The Iffy Dealings of Seattle's Most Widely Published Art Critic
Matthew Kangas has been an independent art critic writing about Seattle art and artists for local and national publications for almost three decades. Tall, broad, and brazen, he cuts an imposing figure in person, and more than any other critic, he has documented the history of Seattle art in reviews, features, and eight books."There's no doubt about what he has done for the art community in Seattle; he stands alone in that area," says Linda Cannon, who ran a gallery in Pioneer Square in the 1990s. "He has very literally made young artists' careers by writing about them in esteemed publications like Art in America."
Kangas was a champion of Seattle art when it seemed no one else was, and for a time the lone critical voice giving local artists national exposure. He often introduced himself in letters as "the most widely published art critic in the Northwest." He wrote his first review for the New York–based Art in America in 1979 and continues to contribute to the magazine; he has a review in this month's issue. His byline has appeared regularly in the Seattle Times as a freelance critic for the last 15 years, according to Carole Carmichael, assistant managing editor for features. He has written as a stringer for Sculpture magazine (he has a review in the current edition), Ceramics Monthly, GLASS magazine, and Seattle Weekly. His work is of sufficient interest that the Special Collections Division of the University of Washington Library maintains an archive of 27 boxes of his personal papers, including letters and datebooks, available for public viewing.
One of his heroes is modernist critic Clement Greenberg, who rose to power in the 1940s and 1950s and was as much a manager of certain artists as a writer about them. Like Greenberg in New York, Kangas—born 40 years after Greenberg, in 1949—is the critic who has been most centrally associated with Seattle for the longest period of time.
He's also been a force behind the scenes. Currently, he has two curated shows on display, Mary Henry: Selected Paintings at the Wright Exhibition Space and, opening this week, Joe Reno: Works on Paper Retrospective at Kirkland Arts Center. He owns three of the works in the Henry exhibition (they are marked "Private Collection"); he owns all 53 pieces in the Reno exhibition, according to KAC artistic director Jason Huff.
In part because of Kangas's cozy relationships with artists, rumors of impropriety have circulated for years in the tiny Seattle art community.
After learning last week about Kangas's personal investment in the Henry exhibition, I posted to The Stranger's blog, Slog, about what, as a critic, I saw as an error of judgment—a prominent critic organizing and promoting a show of his own art without disclosing his ownership of the art. The basis for my thinking was that a critic like Kangas has the power to influence the value of someone's work; if he happens to own some of that work, that could pose a conflict of interest. (Kangas plans to put his name to his Reno holdings at Kirkland, Huff said.)
The Slog post inspired a huge response from the local art world, especially because it asked whether a more serious rumor attached to Kangas—that he asks for work from artists he has written about—is true. Artists who are said to have been affected have never spoken publicly about it, presumably because their careers can depend on what critics think of them. As one artist put it, nobody wants to come out looking like the complainer, like the one who won't go along.
Last week, nine artists went on record with The Stranger saying that Kangas did ask directly for art or implied he should be given art before or after he wrote reviews of their work. In a phone interview, Kangas denied ever having done so. He does have a collection of art, he said, and artists have given him much of it.
Seattle Times arts and entertainment editor Doug Kim was not available for comment, but according to the paper's Sunday arts and entertainment editor, Lynn Jacobson, Kangas—who wrote 20 reviews for the paper in 2006—is no longer freelancing for the Times as of the first of the year. In December, she said, the paper asked him to choose between curating art exhibitions and acting as a reviewer because of the potential for a conflict of interest, and he chose curating. "Books, that's the thing for me now," Kangas confirmed, reflecting a career shaped not by the monogamy and security of staff jobs, but by the constant shifting of priorities and loyalties necessitated by contract work.
Early in his career, the Seattle artist Charlie Krafft—whose output has included porcelain machine guns, commemorative plates made from human cremains, and cakes decorated grimly with Nazi symbols—says he got a phone call from Kangas.
Kangas had written a positive review of Krafft's work.
