The Great Heights Art Heist

Artists claim they were ripped off by local gallery.

For local artist Claire Richards, the opening night of her first solo exhibition, at a Heights artspace called H Gallery, should have been an evening to be remembered fondly for the rest of her days.

And for a time, before Richards ran into months and months of lies, excuses, broken promises and stonewalling, before she found out she would end up thousands of dollars in the red, and before she found all those other artists who claimed to have been collectively stiffed out of thousands and thousands more by H director Heidi Powell-Prera and Powell-Prera's mother, H Gallery bookkeeper Sandy Bernstein, that show had felt something like the wedding night of her dreams.

For their part, Powell-Prera and Bernstein insist they have done nothing wrong, nothing that a little time to make things right won't cure.

Claire Richards has waited months to collect the proceeds from her first solo exhibition. Instead of money, she says she has been given excuses, promises and lies.
Chris Curry
Claire Richards has waited months to collect the proceeds from her first solo exhibition. Instead of money, she says she has been given excuses, promises and lies.
Heidi Powell-Prera: Richards and other unpaid artists say her flower-child Facebook persona is galling and well past its sell-by date.
Joana Esteves Photography
Heidi Powell-Prera: Richards and other unpaid artists say her flower-child Facebook persona is galling and well past its sell-by date.
Jason Ransom was ecstatic after he made his first-ever sale to a stranger through H Gallery. Triumph was brief; his payment never came.
Chris Curry
Jason Ransom was ecstatic after he made his first-ever sale to a stranger through H Gallery. Triumph was brief; his payment never came.
Sandy Bernstein says that Jim Adams, pictured above, has inexplicably launched a vendetta against the gallery she helps her daughter Heidi Powell-Prera run. Adams says he has more than ten thousand reasons to harass the women.
Chris Curry
Sandy Bernstein says that Jim Adams, pictured above, has inexplicably launched a vendetta against the gallery she helps her daughter Heidi Powell-Prera run. Adams says he has more than ten thousand reasons to harass the women.
Claire Richards paid for every aspect of her gallery show — the rental of the room, the wine, the food, the flowers and the mailings. An expert on the art business says that means she should have been entitled to every penny of the proceeds.
Courtesy of Claire Richards
Claire Richards paid for every aspect of her gallery show — the rental of the room, the wine, the food, the flowers and the mailings. An expert on the art business says that means she should have been entitled to every penny of the proceeds.

"The Press is getting involved in what really should be a civil matter," says Bernstein. "No artist ever goes unpaid. It may be late. We don't pretend that we are sitting on a pile of money. A lot of people come and get their career started and leave, and I am very sorry this happened. I'm not lying to you...I would hate to see our business hurt, or damaged, or maybe even ruined because of a few people who are all going to get paid."

When first contacted by the Houston Press, Bernstein mentioned that her husband, Paul, was in the hospital after a stroke where he has been since May 2009.

For Richards and other aspiring artists who say they've heard the duo's excuses a few too many times, the explanations fall on deaf ears. Jason Ransom, another painter, said the women started telling him sob stories about Paul Bernstein before he ever sold a painting and that the stories only got sadder and more frequently told afterwards, when he tried to collect his money.

Other artists said they had heard the same thing, and eventually, they would all tell the women something similar to what another local artist/gallerist had to say about the matter: "I'm sorry for your dad, but that has nothing to do with business. That's personal. You should never breathe a word of the personal when you are talking business."

In Richards's case, the event last August at the small art gallery a few blocks west of the antiques district on West 19th Street was fairly well-attended, if not quite as studded with local art cognoscenti as she might have hoped. Still, some local art collectors did turn up, not to mention her family and friends — even some she hadn't seen since high school in Memorial more than 20 years ago, before she became a fixture on Houston's 1990s punk scene and then headed off into the wild.

Richards had covered the walls of the gallery with her enormous, gloomy abstract canvases — her interpretation of the decade the heavily inked, strawberry blond spent working in emergency medicine in False Pass, Alaska, a rugged village in the Aleutians known mainly to the outside world through its association with the Discovery documentary series The Deadliest Catch. Lots of broken bodies and long, dark nights went into the making of those paintings.

She'd invested not only her artistic soul and many hours, but also a lot of her own money. For three months prior to the exhibition, Richards had been writing $125 checks to H Gallery to reserve wall space for individual works, and the gallery had charged her $800 more for her solo show, which would run for a week. She had also catered the event herself, drawing on her contacts in the service industry to bring in the best food, drink and flowers she could find. Richards estimates her tab at more than $2,000: $1,200 on catering, $800 for the rental fee and $200 for mailings.

This was money Richards could ill afford. A single mother who does not receive child support, Richards had recently left her restaurant job to try to make it as a full-time artist. While that might seem rash, she says she was making about ten bucks an hour and forking over $600 a month for childcare. And more established artists told her she had the talent to make it. She weighed her options and decided that becoming a full-time artist would fulfill her creative dreams and eliminate her most pressing expense. She went to work in her studio space in an old warehouse under the Elysian Street viaduct in a devastated nether zone of Fifth Ward brownfields, financing the endeavor by dipping into her savings, most of which came from the sale of her Alaskan home.

H Gallery had also encouraged her dream. Powell-Prera and Bernstein told Richards they were really excited to have her. Richards says she felt like her art was unlike any of the other works the gallery had on hand, but the location was good — while West 19th is known more for antiques, it's still one of Houston's micropockets of hip — and the women talked a good game.

Not that Richards hadn't heard a few snatches of ominous minor-key music tinkling in the background. She was dismayed to see that H Gallery was absent from Spacetaker.com, Houston's top fine arts Web site.  The omission made her wonder how seriously H was regarded by Houston's more established fine arts community, and that also meant that her show was not on the site's calendar.

