, “either you’re with me or you’re not,” making them feel split between wanting to donate to a cause they believe in and worrying that doing so might negatively affect their relationship with their gallerist.
Ultimately, seven out of nine of the artists chose to keep their work in the auction, though their pieces will now hang as independent donations instead of gallery-represented works. A representative affiliated with CAP’s art auction told me, “It was a key gesture: this visible gallery will not be there. Froelick Gallery is a cornerstone presence in that world.” They went on to explain, “That carries a lot of clout. For people who come to the auction to bid on art, seeing that it comes from a gallery has the potential to affect the sale price. If they’re not knowledgeable, people may tend to go toward the gallery pieces.”
IT’S POSSIBLE THAT IF Froelick had contacted CAP to tell them that he was personally sitting out the auction this year in protest of their Covid policy, no one would’ve batted an eye and you wouldn’t be reading about any of it here. I’ve wondered why he felt the need to make such a last-minute, unilateral decision that would affect so many people and have a greater likelihood of public consequences.
He said something during our conversation—about CAP’s policy to require proof of vaccination—that I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s heartbreaking to see the organization that I love keeping people out, and I deeply believe it’s based on perception that if you’re not vaccinated, you’re automatically sick or a germ-carrier.” I can’t help but see a connection to something else he shared: “I survived the 1980s when healthy people were treated like disease spreaders. I experienced it first-hand, was kicked out of a college apartment just for being gay. The roommates threw my belongings on the curb, doused them with Lysol and accused me of risking giving them AIDS. That was based on perceptions, and the current rhetoric and actions are more widespread.”
It’s essential that we all stand against and work to obliterate such discrimination. But it is a false equivalency to equate it with a public health organization’s decision to protect the vulnerable population that it serves. This type of misdirection undermines the very real work to end discrimination that advocacy organizations like CAP devote themselves to every day.
One of the reasons that the events of the past month have taken us all aback is because Froelick Gallery has long been held up as a model gallery in terms of its increasing representation of women artists, queer artists, Indigenous artists, and artists of color. If anyone were to ask me to guess which of the blue chip gallery owners in town was the most conservative, Froelick would have been at the bottom of my list. There is a wide gap between personal politics and the public face of the gallery.
ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH my writing knows that this is not the type of story I’m usually interested in telling. It’s certainly not one that I would have sought out. But it was brought to me by members of my community who wanted this in the public sphere so that it could be discussed and debated. The reason I decided to write about it is because, in the end, this is not about Charles Froelick.
What is at issue here relates to what we do when we disagree with someone who has influence over other people’s livelihoods. Boycotting a gallery because of one person’s unilateral decision-making is myopic and misguided, because a gallery is not made up of one person. In this case, the gallery represents thirty artists and employs two staff members.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a mechanism by which one can separate one’s support of an artist from one’s support of their gallerist. If you buy an artist’s work through the gallery that represents them, a portion of the sale (usually 50%) goes to the gallery. Even when a represented artist shows their work in a different art space, which isn’t uncommon, the gallery that represents them is entitled to a cut of the proceeds (usually 25%, but it varies) even if it had no part in procuring or marketing that show. The represented artists I’ve spoken to over the years have expressed a common sentiment: If their gallery is working hard for them throughout the year—mounting shows of their work and also seeking out other opportunities for exhibition and establishing a thriving collector base—they are happy to give a percentage of all sales to their gallery no matter how those sales come about. But if their gallery exhibits their work once every 12-18 months and then leaves them to their own devices for the rest of the time, it feels like a hardship to cut the gallery in on sales, exhibitions, and collectors that the artist has worked doggedly to procure for themselves outside of the gallery.
I don’t have a perfect solution to offer—because an argument can also be made that the valuation of an artist’s work increases just by being represented and that the gallery should get a cut of that added value no matter what—but I invite artists and people who work in the gallery space to have more transparent conversations around this issue. Creating more flexible contractual terms would provide increased autonomy for artists who feel that they want to stay with their gallery even if their gallery is not doing everything it can for them. It would also allow people to continue their support of an artist’s career irrespective of what happens with a particular gallery. We need to ask ourselves: Is there a different type of arrangement that would work in the best interests of all involved parties?
EVEN MORE COMPLICATED is the position in which artists often find themselves. What do you do if you discover that your values are not aligned with those of your gallerist? If your work is wildly popular and profitable and you have an established collector base, the answer is that you simply switch galleries, because many of them will be happy to have you and the commission that your work provides. If you are a lesser-known artist, an emerging artist, or an artist in a smaller market like Portland, your options are severely limited for a number of reasons.
In relatively small markets, there are equally few galleries. “Once an artist is associated with a given gallery and its image, in the public eye it could be difficult to separate the two,” explained someone who has worked within Portland’s gallery system for many years. “From the artists’ perspective with such a dearth of local galleries to even consider, there are not necessarily others to choose from that would even make the transition desirable if they don’t see themselves fitting with the image or aesthetic of other options. That could certainly make an artist feel stuck.”
In addition, as I was researching this story, I spoke to multiple people—on the gallery side and on the artist side—who mentioned a sort of gentleperson’s agreement that exists among certain galleries. What began as a way to ensure that they wouldn’t poach artists from one another has, in some cases, created a situation in which artists cannot move freely between galleries if they are unhappy with their representation. One artist who wanted to leave their gallery said that when they spoke to another gallerist who was interested in representing them, that gallerist said they couldn’t take on the artist until the artist was out of their former gallery. It was unclear to the artist what, if any, amount of time had to pass for the agreement to take effect, and there was no transparency around the matter. They weren’t comfortable leaving their gallery without the assurance that they would be picked up by another, likening the situation to a kind of “indentured servitude.”
It’s worth noting that the majority of gallery owners I know care as much about artists as I do. Many of them have mortgaged their lives to create opportunities for artists to thrive, and are overworked and underpaid just like the artists they represent. I have an enormous amount of respect for what they do. This is in no way a referendum on their value in the art world, it is simply a call for us to re-evaluate the power structures that have long been taken for granted.
Art, by its nature, is political, which is why the politics of a gallery owner is relevant. Even more so if their gallery, like Froelick’s, represents artists from historically excluded communities. Artists deserve the right to self-determination and free movement, without which there can be no equity. These things can only be achieved if we all work harder to create flexible and responsive structures that have the capacity to support everyone who devotes their life to art.
This article is co-published by Oregon ArtsWatch and OUT OF THE BOX.