"He just opened the conversation by saying, 'When would it be convenient for you to have me over to select something?'" Krafft said in a phone interview. "I didn't want to give him anything, really, but I did it. It was an extortion. He's a character, and I appreciate him, but I think it's predatory."
Eight other artists also on the record say that—from the 1980s to 2005—Kangas, either by direct request or "cleverly worded implication," as artist Jeffry Mitchell put it, solicited them for gifts of art. Most of the artists say the requests came after a review, and none of the artists say they believe Kangas's opinions were influenced by their gifts or their refusals.
After Kangas's 1995 review of Alice Wheeler's photography show at Vox Populi was published in Art in America, he called her, she said. "It was like, 'Okay, the review's out, when can I come over to pick out some art? We also need to go to lunch and we're going to Palomino and you're buying,'" she said. "I thought it was what I had to do." She gave him two pictures and spent $75 on lunch, she said. "My rent was $285 at the time, so it was a lot of money. I like Matthew; I just think that some of what he does is manipulative and BS."
In 2004, Kangas wrote a positive review of the photography of Tim Roda for the Seattle Times. At the time, Roda was fresh out of graduate school at the University of Washington. A year later, Kangas asked Roda for a work of art. "He asked, and I knew he wanted it, and I just thought, 'I'll give it to you when we're back on my terms, when I feel it's appropriate,'" Roda said. He says he waited for Kangas's birthday and sent it to him then. In December 2006, Kangas wrote another positive review of Roda's work for Art in America. Roda, who has since moved to New York, says other critics have asked him for art, too (he wouldn't name them, or their publications). Roda says he considers Kangas a friend, and that Kangas's request was not the most unpleasant.
Ken Kelly, another painter, says Kangas requested a painting of his during a studio visit Kangas made before writing a review in Art in America. "He said all the artists in New York give art to the critics," Kelly said in a phone interview. "I mumbled and I was noncommittal and never gave him anything."
The review that came out in Art in America was positive. Kangas hasn't written about Kelly since, but Kelly said he believes it has little or nothing to do with not giving Kangas the work. He said he was offended at the request: "Artists, especially young artists, have enough things to deal with without small-town dictators throwing more hurdles into the path."
Greg Kucera, the only Seattle dealer currently appointed a member of the Art Dealers Association of America, posted a long comment on Slog about his experiences with Kangas. "From time to time, in 24 years of gallery work, I've been asked for advice by several artists who say they have been pressured for artworks or meals by Matthew Kangas," Kucera wrote. "Some do decline and walk away unscathed. Others give in to some degree. There is often a bit of justification on the parts of artists who do agree to give a work of art or take him out for a meal. Some say they decided to give him a 'birthday' present... and reassure me that 'in no way was it payback' because to admit that is to agree to the barter of the perceived debt. And that might be the real issue here. Manipulation rather than bribery, if one can draw a semantic subtlety."
That subtlety accounts for some of why artists have mixed feelings about being asked by Kangas. After calling Kangas a "small-town dictator," Kelly reversed course later in a comment on Slog. "I AM NOT A VICTIM," he wrote. "Any artist who is 'victimized' by the pressures of the art world—both over and under the table—have only themselves to blame."
And Roda has come to accept being asked for work by critics, although he doesn't always comply. "There was an intimidation factor at first, until I left Seattle and saw my friends worry about one review or one article, and it's like, there are lots of critics out there—one isn't going to make or break your career," he said.
It's understandable that artists are torn about these interactions with critics, because relationships between artists and critics are complicated even without requests for favors.
Kelly McBride, the head of ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and think tank based in St. Petersburg, Florida, said, "As a journalist who critiques things, you're in a position of power, and if you accept gifts from people whom you hold power over, it's almost impossible to figure out if they're giving those gifts of their own goodwill, or if they feel obligated to do it, because the power distorts the relationship."
Painter Lisa Buchanan gave Kangas a painting he asked for, but says she was "happy to oblige—if I'd had any problem with it, I'd have taken it up with him."