"I started to question their professionalism," Richards says. "I'd already invested a lot of money. And then I started to go by the gallery and it just seemed like there was no effort. Everything looked like crap in there."

Odd people hung around H Gallery, she says.  One day she went by with artist Ransom and found it staffed solely by a tattooed man described by Richards as "super-über-blue-collar." He introduced himself as "Scorpio," and his approach as an art gallery docent was unique, to say the least: Ransom says Scorpio pulled him aside to tell him "pussy jokes."

"And I'm about to show my art there, and this is the guy they have there minding the store?" Richards marvels. "If somebody comes in there and wants to talk about my art, this is who they are gonna talk to? I started having some more reservations."
_____________________

Powell-Prera and Bernstein have been in business since 2004, when they opened Gallery 19, West 19th Street's first art gallery. Since then, they've changed names and moved a few blocks west, but have somehow remained in continuous business for almost seven years.

How could they do it this badly for this long and stay in business? How could two women with criminal records, albeit petty ones (In 1998, Powell-Prera was convicted of writing hot checks and served six months probation, while her mom was convicted of unlawfully carrying a weapon in 1992 and did a couple of nights in jail), reportedly stiff so many people for so long and continue to operate in the public eye?

Some think shame played a role, alongside pity. Once these artists got taken, they started to wonder about the legitimacy of this art gallery. Had they really cracked into the art world, or simply fallen victim to a scam that preyed on their egos? "The problem is, no one ever really said anything to each other," says one artist who wished to remain anonymous. "I think there was some embarrassment, and everyone knew the bad financial straits that Heidi was in, so the artists just kind of slunk away."

Richards and Ransom blame a "code of silence." They both believe that developing artists are scared to speak out because to do so would get them labeled as troublemakers and blacklisted from future gallery shows.

And artists will stop at nothing to get a gallery show. Indeed, some will pay any price.

"Artists are so anxious to get their work shown that they hear what they want to hear instead of reality," says Sylvia White, an art consultant based in Los Angeles whose Web site artadvice.com helps young and developing artists avoid scams. "And some, but not all, gallerists tend to exploit that in artists because it's very easy to do."

White says that some artists allow themselves to be exploited. Overly eager to show their work, they let details like timely payment slide. She says that's the very reason some galleries are able to stay in business.

Metal sculptor Jim Adams, who says the gallery owes him money, says that artists aren't  "charging-ahead types" when it comes to the bottom line.  "I don't know why, but they are more like sheep or turkeys, this sort of thing," he says. "It's easy for them to get worked over."
_____________________

Despite her rising concerns, Richards was able to make not one but two fairly significant sales at her show: a painting called "Black Eyed Susan" sold for a thousand dollars, and "Taking the Ambulance to Higher Ground" for two thousand.

While the show was in progress, Richards says she asked Powell-Prera and Bernstein for a guarantee that she would be getting paid within 30 days. "Of course," she was told. "What do you mean? That's how we operate." (The women would later claim in e-mails to her that there was a 90-day window in which to pay Richards, but the point is moot. That deadline has now passed, too.)

The terms of the agreement Richards signed entitled H to about 35 percent of that money, and taxes and the expenses would eat up all the rest and then some, but at least she would have come close to breaking even. Richards believed that she would be getting a check for $2,079 within a month of the date of sale. Less the $2,200 she had spent on the event and the $375 she had given the gallery earlier, Richards would still be down about 500 dollars.

Even though she finished the night in the red, Richards believed that from a career standpoint her show had been a success.  If selling her paintings through the gallery would cost a hefty chunk of the proceeds, that was just part of the dance young artists had to do, and Richards wanted to prove to other gallery owners that she was a viable commodity, one who could make them money. She wanted to show the art world she would conduct herself professionally. "A lot of artists will pull works and then [later] sell them out of their car to someone who saw it at the gallery," says one local artist/gallerist. "[Selling through the gallery] was an honorable thing."

"Both of [the buyers] thought they were doing the right thing by buying through the gallery," Richards says. They believed they had helped Richards be the center of her very own event. They couldn't have known what more than a dozen other artists had already found out: that even a full six months after the August showing, Richards would not see a dime of the two-thousand-plus the gallery was contractually obligated to pay.

"It makes me sick," says a collector who bought one of Richards's paintings and wished to remain anonymous. "It makes me feel as if I have received stolen merchandise. It's especially bad because these people work so hard and they struggle so desperately to make it. For them to be taken advantage of is especially egregious in my mind."

Thirty days passed. Nothing. Richards started pressuring Powell-Prera and Bernstein with texts and e-mails, messages that were courteous at first. Summer burned out into winter, and still nothing, aside from promises and excuses: "We don't have it right now," "We're trying to work on some jobs," "We've got a couple of sales coming through."

Powell-Prera and Bernstein also frequently dealt Richards what they apparently believe is their trump card: Paul Bernstein had a stroke and is in the hospital. Everyone involved with H Gallery has heard that one. Indeed, Paul's stroke was also the first thing out of Sandy Bernstein's mouth when she finally spoke to the Press, more than a week after we first started attempting to contact her and Powell-Prera.

"We're not selfish, greedy, money-hungry people," she said. "I am sitting here in a hospital room right now talking to you." After speaking to us for about ten minutes, Bernstein set a date for the following day. She would come to the Press and bring Powell-Prera and the two of them would clear up all of this, she said. The next day she consulted a lawyer and clammed up.

