|Louise Blouin: the 'Red Queen'|
Art writers are fed up with being used as cannon fodder by exploitative media entrepreneurs
Louise Blouin, the London-based French Canadian businesswoman and art media entrepreneur (left) has been branded “an international fraud” by a group of disgruntled Indian freelance arts writers claiming they have never been paid for articles filed for Blouin’s ArtInfo publications.
According to the New York Post, Blouin’s method is to:
"promise to pay freelance writers in India, get them to write, stall for a month or two on payments and then cut them loose with no pay. Then repeat with new writers — and don't pay them either."
The Indian writers are only the latest to suffer at the hands of the so-called “Red Queen”.
Blouin’s media empire has suffered no shortage of negative publicity in recent years as a stream of experienced, high-profile American writers and journalists have entered — and just as rapidly exited — through the revolving doors of her various art publications.
An earlier New York Post story of 2010 didn’t mince its words when it reported freelancers’ claims that the peripatetic millionaire “philanthropist” had “stiffed them” over fees for commissioned and published editorial.
Recent whispering around the art market water-cooler suggests that plenty more aggrieved hacks are waiting to vent their spleens over non-payment issues with Artinfo. Some earlier victims of the Red Queen's right royal failure to pay went so far as to construct an informal pressure group, the pungently-titled WAAANKAA (Writers Angry At Artinfo Not Kidding Around Anymore). Click here for more on that.
In a breathless dash to build critical mass in online art publishing, Blouin’s media empire grew too quickly as she set about hoovering up a string of leading titles and information providers, but with no apparent business strategy to underpin it. The more uncharitable chatter opined that she was out to prove herself in the art arena after being jilted by lover Simon de Pury. That may or may not be true, but she is now discovering that hell hath no fury like a freelancer scorned.
BIOBI — ‘Buy it or Build it’ — is a choice most internet companies are confronted with at some point, and Blouin, keen to make her presence felt in the art market as rapidly as possible, chose the former option. In a short space of time she pumped cash from her share of the successful classified ad enterprise she’d founded with her then husband John McBain into prestigious art titles such as Art + Auction, Modern Painters and Art Sales Index.
Had she chosen to invest some of those resources into making the Art Sales Index art price database a viable competitor to Artnet’s and Artprice’s equivalent products, she might have had a monetisable platform from which to grow. Instead she left it as a clunky, malfunctioning, poorly-illustrated search engine which, despite being free, was as useful to serious art professionals as a chocolate teapot.
Since 2000, many art critics and art market writers have seen their traditional bricks and mortar magazine and newspaper jobs undermined by the internet’s largely revenue-less business models and have had to adapt to survive. The news that Artinfo has been consistently defaulting on payment to its freelance providers marks a new low in that narrative.
It is because good quality freelance writing is so widely available that many internet art companies continue to rely on sticky editorial content to embroider their online offering. But don’t assume that the writers providing this content are properly remunerated for their knowledge and expertise. In most cases they're not. Huffington Post won't pay you at all, so why not blog instead?
Sitting atop many of these art businesses are entrepreneurs and investors with little or no feel for the industry, which may be one reason why so many are failing. In 2010, The Art Newspaper reported that the Russian language version of Blouin’s Art + Auction title was suspended when its Russian publisher The Art Media Group was forced to close following the arrest of its owner, Russian businessman Valery Nosov.
Unlike Blouin, Artnet’s old chauffeur Hans Neuendorf knows the art market inside out, front and back. Yet even Neuendorf’s deep expertise has proved insufficient to steer his internet company to success. In 2012, Skate’s Art Market Research listed Artnet’s failings:
“…with no functioning marketing systems in place and a level of service that is desperately outdated—artnet has never built a CRM system, has no client loyalty programs, no cross-selling and no up-sell programs to push revenue per customer up and stimulate repeat purchase business. The firm has no strategic focus known to its shareholders and no depth in its management team, and, most importantly, it has no access to capital today to match the angel- and venture-capital backed Paddle 8, VIP Art Fair, Artinfo, Artspace, Exhibition A and Collectrium, to name a few. This is without even mentioning deep‐pocketed rivals like Art.sy and Chinese Artron.”
Note the presence of the now beleaguered Artinfo in that list (others of which have since fizzled out altogether). What Skate’s bullish critique fails to mention, however, is that few if any of these angel-buoyed internet art vehicles have generated any real revenue. Few will release independently verifiable numbers that would allow us to assess their true promise. What they do testify to is the ease with which the world’s cash-rich, knowledge-poor investors can be persuaded to open their wallets when sexy-sounding art internet start-ups are dangled in front of them.
While clearing out some old files a few days ago I discovered my old dog-eared copy of Artnet’s IPO prospectus. It’s an illuminating document. Like most internet start-ups in the dot-com period it is suffused with the optimistic promise of multiple revenue streams that in just a few years would propel the company towards the sunlit uplands of profitability.
That was then. Having a few years ago disbanded its online magazine — a useful industry resource nurtured by its then editor Walter Robinson — Artnet is once again largely reliant on its editorial content (hardly a viable internet business model while The Art Newspaper remains the industry’s journal of record).
Quite how Artnet will climb out of what Skate’s has described as “its increasingly worsening liquidity situation” remains to be seen, but editorial content cannot be the answer, even while the providers of that content are paid a pittance for their endeavours.
So, with Artnet in a strategic black hole with the vultures circling, and with Louise Blouin’s ArtInfo reeling from a barrage of toxic media coverage, are we finally poised to see some long-overdue convergence in this sector?
As for the despicable treatment of struggling freelance writers, what became of corporate social responsibility?