Sculptors Mitchell and Lauren Grossman and painter Jena Scott say Kangas verbally implied that they owed him artworks, and they felt fine giving him nothing. "I always felt that there was something implied, and I'm not surprised to hear that other artists got that," Mitchell said. To artists who get asked, Mitchell advised: "It's 'Go fly a kite.' It's not that kind of deal. It's not a trade."
Several artists interviewed for this story who have been written about by Kangas—Mary Ann Peters, Michael Spafford, Matthew Landkammer, Robert Yoder, John Grade, Karen Ganz, Jeffrey Simmons, Jack Daws, Roy McMakin, and Scott Fife—say Kangas never asked them for art.
"I don't ask for [art], and I don't expect it," Kangas said. "I do have an art collection, artists have made gifts of work to me over the years, that is true. But that has been their decision, not mine.... I'm sorry if they were unhappy with what I might have written about them. I'm sorry if they are upset or if they feel the need to fabricate conversations. I've been here a long time; I'm a big target."
All of the artists who say Kangas asked them for art received positive reviews from him. None of them complained about anything he's written.
Whether artists feel compromised by requests for art is not the only issue; readers and editors assume that critics are not being paid twice, both by the publications and the subjects of their stories.
"The practice you describe is completely unacceptable," Eleanor Heartney wrote in an e-mail. Heartney is an independent writer and critic and president of the United States section of the International Association of Art Critics, of which Kangas has been a member. (The Stranger couldn't confirm whether he is still a member.) "There is a less rigid line about critics accepting unsolicited gifts from artists after the fact, but they must be freely given and not of great value. Shaking down artists is never acceptable."
Some publications, especially magazines, don't have hard-and-fast policies about whether critics are allowed to collect, which leaves critics to wrangle with the issue themselves.
Art in America does not have a written policy about collecting, and editor Betsy Baker declined to elaborate. The magazine relies heavily on largely self-governing freelancers who work informally—there are no contracts. (I have contributed to Art in America.)
Sculpture magazine editor Glenn Harper wrote in an e-mail that the magazine does not have a policy about writers collecting work or receiving gifts from artists. "I have been given small gifts of art by artists I've covered," Harper offered. "And in a couple of cases, I've traded a catalog essay for artwork rather than a fee—in at least one of those cases, I selected the work that I wanted from a group of works that the artist was showing currently."
Alternative weeklies are also on the less regulated end of the spectrum. The Stranger has no written ethics policy. (I don't collect. I own two purchased works by local artists, and don't write about those artists.)
Daily newspapers are far stricter than industry magazines when it comes to conflict-of-interest standards. At the Seattle Times, a portion of the ethics guidelines pertains to collecting but doesn't address it directly: "No staff member may cover, edit, package, or supervise regular coverage of an industry, company, venture, or person in which the staff member, spouse, or domestic partner has any investment, or immediate family members have significant investment, financial or business ties. Such ties pose the appearance of a conflict of interest and may harm the Times and staff member's reputations."
But Sunday arts and entertainment editor Jacobson and assistant managing editor Carmichael repeatedly stressed in e-mail and phone interviews that the policy is a living document to be interpreted by editors on a case-by-case basis. They emphasized that Kangas was never on staff at the Times. Neither Jacobson nor Carmichael would say whether the Times explicitly discourages staff critics from collecting art, or whether the Times would condone a freelance critic asking for art from artists he has written about.
"Freelancers are part of the franchise," Carmichael said. "We trust them just like we trust our professional staff, but we also know that freelancers come to us with other caveats."
To what extent she holds her freelancers to the same standards as her staff reporters remains unclear.
Jacobson said the Seattle Times based its ethics code on the example of the New York Times, which is considered the industry standard. But the culture editor at the New York Times and other leading critics in New York and Seattle said Kangas clearly violated the industry standard.