Like several of the artists who spoke to the Press, Richards was sympathetic at first, but she says that Powell-Prera and Bernstein soon graduated to other excuses, like "We're gonna sell the insurance we have on the building just to pay you guys" and "The co-op is broke." Eventually, the correspondence turned vicious on both sides, with Richards becoming increasingly insistent on getting her money and Powell-Prera resorting to blame-the-victim vilification.

By then, Richards's sympathy over Paul Bernstein's stroke had completely dried up. She says she confronted the mother and daughter in the gallery and angrily told them that their problems had no bearing on the financial matter at stake. "I don't come to you and whine about being fucked over by a gallery," she says. "I don't tell you that I have a kid and don't get child support. I don't tell you those things and try to guilt you into paying what is rightfully mine."

Richards says she was called ungrateful and Powell-Prera told her she regretted ever doing a show for her, evidently forgetting that Richards had paid for pretty much every aspect of it. "She said, 'If I'd have known then what I know now, I wouldn't have done the show.' Why not? You took seven grand off [painter Jason Ransom and me] in a three-month period? More than a hundred percent profit? Sounds like a good deal to me."

Bernstein is adept at blaming those who claim to be her victims. She and her daughter both present themselves as humble servants to the Houston art community, generous incubators of talent who only want to give local artists a leg up. Powell-Prera posts a lot on Facebook about overcoming the "negative energy" of those around her. (There seems to be a lot of it in her world.) They claim to be perpetually surprised at what they see as ingratitude from the artists they have not paid.

One of those artists is Jim Adams, who began his association with H in 2008. Without mentioning him by name, Bernstein hinted that Adams is a troubled man who inexplicably and suddenly decided in January of this year that he wanted to destroy the gallery in spite of all Bernstein and Powell-Prera had done for him.

Adams tells a different story. The metal-sculptor claims to be owed more than ten thousand dollars in commissions on combined art sales and personal loans he now deeply regrets making to the women. "I would get these calls at eight o'clock at night, where they would say, 'Jim, you've just got to give us some more money! They're about to turn off the power!'" he recalls. "I'm 62, I'm trusting, I'm caring and that's a disastrous combination."

His abrupt decision to aggressively turn on H Gallery came after he heard about Richards's woes. After that fiasco, he saw that "all the lights on the instrument panel were flashing." Adams knew then that there was something systemically wrong with the gallery, so he pulled out all of his art and started talking to other artists about H. "Every one of them who had worked with H said that H owed them some money," he says.

He claims to have accounted for 13 artists who are collectively owed more than $22,000. Richards, Ransom and two other artists have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, all alleging the same thing: that the gallery has not paid them their commissions. (BBB chief Dan Parsons says that in his considerable experience, each complaint his office receives represents about 20 others that never get reported.)

Bernstein says there were only two complaints, both of which were resolved. That is not accurate. The Press found four complaints, and spoke to three complainants who say they still have not been paid (Richards, Ransom and Olga Galindo, who says the gallery's debts to her date back to February 2009).

Bernstein groused that the one complaint she did resolve — one filed for $251.25 by an artist named Jessica Salmonson — was filed before the money was even due. Salmonson disputed that allegation in her complaint, took the women to small-claims court and finally got her money, mere hours before their court date.  She told the Press that she believes she was able to get paid because she used to be Bernstein's neighbor and was thus able to dun her around the clock.

Some with a dark sense of humor might find it amusing that Powell-Prera attempted to play on the heartstrings of the Better Business Bureau's caseworker with the same old tale of woe they have been telling everybody else for the past few years: "I have to say that I am surprised at this complaint to you," she wrote. "Ms Salmonsen [sic] is my mother's neighbor and knows that on May 15th my stepfather suffered a major stroke and is still in the hospital."

If the caseworker was touched by that plea, she made no note of it in her files, nor was there anything that resembled a teardrop smudging the print on the scanned page.
_____________________

Broadly speaking, there are three types of galleries: commercial galleries, co-ops and vanity galleries. Commercial galleries are at the pinnacle. They have a simple business model: They approach artists and ask them to host their events, and the gallery and the artist split the proceeds right down the middle.

Then there are the co-ops, which Sylvia White explains like this: Artists pay a membership fee to become part of the co-op. They also agree to work at the gallery for a certain number of hours per month. In return they are given wall space and solo exhibitions and get to keep more of the money off works sold. White says co-op artists typically keep 70-80 percent from their sales.

At the bottom end, there are the vanity galleries, the visual art equivalent of a pay-to-play nightclub or vanity printing press. It's also a simple business model — you pay the gallery to exhibit your work, you shell out for the incidentals involved with your exhibition and then you get to keep all the earnings.

These galleries have no real incentive to sell art — they've already gotten their money from the artists, in most cases. (H Gallery is an exception. It continues to rake in money even after the room has been rented.) Art critics and other tastemakers are leery of such places, so the chances of getting the "right" people in to your show are low. (The Press spoke with a handful of Houston's fine arts establishment figures; none of them had heard of H Gallery.)

While Richards and some of the other artists affiliated with H describe it as a co-op, it actually operates as a hybrid vanity gallery/co-op, with all the monetary advantages going to Powell-Prera and Bernstein.

As in a co-op gallery, H Gallery artists pay monthly fees. They are expected to work a full-day shift once a month; failing that, they have to pay about $65 extra in fees. On the other hand, the artists bear all costs involved with hosting solo exhibitions, just as they do in vanity galleries. When it comes to the take, H Gallery reverts to acting as a co-op. What's more, the amount H Gallery took from Richards — 35 percent — was high even by co-op standards. By vanity gallery standards it was still worse: To White, the percentage was immaterial, as it should have been zero to H Gallery. "The glitch with [Richards's] arrangement was that she should have made all the sales herself since she paid for everything herself," she says.

