Friday, January 18, 2008

Michael Howell, Part VII

The End

Michael lost the gallery by gallery by the end of 1994, but refused to admit it and adjust to it. As a result he was driven from the gallery.

If there was any single mistake he made that got him driven out it had to be the habit he had of letting himself in to the gallery after hours and claiming more wall space for himself. At the start of gallery self-governance Michael had one-third of the wall space. For the December '94 reopening there was a more equitable reapportionment of space, although Michael's was still larger than others. But after that event, Michael came in nights and worked at restoring his dominance of the display space. He took down art he didn't like, moved other art in its place and increased his own display.

Another factor in Michael's ouster was the arrival of Boyd McLaughlin. Boyd was a talented artist who specialized in detailed representational drawings dawn with ballpoint etched in wood. His art sold. He was also a recovering drug addict who needed to throw himself into his work to fight his addiction. So he had a vested interest in seeing the gallery open for as many hours as possible. By the summer of 1995 the gallery was open more than half the week and Boyd was clamoring for 7-day coverage, telling Barbara Brownstein he would do it himself.

The rest of us, aside from Michael, were happy to let Boyd do it. Not only would it mean more hours that artists could use the space and sell, but we knew that Boyd was a fair monitor.

Monitoring was a constant problem for the gallery. The monitor greets visitors and gives them a tour of the space, answering any questions the visitors have and arranging sales for artists who don't happen to be present. When Michael performed the function everyone could see that he tried to keep the visitor's attention moving from display to display until they landed on his art. He deliberately put his art at the back of the room so the visitors would get to it last. That way there would be no place next to go after they got there, and Michael could keep them at his display for an indefinite period of time. If anyone complained that he wasn't showing the other artist's work equally he'd say he'd already done that. The tour was over, he was just carrying on a conversation now. The deceit was transparent to the artists but the cover just barely plausible enough that the staff felt they could do nothing.

With Boyd there were no dirty tricks like that. He showed all the art equally. If the visitors were still there asking questions when the tour was technically over he wouldn't hog their attention, but invite other artists to share in the conversation.

Real Change featured Boyd McLaughlin in the August 1995 issue, the same issue that my column started. Soon after, Boyd started opening the gallery 7 days a week.

Barbara Brownstein and Noel House staff began to put pressure on Boyd to cut back. They were afraid he was overworking himself. Boyd cheerfully dismissed their concerns, saying, "I know what's best for me."

What happened next was one of the best examples I can give of what is wrong with social workers' training. Instead of acknowledging that Boyd really MIGHT know better than they about his personal life and needs, they made the decision for him to cut his hours back. He subsequently died, of a drug overdose, on one of the days he otherwise would have been working the gallery.

Apparently the schools that turn out social workers need to require Humility 101.

Boyd's death brought the other artists together as a community and his work while alive told us we didn't need Michael Howell.

The final push came after Michael was called to a meeting downstairs with Barbara, Noel House staff, and representatives of the cooperative that had formed over Michael's objections. I was picked as one of the representatives. The main issue was Michael's meddling with the displays after hours. He was asked to stop his "obstructionism" and join with the other artists as an equal member of the coop. He sulked through most of the meeting, then told us all it was his gallery and we had no right to take it away from him. I pointed out that he had told us all along that it would be a coop, now it is one, so what was the problem? He said, "So you're on their side." He must have imagined himself the Julius Caesar of the gallery.

It took us months to get Michael Howell's art out of the gallery. After six months, we came very close to just throwing it in the trash, on the theory that six months was more than reasonable time to expect an evictee to clear out.

About half a year later, on March 9, 1997, Michael died of heart failure. Unlike Boyd's death, it wasn't clear whether you could blame Michael's on his eviction from the gallery. Too much time had passed. But maybe we did kill him. I don't know.

But I do know I'm far from a Brutus. I didn't stab him. He walked into it.

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