I received the news about Bill a few weeks ago from a friend. who, like me, was in Bill’s Gallery years ago. Here is a small piece of the story (just the facts Ma’am) from the Atlanta Ga. news:
Bill Lowe, who has run one of Atlanta's higher-end galleries since the late 1980s, was indicted on Friday on criminal racketeering and theft charges.
A Fulton County grand jury delivered an indictment, which we've embedded below, accusing the owner of the Bill Lowe Gallery of withholding sale proceeds to artists and not returning unsold artwork. Those artists include Don Sultan, Mark Perlman, Lissa Rankin, and others. According to the indictment, artists are owed just shy of $350,000.
Sultan, a New York-based artist, told WSB-TV that "it is about time. It seemed like everybody in Atlanta knew he was doing stuff like this and no one was doing anything about it."
I will depart from just the facts at this point to declare it is not quite true that no one did anything about it. I did something. … Or rather John Spears and I did something about it. It is a story that I have yet to fully tell.
I met Bill Lowe in the 1980s as he was about to open his gallery in Atlanta. At that point in my life I had developed a business plan which was to say “yes” to anything and everything that came my way and try not to worry about the outcome.This is an effective strategy in that it insures that things will happen in my life. But in terms of setting a trajectory for that life, it failed.Things happening will not guarantee that the things that happen will move one closer to a desired objective. That part was at best hit or miss.
But “yes” was the operative word at the time, and yes I joined Bill’s gallery at the beginning. And surprisingly for a number of years I was quite happy to be there. In fact I was struck at the beginning by my good fortune, as Bill Lowe has many qualities that make for a successful gallery owner. He had a good eye, he was quite charming, and he was able to convince anyone that art was a good thing to buy. And the gallery was a beautiful space. At that point I was in a number of galleries and the Bill Lowe Gallery along with others did quite well at selling my work. It is amazing how quickly one adjusts, and what is thought at first to be exceptional soon becomes the norm. I got used to the success that came my way. I attributed that success to the “Follow Your Bliss” mantra. This was a common meme at the time in self help books and pop psychology manuals everywhere, and there was little else that I could point to that would have caused the shift in my fortunes.
As time went on, however, a rather serious problem developed. It became harder and harder to attain money from Bill Lowe after a sale. It could take months for the money to appear. I soon ascertained that Bill was keeping his gallery afloat while using the money that was rightfully mine. I imagined Bill had developed a pattern of “live for today” and would then hope that more sales would arrive to bring in more much needed money. Perhaps this was his own version of ‘Follow Your Bliss".
I talked about this phenomenon with other artists. People were split about the situation and uncertain what to do about it. Some artists seemed not to care, as long as the money arrived some day. Others were not at all happy with the predicament.
I had early on decided to be as cooperative with my galleries as possible. And I had hopes that this cooperation would some day pay off. It was simply an extension of the ongoing “yes” I was using to get things moving. I joined the lot of artists that were putting up with the money situation at the gallery and I tried to convince myself that seeking compensation in a timely fashion was somehow gauche.
In time my phone calls to the gallery became more and more frequent. Conversely, it became increasingly difficult to get through and actually communicate with Bill Lowe.Excuses and promises abounded and it is surprising how much of my life became consumed with dealing with this situation. Money is tangible in an illusive sort of way and it is certainly a motivating force in life. The exchange of such a fragile and illusive thing as “art” for a dollar or two is fraught with inconsistencies…. but being ill equipped to attain money in a normal fashion I had accepted my fate and forged ahead in my life as an artist.
To achieve balance in a business plan, however, “no” is as necessary as “yes”.But at that time in my life “no” was primarily a theoretical construct, and an actual “no” was a hard thing to come by. Once it fully dawned on me what a damned mess I was really in, “no” did enter the range of possibilities, whether theoretical or not.
It took a long time but finally I had reached my limit. I told Bill “no” and asked him to ship my work back to me. That happened.Although I was never meticulous in my organization I had devised a system to keep track of which gallery had what artwork of mine. In looking over the inventory returned from the Bill Lowe Gallery, I realized that a fair number of pieces were missing. I called the gallery. I called the gallery again. Eventually I talked to someone there.