Still, White says all of that falls under "buyer beware." There's nothing illegal or even unethical about vanity galleries per se, assuming that they pay their artists what they are due. They are in every major city in America, and White says that for some developing artists, working with them can make sense. "They are not all scams," she says. "Artists can choose to pay for gallery space for positive reasons."

It would seem to make sense that a true co-op gallery would operate as a nonprofit, break-even enterprise. One artist who knows Powell-Prera and Bernstein well says H Gallery is anything but. The woman wished to remain anonymous, so we'll call her "Frances."

Frances worked with H Gallery from about 2007 until 2010 and says that she observed that artists were almost never paid what they were owed. She claims to be owed $1,400; she says she never saw a penny, even though she once considered Powell-Prera a friend. And she thinks she knows why: "Neither Heidi nor Sandy had a regular job or other income, so their sole means of support was the gallery."

Which didn't leave them high on the hog, Frances says. She writes that the women lived "very poorly in a filthy piece of crap rented house" and that they shared a broken-down old car. That car figures in a bizarre pair of Facebook status updates from January. In the first, posted in the wee hours of January 12, Powell-Prera had this to say: "My old beat up 94 Taurus silver no front bumper license starts with Y81 was stolen from 19th street tonight I have no idea why but if you see it I'm not in it so post any sightings just reported it 2 hours ago they couldn't have gone far it barely turns no power steering and acting up." She posted that it had been found before sun-up.

"It was obvious that they did not have any money," Frances writes. "I think that is also why artists didn't press them or believed them when they heard excuse after excuse.  However, the gallery was supposed to be a co-op and not for them to live off of." (Bernstein claims that their poverty is indicative of their purity. "Heidi didn't start this to become a millionaire," she says. "She started out of purely altruistic motives. The Houston artist needs a home.")

Income from art sales and co-op dues was stretched in many ways:  not just toward the rent, utilities and operating costs of H Gallery but also to their personal rent, food and living expenses. (Adams told us the women frequently dined on takeout from the Vietnamese restaurant next door.) "Sales did happen, but that's a lot of overhead for a co-op," Frances writes. In addition to the art sales, some of that overhead was also defrayed by dues — Frances estimates that the women might have been collecting as much as $2,000 a month from that revenue stream. "I think that when they did not pay for sales, the artist would continue to stick around but stop paying their dues," she writes. " I also speculate that Sandy then considered not collecting monthly dues as payment for monies owed so they were continually on the lookout for 'new members.'  Sort of an artistic Ponzi scheme."

Frances stops just short of taking her hat off to the women for a snow-job well-executed. "I would love to be able to run my own gallery and let other people pay for it! It's a great gig if you can get it."

Ultimately, though, she just feels like she'd been conned. "When it finally dawned on me that I was just being used, I was quite upset. I really thought that Heidi and I were good friends and I went out of my way to help her outside of the gallery as well.  I took her out to eat, paid for her to attend art functions, gave her things and in general tried to be a loyal friend until it became obvious that I was just being taken advantage of."

So why did it take these artists so long to see the light? These are intelligent people. Are they really so desperate to get into a gallery that they will overlook all these bizarre shenanigans?

Ray Phillips, a Houston artist and owner of a Galveston gallery, says that a work's quality and value can seem enhanced by the mere fact that it hangs in a gallery and not some grotty, ill-lit studio in a shady part of town. Some collectors believe that "If it's not in a gallery and really expensive, then it can't be any good. They will walk in with money and ask the curator, 'What's the coolest thing in here?' and the curator will say, 'This.' And the person will say, 'Okay, I'll take it.'"

While getting swindled is always a massive bummer, Phillips contends it's even worse for artists. "When it comes to art, it's personal," he says. "It's not [just] a commodity as much because you've worked on it for a week or two. You've been through a bunch of emotional stuff with it, so it's usually more important than a bale of hay.

"And when it sells you are excited because that validates what you do. The ultimate validation for an artist is when someone buys your art. And when the gallery doesn't give you your money, all that goes in the toilet. There went your happiness, and in comes the rage."
_____________________

In January, Adams and Richards organized a meeting with some of the other artists who are owed money. They found plenty.

There's Mimi Wang. She tells the Press that she sold a few pieces through H Gallery in 2007 and 2008. She got the same treatment Richards did, and Wang's husband persisted in trying to collect. The gallery finally coughed up a check for $3,000. "I was very happy, so I go to the bank, and the check bounced," Wang says, in a faintly Chinese accent. "So that was nice." Eventually, the gallery agreed to pay her back in monthly installments and gave her $300 to start. And, as it turned out, to finish. That's all Wang would ever get.

Ted Ellis, a local artist, wrote via e-mail that he heard "excuse after excuse, until I got tired and felt it was not worth the hassle." Austin artist Sue Rock claims to have been owed money since 2009. "Promises, Lies, refusal to return art. BROKEN PROMISES of money owed. Then, zero response. They are only into ME for about $500 BUT AFTER REPEATED ATTEM's [sic] to get my money and art they will not respond...They are grifting artists that work from the soul and it's a very bad situation."

Following the lead of his friend and studio mate Richards, Jason Ransom also began an association with H Gallery last summer. Through the gallery he made his first-ever sale to a stranger — one of his paintings sold for $1,300, with $1,000 coming to him. He was ecstatic, for a few weeks, anyway.

Then came the excuses. "They said, 'Just give us three more weeks, we're trying to sell stuff to give you your money...Dad's in the hospital,' and on and on. You'd walk away feeling strangely guilty about even bothering them about your own money. But it comes down to this: My painting is hanging in someone's house. They had the money. They spent the money. They got to pay their rent and order their takeout, and the money's not there. They won't give it to me. I am having to sell plasma for bread, and I've got $1,000 right down the street."