The written rule at the New York Times includes a similar clause to one in the Seattle Times guidebook, with the added: "An arts writer or editor who owns art of exhibition quality (and thus has a financial stake in the reputation of the artist) may inspire questions about the impartiality of his or her critical judgments or editing decisions. Thus members of the culture staff who collect valuable objects in the visual arts (paintings, photographs, sculpture, crafts, and the like) must annually submit a list of their acquisitions and sales to the associate managing editor for news administration."
New York Times culture editor Sam Sifton said the rule is mostly for writers who come to their beats already owning objects; he said he would be uncomfortable with a critic assembling a collection. He compared the situation to a stock-market writer investing in securities. Gifts are a further problem, he said. The New York Times has a newsroom-wide injunction against gifts over $25 in value.
"It's not good for visual art for critics to take pictures from artists—that's pretty simple," Sifton said in a phone interview. "It seems self-evident to me that if you take shit for free, eventually you will take shit."
New York Times senior art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in an e-mail, "I don't collect at all because it would present a conflict of interest. I know that some critics have collected, not least Greenberg, whose collection now benefits the Northwest [at the Portland Art Museum], and I suppose an argument could be made that such critics put their money where their mouth is. But I can't imagine how one might explain away the financial investment, as if it wouldn't prejudice the writing."
Jerry Saltz, Village Voice critic and two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, collects only thrift-store paintings and ceramics ("the rule here is nothing over $10, no clowns, and no dogs"). He owns the work of a few artist friends, but doesn't write about those artists.
"I find it appalling that a critic would ask an artist for a work of art—good review or bad," Saltz wrote in an e-mail. "It's as sick as an artist asking a critic for a review, good or bad. It's more than tacky; it's corrupt and clueless. You might as well advertise good reviews on Craigslist."
Regina Hackett, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's art critic since 1981, said the P-I has similar conflict-of-interest language to the Seattle Times, but also does not have written rules about collecting. Her personal rule is this: She collects art by full-price purchase only, and doesn't sell anything. She talks with her editor when she fears she's written too much about an artist whose work she owns and is in danger of becoming the primary critic on the artist.
"Since the '90s, it's become a policy at all newspapers, I think, of any consequence, that you're not accepting any gifts of any kind from anybody. The reader has to trust you," Hackett said.
"Standards have changed for critics—they've become tighter. But it was never okay, and it will never be okay, to pressure artists into giving a critic a quote-unquote gift, under any circumstances," Hackett said. "Asking is pressure."
In the larger sense, Kangas represents a perfect storm of ethical collisions in an industry that can produce radical critique of the larger culture, but is loath to critique itself and set down ethical standards—especially on the question of whether critics should collect art.
"In the visual art world, that's a loophole you can drive a truck through," said Johanna Keller, director of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at Syracuse University.
Each discipline—music, literature, theater, art—has its own ethical complications and standards. But visual art is the most "casual," Keller said, and writers and their subjects can be involved with each other in the most flagrant of ways: financially.
"In the visual arts, it's really about money. You're dealing with an object that can be sold later at a higher price," she said. "That's when it gets really serious."
While some critics say that asking for art is a violation of standards, there is no evidence that Kangas was biased by his collecting, or that any of his arrangements were quid pro quo. They fall instead into a grayer area that reveals the complex web of power, perceived power, money, ambition, and manipulation in the art world.
What's remarkable about Kangas is that nobody has accused him of being swayed by his collection, and he certainly hasn't become rich from selling what he owns. As the longtime Seattle cultural critic Tim Appelo put it, "If he's so corrupt, why is he living like a grad student?"
Judging by the descriptions given by artists, it is possible to imagine that Kangas simply wanted to collect art because he was passionate about it. In other words, he may have been merely selfish in his love for art, rather than sinister or profiteering.
Kangas declined to say how large his collection is, what he plans to do with it, or whether he has ever sold anything from it.
