The Great Heights Art Heist
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.
"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."
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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.