And then there's the tangled thicket Adams has been attempting to hack through in seeking repayment of that ten thousand dollars in personal loans. Adams said at the time that he did not particularly need the money right away, so he told the struggling gallery owners that they could pay him back at their earliest convenience. Months stretched into years. Adams's financial situation changed. As a regular volunteer employee of the gallery, he saw that a few good-sized sales had come in. He started pressing for his money. In return, he got what he says is the usual: "Dodges, evasions, promises and ignored."

At last he countered with what he believed was a very generous offer. He told them they could pay him back 1 percent of what they owed every 30 days. "It would cost them $100 a month to keep me on board," he says. "Not a dime." (Bernstein told the Press that Adams's loans were investments in the gallery. Adams furnished the Press with his own canceled checks clearly marked "loan," with the due dates also on the checks.)

According to Adams and Olga Galindo, the plot got even thicker. While still working at the gallery, Adams bought two of Galindo's paintings. He told Powell-Prera and Bernstein to disburse Galindo her money and that he would apply the gallery's $500 share to their debt to him. A couple of months later, Adams says he saw Galindo and told her how much he loved her work and how proud he was to own it. Galindo told the Press that she hadn't known until then that her paintings had sold — the gallery had pocketed her share.

About a month later, Adams says, Bernstein told him that he would have to return the paintings to Galindo. Bernstein said that Galindo wanted them back because she had not been paid. "And I said, 'Well, you pay her then,'" Adams says. "And the gallery didn't get those works back. But that told me at that time that they considered their debt to me to be far less important than the prospect of actually having to pay out some cash to somebody."

After their January meeting, Richards and Adams and some of the other artists took their complaints to a lawyer, who advised them that their best option was for each one of them individually to file a small-claims suit against the gallery. While they probably wouldn't see much profit in it — it costs $160 just to file, and a judgment could be months down the road, and then there's the matter of actually collecting on that judgment — they could at least plague the gallery with a stream of process servers.

Or they could help warn others away and learn a thing or two about the nitty-gritty of the business world at the same time. "It is time-consuming to file a small-claims suit, but it is also educational," says Eleanor Williams, a local art dealer and board member at Lawndale Art Center. "[This] is the reason we have a legal system, and I think a lot of times artists don't have a lot of experience in the world of business. Even if you don't get any money, you at least feel like you got even, and you've put something out in the world that people might see later as a red flag."

And it just might shut them down for good. Richards doesn't mind if it does. "These guys basically survive because no one can afford to take them to court," she says.  "And the gallery says that if you shut us down, then no one will get paid."

By now, a few of the artists are past caring about that. Richards is certainly not least among that crowd. Told to hang in there one time too many, she says she replied: "I'm gonna wait for 100 more people to get fucked over, and then I might get paid? We all just decided that we would eat it and that we would fix this so it never happened to anyone else.

If Powell-Prera's Facebook page can be trusted, Richards might want to file that suit sooner rather than later. Despite having outstanding debt all over town, or perhaps more accurately, because of her debt outstanding all over town, Powell-Prera was actively seeking fresh meat for the "co-op" quite recently.

"H Gallery will be signing up new members 1st Saturday," she posted on February 4. "If you are an artist or know one that would like to exhibit with us this year come by 12 to 8 617 West 19th St. by the Vietnam restaurant."

Just be sure you bring your checkbook. Leave your dreams of wealth and fame at the door.

 

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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180 comments
Dennis
Dennis

Artists: NEVER PAY TO PLAY!

Knowledge4power
Knowledge4power

Maybe now that the husband Paul has died (verified in the Chronicle www.chron.com), the mother and daughter can pay the deserving artist with any insurance they may be paid, and now this "personal problem" can no longer be used as an excuse to rip off hard working artists. We ALL have our own sad stories. Artists often have very sad stories leading to their artistic passion. Those women should get out of the business if they don't have a way to run things professionally. They have created nothing more than a ponzi scheme. I was hoping to have my first gallery showing there since I live only a few streets away and assumed... Thanks for the warning. I will protest on the street to stop them and warn unaware artists if a group wants to join me...?

Rodger Standridge
Rodger Standridge

I knew that I was not the only one that had money issues with Heidi in 2005, but I thought she must have gotten her books straight and changed the way she did bussiness... guess not. I hope that the District Attorney's office launches a criminal investigation of the gallery. If it's a case of bad bookkeeping then take a bussiness class and pay up, if its fraud then give them jail time.Please help emerging Artist and Dont buy from this gallery or this person.

guest
guest

I don't know anything to all about this art business, but I do know that Paul Bernstein died two days ago. He suffered a stroke in 2009 and was in & out hospitals since that time.

godsofthisworld
godsofthisworld

I know Jim Adams an how he lies about every thing even about his likes for little boys this pervert should be locked up so the cons would show what happens to lies & perverts his old ass will be show'en to everyone an he will get his everyone needs to stay clear of JIM ADAMS an everyone that hands with him

Timgreene
Timgreene

So H. Gallery stands for Heist Gallery?

Concerned UFO
Concerned UFO

You humans posses a collective conscience: a set of social norms by which a society and its members abide, when someone breaks the established norms, i tis perfectly just to punish such individuals by embarrassing publicly, specially when this embarrassment will alert other humans of possible harm. We admire that quality in you, our fellow humans. In our universe we do not have PRESS because we are telepathic.

And by the way since we have made contact, we would like to clarify that the Big Bang was not the beginning, and we do not endorse the theory of "Eternal Expansion."