Given his fondness for Greenberg, said Mary Warner Marien, a historian of art criticism at Syracuse University, where Greenberg got his bachelor's degree in English in 1930 (Kangas, who attended Reed College, also studied literature), Kangas's pattern seems like a romantic throwback to a mythical, "dreamy view of the American postwar gang." More than one artist interviewed for this story said Kangas told them it was a New York tradition that artists give critics artworks. It was Greenberg's tradition, according to Sculpture editor Harper: "I know that Clement Greenberg requested works from those he wrote about—that's a substantial precedent, given the prominence and importance of Greenberg for the field of art and the practice of criticism."
Greenberg, who died in 1994, is easily the most controversial and largest-looming critic in the history of modern art. He championed the abstract expressionists and the color-field painters—artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, whose names came to be synonymous with America becoming (for a time) the capital of the art world. In addition to having some very strong and influential ideas, Greenberg also meddled so thoroughly that he told artists how to paint and then praised them if they did what he said.
But Marien took exception to the idea that any critic today would model himself after Greenberg by asking for art from artists.
"You're taking too much of a chance of looking like you're trying to bribe them," Marien said. "That's a huge sacrifice for the artist to make—not the work of art, but the idea that the criticism may have been bought. Now what [Kangas] has done is take the reputations of the artists he has mentioned who may be deserving of the praise he gave them, and just trashed them."
Marien said that except for Greenberg, it has never been an American tradition for critics to expect art after writing reviews.
Marien also asked: If the accusations are true, how did Kangas get away with it for so long? The answer to that may be many-pronged, but it in part lies in artists' belief that he is almost one of them, an embedded critic, for lack of a better phrase—someone who is an art lover and expert first, and a journalist second.
In the last 20 years, daily-newspaper editors have lost interest in critical reviews, asking writers for more trend pieces, profiles, and investigative reports. Last year, when Kangas wrote 20 reviews of regional exhibitions in the Seattle Times, the staff art critic Sheila Farr wrote only five, according to the paper's online archives—she wrote other kinds of stories, such as a three-day series about Dale Chihuly, which she worked on with another reporter and a team of researchers. Given this disparity, Kangas can be seen as a friend to the art community in Seattle.
The emphasis on reporting instead of criticism, or in addition to criticism, has dragged critics into the same spotlight reporters work under, where lapses of judgment are firing offenses. Today, being embedded is looked at with suspicion, and being detached is more in vogue. Each position certainly has its merits. But the industry is still struggling to combine the two approaches in a way that keeps critics passionate, engaged, and knowledgeable, without allowing their biases to be, or to appear to be, personal or financial.
Kangas is a fascinating figure, an embedded critic who found himself in a field where detachment has become the norm and, for whatever reasons, never adjusted. Reportedly, he is as maddening to be around as he is endearing, as imposing as he is eccentric, and ultimately, he may be someone who compromised himself by his own habits. His influence has been on the wane. Other Seattle writers have written for magazines such as Art in America and Artforum in recent years, and because the Seattle Times raised the conflict-of-interest flag, he will no longer have a regular local outlet at a daily newspaper.
If the artists are telling the truth, then why did he do it? Was it all only so that he could live with the art that he loved, whatever the cost?
Such intangible costs are hard to tally, both to individuals and institutions. But for one painter out there, Kangas has taken something very specific—and this painter wants it back.
Alden Mason, who is 87, says Kangas "borrowed" a six-foot painting of his two years ago—and that Kangas has ignored Mason's requests to have it returned. "I can't make enemies—he can hurt you," Mason said in a phone interview about the piece. "I said it's time we get it back; he doesn't answer me."
Kangas said nothing in his collection is borrowed.
Mason's former dealer, Greg Kucera, commented on Slog: "Looking back, I wish I had the foresight to know that this would become a painful, divisive issue and to have simply taken Matthew aside at some point and discouraged him from doing it. At the time, I thought it was enough to encourage artists on a one-on-one basis to refuse. I hope that Matthew Kangas will own up to this practice and see the benefits to abandoning it."
Kucera also wrote, "I hope that he can recognize that those who call him out here have not betrayed him so much as recognized that he has betrayed them."