They knew nothing about it.
I began to call the gallery 2 times a week. I sent copies of my records,I sent copies of the gallery records. After a month or so it was eventually established that yes, maybe the gallery had once showed these works……but they were gone now. People seemed perplexed at my attitude, as though I should have expected these pieces to vanish some day. Finally it was admitted that sales of this work might have occurred, but this was by no means certain. Promises were made. Months passed. Life went on.
I put my losses at approximately 7000 dollars.
I don’t believe I have ever harbored ill will towards money in my life, and 7000 dollars was enough money to grab my attention and my respect. I kept hoping that this money knew how much it was appreciated and admired, and that it might some day consider coming back to me . I envisioned welcoming that money with open arms and I was certain that the 7000 dollars and I would have been on the best of terms. If only we could just spend some time together.... alone.
It is in moments such as these that lawyers are consulted
However,the idea of using a lawyer was cloudy as well. My least favorite uncle was a lawyer and since childhood, when he bounced me on his knee, I had developed an aversion to all of them. I also feared that a lawyer would probably just laugh at my well-respected but now intangible 7000 dollars.Another possibility was that by the time they were done with the whole mess, the lawyers would have the vast majority of that money.
I also did not know any mafia hit men at that time.
In looking at it, I realized that collecting my money would be formidable task.
I thought about the situation. I thought about it some more. In fact I stayed up most of one night thinking about it. The next morning I called my friend, John Spears.
John had run a gallery that I was in a few years before and had then for reasons unknown moved to New Jersey. He and I had managed to stay in touch. John is also an artist and continued to be involved in the gallery business. I also knew John to be a good person. The phone call to John lasted for quite a while.
Soon thereafter the following happened:
I got a phone call from Bill Lowe (the first in 6 months or so). Bill was clearly excited. It turned out he had received a letter from some business in another state. A collector on the East Coast was interested in my work and was looking to commission a sculpture in the $35,000 to $50,000.range. The collector wanted to continue to work with this unnamed business, as the two had had a long-standing relationship. Bill Lowe had been contacted, because they were seeking a gallery that handled my work. It was exciting news. Bill failed to mention from what state all this good news was originating. I personally did not care all that much, but if I had to guess, I would say New Jersey.
“That’s great,” I told Bill,” and I really want to work with you again, but at this point you owe me $7000. I don’t think I want to get involved unless you pay me first.”
We then had a moment of silence.
Bill replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”
The next day I received a Fed Ex envelope with a $3000, check in it. It seemed I was back in business with Bill Lowe.
I knew from past experience that commissions could be difficult. I expressed my reservations to Bill and wondered if the client would be hard to please. Bill reassured me and I promised to overcome my trepidations and work as hard as I could on this project. But then working with Bill Lowe was also something I was unsure of. However, with 4000 dollars hanging in the balance, I was willing to do anything. I called John Spears in New Jersey again.
Two weeks went by and then I got another call from Bill Lowe.The East Coast collector was asking for some drawings of ideas I had for this piece. The only stipulation was that the sculpture should stand at least 20 feet tall. Fortunately I had begun working on that very thing two weeks before. Not wanting to appear too eager, I decided to let a bit of time pass before sending the drawings on to the Lowe Gallery. Included with the drawings was a note to Bill reminding him that $4000 was still owed. A week passed and I got a check for $1000. We then heard that the collector really liked drawing number 3. I was very pleased and promised more drawings and a maquette.
And so it went. This commission turned out to be a rather tedious affair, with a lot of letter writing and communication between Bill Lowe, the client, and I. Sure enough the client proved to be, if not difficult, at least challenging, just as I had anticipated. It also took quite a while for this to develop. Slowly however, the commission was worked out as Bill paid off the full amount I was owed.
And there was not a lawyer in sight.
In the end I called John in New Jersey and told him the good news. I also sent him some money and a thank you. Sadly, soon after that, the East Coast collector informed us that something had come up. He had decided not to pursue the Ed Haddaway commission after all. He mentioned something about some financial setbacks. But he did think there was the possibility of an even bigger commission in the next year or two, and he would be in touch.