The Big Bang was produced inside a black hole inside an alternate universe, and this happens all the time. Your very own universe is producing Big Bangs all the time.

Anyway, just thought you'd like to know

1 Heart
1 Heart

The Houston Press should stop all this mess. Why not do a story on how hard it is to be an artist in the town or a small business. Everyone wanting to cause someones downfall in the name of what? Progress, fame or just entertainment. Is this any different than throwing Christians to the lions. Artists in this town need patrons and supporters, not hate, abuse or a bull shit article about how we allow ourselves to get screwed. I am sure there will be comments stating how stupid I am or how someone wants to slap me for thinking this way, so I say now. You have the right to your comments, but maybe we should think about what we do when we chew on bloody, red meat in public.

Kristy
Kristy

Let's not get sidetracked. HGallery's representatives received money from artists in exchange for signed contracts promising to pay artists for their work when it sold. The gallery owners did not live up to their side of the agreement. All the personal crap being spewed in the comment section is nothing but a smokescreen. It is posted by the gallery owner & friends in a lame attempt to deflect attention from their own criminal activity.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

To whom it may concern,

To any art patron, customer, buyer, volunteer, or any citizen who has been made uncomfortable by the actions of anyone who has acted as part of a lynch mob towards H Gallery due to the article above. Please note that a Houston Police officer will be on duty at any gallery showings this weekend at this facitlity for your safety and protection.

rastasol
rastasol

has anyone EVER received their photos from Heidi the "photographer".... I gave her $50 to develop a roll....that was 3 years ago....ha...wonder how many others were takin for the lil stuff as well...Thank You Artists for taking a stand!!!

an HP fan
an HP fan

Claire Richards is a hero, and John too, this is what local press should be about.

Its ridiculous to see the unsuccessful attempts by these people to try to damage her name, clearly the owners of the gallery are the only ones posting in defense of H Gallery and liking their own posts as well as pretending to be part of the DA's office, its laughable which is just stupid. If they have something logical to say in their defense they should come out in the open, call the press, HP is not the only newspaper, I am sure someone would be wanting to cover their story.

This is an important social issue, just as important public funding and other local concerns, if the artists had no proof of the allegations, clearly this article would not have been written HP knows what they are doing.

matt
matt

While I cannot speak of personal experience with H Gallery, I can speak to the character and credibility of Claire Richards. That was her name 24 years ago when we met and it is her name now. And I will stand by her with a fixed and firm belief she is doing the right thing here. In court if I have to. So go on and hate. We will see who is right when the dust settles.

overyou
overyou

I am Claire Richards. I was born with that name and have never entertained the idea of changing it. I don't need to hide. The attacks against my character are laughable and I am grateful for them- because they really illuminate the fact that speaking out against this "gallery" (cough) was the right thing to do. Every time you guys attack me with your transparent, weak, and idiotic comments- you lose ground. You TRULY have no idea what I have spent my years of living doing if you think I could be considered any kind of criminal at all.

Instead of demanding that the artists here prove they were screwed, why don't you prove that you paid them?

Oh... guess you can't. It was just an idea.

Keep the hits coming. I love watching you dig.

Biased?
Biased?

tort of sedicious libelinvasion of privacytheft of business recordsgrand theft autoarsonreckless disregard for truthactual malicebreach of fudiciary dutyextortionstalking

This once was only about a few artists (sans Jim Adams) who had received most of their money, yet were waiting on the rest from a small business in Houston. Once upon a time, this is what the story was truly all about. Not anymore.

overyou
overyou

I am Claire Richards. I was born with that name and have never entertained the idea of changing it. I don't need to hide. The attacks against my character are laughable and I am grateful for them- because they really illuminate the fact that speaking out against this "gallery" (cough) was the right thing to do. Every time you guys attack me with your transparent, weak, and idiotic comments- you lose ground. You TRULY have no idea what I have spent my years of living doing if you think I could be considered any kind of criminal at all.

Instead of demanding that the artists here prove they were screwed, why don't you prove that you paid them.

Oh... guess you can't. It was just an idea.

Keep the hits coming. I love watching you dig.

Destroye666r
Destroye666r

oh tisk, what a pity that these women appear to read as convicted felons. oh, how sketchy their backgrounds, how awful their crimes. yes.

gentlemen, put out your cigars, on my word we move now.

Hoteltango88
Hoteltango88

In light of a recent post disparaging Claire Richards and Jason Ransom, the con victims of Heidi Powell-Prera & Sandy Bernstein, I am compelled to set the record straight. My name is Donald Tucker, I run Hardy & Nance Street Studios where they are both artists-in-residence and any claim that they are "criminals" or that anyone here is "afraid of them" can only be described as absolute bullshit. They are among the hardest working young people I know and of such character that I and the other artists in this facility are proud to have them as professional colleagues and friends. I have been a personal witness to the unfolding of this particular tale and look forward to the day that I might testify in court and under oath as to the facts involved as well as the character of these young people. Heidi Powell-Prera is not simply a small business owner behind on her bills. She is a thief who has a long history of systematically preying on young and trusting artists. I hereby issue to her the following challenge...sue me for slander. If you are as innocent as you claim, let's get this case in front of a judge. But be advised, I have identified a small army of your victims going back for years who would like nothing better than to have such a day in court and the opportunity to testify and put on record the long standing pattern of criminal behavior you have demonstrated in your dealings with them. I would also strongly advise that you and your attorney read up on similar cases such as that involving Hart galleries. They are currently doing fourteen years for operating the same scam...“robbing Peter to pay Paul.” ...“It was a classic Ponzi scheme,” Roll said. “They were using the newest customers’ money to pay off the oldest customers.”

