The January 29 police raid on Bill Lowe Gallery, first reported by Channel 2 Action News, has many artists wondering: what took so long?
Atlanta police executed a search warrant and removed a computer server, which was returned to the gallery on February 7. According to police Detective K. Stapler, it will take “a very long time” to sift through the contents copied from the computer’s hard drive. The police are looking for evidence of manipulated documents.
Stapler told ArtsATL that it was cumulative complaints received over the years that prompted the action, not just the recent one by Wendy Snyder, who says she is owed $164,180 for works sold from the estate of Sam Glankoff.
The police action has brought renewed attention to Lowe, whose reputation for not paying artists has circulated in the art community for quite a while. Among the recurring allegations:
* Lowe reported that artworks sold for less than they did, thereby reducing artists’ remuneration.
* Works went “missing,” meaning they were presumably sold and the artist wasn’t notified.
* Lowe would make little or no payment and/or would drag out payments for months or years.
* Many artists have ended up settling for far less than they were owed. By some accounts, threats of legal action or even bodily harm proved effective in extracting payment.
Lisa Moore of Georgia Lawyers for the Arts said the previous allegations were all civil complaints, whereas the case is now a criminal investigation. It will be up to the district attorney, based on information provided by the Atlanta Police Department, whether to press criminal charges.
Some observers speculate that Lowe is using recent proceeds to make partial payments on old debts. Others suspect that they have been used to keep up lavish appearances. Lowe’s former house at 262 The Prado went into foreclosure in 2011. In 2009, the 4,443-square-foot home had an assessed value of $1.4 million; it was auctioned off for $1 million.
Art consultant Anne Lambert Tracht has long-term relationships with many artists whom Lowe has represented over the years. “I had heard from enough sources about the gallery’s business practices that I made a conscious decision not to patronize the gallery,” Tracht told ArtsATL via email.
Alan Avery, another Atlanta dealer, said he has heard the rumors for 15 to 20 years. “I feel sad for the black eye it puts on Atlanta’s art community,” he lamented, “and very sad for the artists who can’t afford to hire attorneys.”
Our search for sources turned up a host of aggrieved artists eager to tell their stories. In its follow-up report, Channel 2 said it had also received many calls and emails from artists with similar accounts.
On February 6, ArtsATL witnessed a number of paintings by Los Angeles artist Kimber Berry being removed from Lowe’s gallery in a U-Haul van. Some of those are now at Alan Avery Art Company, which also handles the work of Donald Sultan, another Lowe defector who since 2010 has accused Lowe of being a “crook.”
In an email, Berry confirmed that she has left Lowe’s gallery. She said she wasn’t aware of his reputation when she signed with him in 2010. “He paid me for about a year and then blamed [nonpayment] on the economy,” she wrote. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt and was patient about payment, but then he stopped sending quarterly reports.”
After hearing about the recent raid, she decided to take action. Her husband, Karl Kamper, flew to Atlanta to retrieve her works and collect money. Kamper said a handful of paintings were unaccounted for. After much haggling, he said, of the roughly $30,000 he said was owed to Berry, Lowe paid $13,000 via wire transfer.
Berry’s experience fits Lowe’s alleged pattern. Sid Smith and Michael Dines recounted their experiences with Lowe in the late 1990s. Smith said that, as his works were sold, he would receive “piecemeal payments,” such as $250 for a $1,500 sale, instead of his full commission (a 50/50 split is typical). After numerous calls to Lowe were rebuffed, Smith said, he walked into the gallery and confronted the dealer, threatening legal action. Two days later, Smith said, he received a check for the full amount owed and a letter terminating his contract.
Dines describes his experience as “a nightmare.” The last straw, he said, was being told that Lowe was out of town and then finding out that he was vacationing in Bali. “I immediately got a U-Haul, backed it up to the gallery and took all my work.”
Dines calculates that over three years, Lowe sold about $200,000 worth of his paintings. In the end, he said, Lowe paid the full amount owed, but the artist had to be extremely persistent.
Although it’s more common for younger galleries struggling to keep their doors open to fail to make timely, or any, payments, Lowe is not the only well-established gallerist with swanky digs and a celebrity clientele to be accused of wrongdoing. New York has its own tales of withholding galleries, both defunct and operational. Even so, the spectacular downfall of Salandar-O’Reilly in 2007 came as a surprise; the tony Upper East Side gallery had been highly regarded for years. (The popular blog How’s My Dealing? allows users to post stories and rate the practices of art dealers, curators and critics.)
Lowe issued a statement to Channel 2 saying that he had strong “productive” relationships with artists but not denying specific accusations of nonpayment: “I can state without equivocation that for the past quarter century my gallery has generated for all our artists, and their agents, exceptional incomes and significantly expanded career opportunities. We work tirelessly to advance their interests. The characterization of our interaction with artists as anything other than a vibrant, productive and committed advocacy is inaccurate, and a distortion of the full story of our relationships — many of which extend well over a decade.”
On February 8, Bill Lowe Gallery opened an exhibition of works by gallery artists, including Thornton Dial.