If I have learned anything, it is that the art world is like that. Some things happen and some things don’t.
And there is not a whole lot anyone can do about it.
I wish my literary license had not expired. Because it would be nice to stop the story where I have thus far managed to stop it. When the ending of any story comes, we can pretty well pick out who are the winners and the losers in the cast of characters, and consistency in such matters is admirable. But haunting me in the telling of any story is the memory of my daughter.When she was young she would prod her dozing, storytelling, father awake with the refrain: “What happened next, Daddy? …..What happened next?”
It is in the continuation of the story that the deck is often reshuffled and the winners and losers are reassigned their rolls. At this point I should remind you that all that has happened so far, happened quite a while ago, and to continue you must jump forward a decade or so, to a much more recent time.
Here is what happened next:
I got a phone call from Bill Lowe. “I’m working on a project and I think your work would be perfect for it,” he said, “there is a school that wants to buy some sculptures”. Bill and I were then, and may still be, on good terms. It’s hard to know. Bridge burning is not a sport I excel in. But in the intervening years “Follow Your Bliss” had fallen from grace. I was still following, but the rest of the world seemed to have moved on to other things. So there was little to do but join the choir of old people who reminisced about the old days. My wife also took up trying to convince me that all things were in fact going quite well. Whatever was true about our situation, when the phone call came from Bill Lowe, I was deep in the loving embrace of desperation.
“Maybe Bill Lowe has changed,” I thought, “and anyway what do I have to lose?” As I hung up the phone another thought came to me, “Even if Bill does not pay me," it went, " wont I be better off than I am right now?”
I forgot how dangerous philosophy could be.
A “yes” from my old business plan was summoned, and I had my work shipped out to him. The project he was working on DID sound pretty good.
Interestingly, nothing happened. The project (that I was so perfect for) was “temporarily shelved” and I settled into the long haul of being in the Bill Lowe Gallery. And with that, most of another year flew by.
Then, needing to mail something to Bill and not having his address handy, I happened to look up the Bill Lowe Gallery on Google. My eyes alighted on an article about events that had occurred some months earlier:
Two weeks ago, Channel 2 shot video as investigators pulled computers and financial records out of the gallery on West Peachtree Street. Investigators were executing a search warrant. Bill Lowe is a major player in the Atlanta art world, and is known for selling expensive works to collectors.
"We just recently got back the computer forensics from the computers that we seized during the search warrant. At this point, investigators just need to pore through the evidence," said Sgt. Paul Cooper, who is in charge of the Major Fraud Unit within the Atlanta Police Department.
Police are investigating allegations Lowe sold artwork to collectors and then never paid the artists fully, which is required under law. Cooper explained this could be a violation of the Georgia Consignment of Art Act.
"Once the item is sold, there is responsibility to pay the artist first, make them whole before they (gallery owners) spend any profit or proceeds," explained Lowe.
Not only did I find it interesting that Bill Lowe knew something about paying artists in a timely fashion, but I was astonished to learn that he was being investigated for fraud. And all of this had happened without me knowing a thing about it. It was time (once again) to think about Bill Lowe and The Bill Lowe Gallery.
Among the tidbits I have gleaned from being an artist for as long as I have, is that should a gallery go bankrupt, the artwork therein becomes part of the assets distributed by the court. It is then up to the artist who has it on consignment to fight in court for it’s return.
“Hmmmmm,” I thought, “perhaps I am in danger of having my work confiscated." I thought about this situation. I talked to people. I thought a bit more. What could I do about this? I decided I needed to get my artwork shipped back to me as soon as possible. So I set about doing just that.
“What do I have to lose?“ I had asked philosophically, when trying to decide whether I should do business again with Bill Lowe. It turns out I could have lost a fair amount. However I was fortunate (as my wife was sure to remind me). My losses were merely the cost of shipping my artwork to Atlanta and back in a years time.
And that amount was dangerously approaching the well-respected 7 thousand dollars mark. An amount that John Spears and I had successfully wrestled from Bill Lowe's grip long ago.