As a working artist myself, I not only hope to see you in court but will do all I can to see that the appropriate criminal charges are brought against you.

you are stupid
you are stupid

Your uneducated and full of crap statement barely makes any sense. Did they ever teach you punctuation in school? What a ridiculous attempt to damage a good man's name. You should be ashamed of your self taking the side of rats and thieves. Of course, What else could be expected from people that are friends with H Gallery? a bunch of lying snakes

Stephen Hawkins
Stephen Hawkins

Do not... Believe.... The Aliens..... They are dan....gerous, We humans.... will achieve a collective.... mind. Money will be not...... be necessary.......in the future.....people will trade goods.....artist will trade art..... for food...... Galleries will not.....be needed

The owners of H Gallery..........should think about.........opening a Taco stand........ as long as they don't.......rip off their clients ........ by serving stray cat's meat....instead of ......beef.

Your ......Daddy.....Hawkins

True witness UFO seeker
True witness UFO seeker

what about the UFOs that hovered over the arts market that afternoon, they were wearing green when it was not St Patrick's day , how unfashionable, how come not body slapped them, get real people, stop the alien invasion

John Lomax
John Lomax

This is a story on both "how hard it is to be an artist in the town or a small business." If you believe that H Gallery ripped off all those artists, then the story shows the potential pitfalls of being an artist. If you believe that H Gallery simply fell behind in paying their artists, as Sandy Bernstein said, then the article shows the perils of running a small business.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

"an HP fan", can you please bring documentation that shows that what you wrote is true; "clearly the owners of the gallery are the only ones posting in defense of H Gallery and liking their own posts"?

Please bring your sworn statements and business record affidavits to this.

I also want you to bring business record affidavits showing how you believe someone is "Pretending to be part of the DA's office."

You just may be surprised to know just who has visited the DA's office and given statements.

......
......

dear hpfan....i am not the owner of the gallery...but when it comes time to go to court....you will see me and others take the stand...i beg you to go to this trial if and when it comes up, so you can see how incorect you are...

T.M.
T.M.

we have proof that we did take money from them, come to the trial

story teller
story teller

And you are saying that you have never received any of your money? Is this what you are saying publicly?

you sure 'bout dat?
you sure 'bout dat?

So, you're saying publicly that you've never been arrested? Is this what you are saying? Just curious. Some records on my desk indicate otherwise. Shall we play, "guess the crime"? I think it's important for people to know you so they can determine if this was biased reporting or not. For example, if you were convicted of arson, or of extortion in the past this would be of great interest to the readers.

......
......

convicted felons.....wtf...

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

Donald,You just may get your wish. There are a lot of people who want both Jim Adams and "Claire Richardson" on the stand to answer a few questions. Namely, what is your real name? Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime? So far the DA is still waiting to receive the names and amounts from these ghost victims you claim to know and what has been found is a potential arson case and stalking charges. I believe your artists in residence have been blaming H Gallery as an excuse for not paying you rent on time. It seems H gallery is an easy target right now. So, I highly encourage you to dig up your "victims of a scam" and send them straight to the DA's office so that this may just turn towards your belief, instead of the way it's headed now, which isn't pretty at all. The reason Jim Adams has not been successful in getting his phantom "criminal" charges rolling is that his imaginary "invoice" is just that, it's imaginary. He is not owed money for art sales, or "loans" he scrolled on a napkin. And, he knows this. He doesn't even have a civil case. What he has is a newspaper, a very good reporter who bought his story, and a small group of artist that H Gallery has been in the process of paying. I encourage you to send "scam victims" to the DA's office post haste.

tango88
tango88

If you are not the owner of the gallery, why hide behind a bogus screen name? I am not the artist involved. I am Donald Tucker. I operate the studio in which Claire and Jason are artists-in-residence. Having done business with them for several years now I will be more than happy to testify as to their upstanding character when this CRIMINAL CASE comes to trial. As for the slime that takes advantage of the anonymity provided by public boards such as this to spew bile, you'd best stay anonymous. Otherwise you may be indicted as a co-conspirator in Ms. Heidi's crimes. I can't wait for this to go to court either. Please do make an appearance.

T.M.
T.M.

I meant to say didn't

overyou
overyou

Your desk is a shallow grave. Your tactic is boring and unimaginative. I have nothing more to add.

tango88
tango88

Yet another crock of fantasy from someone trying their best to distract from the fact that they have a long history of fraud and theft by deception.

A DIRECT CHALLENGE: If what has been written in the Houston Press and the claims made by a host of local artists (including myself) constitute libel and/or slander...then file the appropriate suits and let's get all the facts and testimony on record in a court of law. If your claims hold up, you stand to make almost enough money to pay off what you currently owe to artists. And that's a lot of money. At last count, more than enough to qualify as a Felony, by the way. But, the facts are that H gallery and Ms. Prera have been systematically ripping off young (and naive) artists for years. They have suckered them in with no intention of paying them or any history of adequate payment to support any claim to the contrary. She knows it...the artists know it...and shortly, the Justice system will know it.

And, regarding the list of victims...it will indeed be handed of to the Harris County District Attorneys Office soon enough, along with signed affidavits as to the results of their dealings with H Gallery. The only issue right now is when to close the list. As a result of Mr. Lomax's article, more artists are coming forward with the same story almost daily, and except for an embarrassed few, most have indicated not only a willingness to stand up in court and testify, but are indeed anxious to do so.

So, my advice is, unless you plan to skip town (or the country)...get your paperwork in order or make some up fast.

As for Claire Richards standing at this Studio, she is not only an outstanding tenant who keeps up with her rent, but she is the one person here I entrust with the keys to watch over things when I am away on business. Don't shoot your mouth off with insinuations when you have nothing but wishful, malicious fabrications to back them up as you have been doing since the Press put a light on your slimy operation. No one, including a judge, cares what your fantasies are. But a growing number of people do care a great deal about the facts surrounding your history with artists and how consistently their money and art seem to vanish when under your control.

As local artists, we may not be able to correct the ills on Wall Street or prevent any future wars, but we can and will certainly do what is right in this case and put an end to any further scams by this particular operation.

Have a nice day.

Steve
Steve

Gosh, I wish our citizens were less concerned about a small local art gallery and more concerned about things like our city services, budget, police policies...

John Lomax
John Lomax

There is no record in the Harris County district clerk's office of Claire Richards changing her name, nor does she have any criminal convictions. As for Adams, as was pointed out in my article, he furnished me with copies of canceled checks clearly marked "loan, due XX-XX-20XX" on the memo line. (Nothing scrawled on a napkin was sent to me.) As for "the small group of artists," I asked Bernstein to give me the name of an artist that they had paid in full. She either could not or would not. She mentioned some guy in Clear Lake who wrote them a nice letter, and somebody else, but would not give me any names.

T.M.
T.M.

i did not post that whats going on

T.M.
T.M.

if you are part of the DA's office, you should have no problem identifying yourself, but obviously you are not, you could be in trouble for pretending to be part of the police

T.M.
T.M.

I am not crazy

.......
.......

everyone will get paid for what we owe them, give us a break, mind your own business

.......
.......

we didn't take no one's money, we were simply late on our bills

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

Mark, can you come down to the DA's office with medical documentation and business record affidavits that show how Sandy Bernsteins "brain must not be functioning that well"? They are of interest.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

Actually, Donald Tucker, it may be of interest to explain to you that it is unwise to issue veiled threats to any citizen, patron, volunteer, customer, et all who disagrees with your stance and who may opt to associate with, support, or assist Sandy Bernstein and Heidi Powell Prera. Any individual is free to support these women and/or their business.

There have been no criminal charges filed, nor are there any Judements declaring a "ponzi scheme" as Donald has written.

Donald, your victims who are "lining up daily", I'm curious, have they paid a visit to the DA's office? ( answer truthfully, I may know the answer to that). Donald, has Sandy Bernstein paid a visit to the DA's office? (answer truthfully, I may know the answer to that one too)

Donald, is there an open investigation into H Gallery? (answer truthfully, I amy also know the answer to that one)

You are free to bring any of your business records Donald, along with business record affidavits to the DA's office to support your stance, in fact, you being invited to do so.

There's some mighty big talk here, but so far things are not what they appear at all.

tango88
tango88

No threats are necessary. If you lie down with dogs, expect fleas. In this (criminal) case, anyone involved, either directly in Ms. Prera's Ponzi scheme or who lies to support her case is by definition an accomplice and subject to the full extent of the law as such. Hope to see you in court...and soon, "mystery lady". More victims are lining up daily and would very much like to be heard.

Mark
Mark

u have lost your mind Sandy, and your brain must not be functioning that well, your posts reveal your identity

......
......

donald tucker...are you threatening me?....

Cindyv
Cindyv

she is a snake in the grass

T.M.
T.M.

This is rucking fetarded

T.M.
T.M.

This is fucking retarded.

......
......

people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones....

Slam Dunk
Slam Dunk

oh? Ms. Richards, she who refuses to disclose what she has extracted from others. Was that a threat? Something is quite disturbing about you using the words "shallow grave". Especially after viewing your files. Very disturbing indeed.

Destroye666
Destroye666

or, do some people use a phony name so you can't easily find their criminal records?

telling
telling

I guess for some people, not having a criminal record means you must have had your name changed.

......
......

lomax....your article was nothing more than a smear campaign, and completely one sided...this may explain why less and less people in the area read the houston press...but i think everyne is looking forward to seeing how this plays out in court, where there will be people you never considered interviewing who will take the stand...at that point the real truth will come out, but i bet their will be no follow up article....

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

John, you may also like to know that the burden of proof does not fall on Sandy Bernstein regarding your article. The burden of proof belongs to you. She does not have to supply artists she has paid, nor her business records to you. The entire article of proof rests on your shoulders as business record affidavits are obtained from all of the victims and business institutions listed so that your story is not hearsay, but truthful. Can you bring any business record affidavits you have obtained surrounding your heist article to the DA's office so that a potential criminal heist case can be opened? You are welcome to do so.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

John, FYI... without a business record affidavit from Jim Adams' bank, the records do not exist in the eyes of the law. Just thought you might like to know that.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

John, have you checked a potential name change for "Claire Richards" nation wide? Harris County is not her only residence. As well, you may send any and all scam victims with their receipts to give sworn statements. John, I personally believe you did an excellent job on this article, make no mistake. There are much larger concerns here however. Perhaps Mr. Adams did not provide a napkin invoice to you, but, are you aware that banks photocopy all checks that come through their processing desk? It is possible for someone with faulty intentions to scroll a new memo line upon receiving their check back from the bank as cancelled. Did you contact his bank and get an actual bank photocopy of the check they processed along with a business record affidavit? Just curious. You are aware that those records are important and will be used in any pending litigation. Perhaps Mr. Adams can provide those for you so that you don't have to get a lawyer to retrieve them on your behalf. It seems that what Mr. Adams has written on a check and what he has verbally stated do no match up. As well, has Mr. Adams or Claire Richards paid a visit to the DA's office yet? (I just may already know the answer to that so answer truthfully)

 
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