If any journalist was going to come unstuck as part of an art-world scandal, it was surely going to be a TV journalist.
The big art/media news of the day is that Canada’s state broadcaster, CBC, has fired one of its most high-profile hosts, Evan Solomon, after the Toronto Star revealed Solomon’s secret life trading introductions to millionaires in return for art commissions.
How did Solomon end up in this place? Certainly, there’s no sympathy for him among the punditocracy. Konrad Yakabuski, for instance, has declared that “monetizing your access to the rich and powerful people you cover or interview is about the most egregious ethical sin a journalist can make”.
But the fact is that the entire careers of TV journalists like Solomon are at heart about monetizing access to the rich and powerful.
TV journalists get paid more than other journalists, and within the world of TV journalism, the really big-money superstars are the ones who sit down regularly opposite the rich and powerful. Are they paid for the perspicacity of their questions? Maybe: I’ll let Larry King answer that one. But the real reason they make so much money is that they can get the big names.
Access journalism, as it’s known, is the most financially valuable form of journalism in the world. TV news is a highly competitive game: everybody wants the big “gets”, and they want them exclusively. The most important part of Solomon’s job was to persuade the rich and powerful to talk to him, and ideally not to talk to anybody else. He surely had a whole team of bookers, but ultimately these decisions tend to be made by the rich and powerful guests themselves, and they in turn tend to base their decision on the basis of who the host is, and how well they get on with that person.
In other words, it was Solomon’s job to schmooze the rich and powerful. (He said so himself: “I traffic in people of great power,” he told the Ryerson Review of Journalism, which described him as “the consummate Ottawa insider”, whose “forte” is “making his guests feel comfortable”.) The better he was at his job, the more he got paid. In that sense, Solomon was always monetizing his access to the rich and powerful.
And he regularly made income from outside CBC, too. For instance, over the course of a single three-week period last year, he was paid to moderate a panel for the International Council of Shopping Centers; was paid to host the Cape Breton Partnership Investor Summit; and was paid to moderate the Insurance Bureau of Canada Earthquake Symposium. (Earlier this year, the CBC banned all such paid appearances entirely.)
But the contract which Solomon signed in October 2013 was something else entirely. The counterparty was art collector Bruce Bailey, an extremely wealthy man with a fondness for grand parties, who you would think had little difficulty being introduced to the rich and powerful. But, it turns out, even someone of Bailey’s stature valued the social entrée he could get from Evan Solomon. Indeed, he valued it so much that he was willing to pay for it, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Bailey and Solomon signed their contract on October 22; the following day, Solomon introduced Bailey to Jim Balsillie, the founder of Blackberry. Bailey then started selling art to Balsillie, and — unbeknownst to the buyer — took 10% of each sale and paid it as commission to the journalist who had introduced them. The total? Roughly C$300,000, or US$250,000, over two years.
And that was just the start. Solomon also asked for a commission of $1,070,000 (yes, a seven-figure commission) after Bailey sold a Peter Doig painting to Balsillie. It’s unclear how much Solomon actually received, but it is clear that there was a dispute, with lawyers on both sides, and with a signed contract in the middle.
This contract was one of those documents with lots of “whereas” clauses, most of which are utterly superfluous from a legal point of view. From an ethical point of view, however, they can be lethal — as Solomon has found out to his great professional cost. For this is how Solomon is described in the contract:
“Whereas Solomon is a Canadian journalist and has become familiar with collectors and others who might have an interest in purchasing Canadian and other art.”
Solomon, here, has been caught literally and explicitly trading — to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in pure profit — on the connections that he made as a journalist. (And denying it, too, until he realized that wasn’t going to work.)
What on earth made him think that doing such a thing was OK? Well, for one thing, he does seem to have informed CBC that he was involved in an art business, although he clearly didn’t tell them the whole truth. He was fired, after all, very quickly after the contract came to light.
But more plausibly, for all that Solomon’s actions violated CBC’s journalistic ethics, he probably thought that they were OK (or, at least, justified them to himself) just because they’re entirely normal by art-world standards.
You can get 10% for just about anything, in the art world. Call yourself an “art advisor”, and you can get galleries to give you 10% of the sale price of whatever they sell to your client. Call yourself a “curator”, and you can get 10% of the sales of any show that you put together, even if you’re not actually selling anything yourself. Or, just make an introduction! Auction houses have something called “introductory commission”, which just means that if you steer a seller to Sotheby’s, say, rather than Christie’s, then Sotheby’s will kick back to you a chunk of the sale price.
Indeed, for all that there are many buyers and sellers of art, these days, there are many more random hangers-on who can make surprisingly good livings as art-world parasites. If you can persuade a buyer that you know what you’re talking about, or if you can persuade a seller that you know who wants to buy their art, or if you can persuade a gallery that your name can attract a whole new set of potential collectors — then you can and almost certainly will be getting 10% here, 15% there. And when paintings regularly sell for millions of dollars, soon you’re talking real money.
What’s more, all of these deals tend to be highly secret. No one knows who’s contracted what with whom; what the price is; where the money’s going; even who the real beneficial owner of any given artwork might be.
That's why art and journalism are like oil and water. Journalism is an industry characterized by transparency: journalists make news by making information public. Art, by contrast, is characterized by radical opacity: if you’re making money in the art world, it’s almost certainly because you have (or have bought) information or connections that other people don’t have. The minute that something becomes public knowledge, in the art world, is the minute that knowledge becomes worthless.
One consequence is that good journalism from within the art world is very hard to find. If you’re the kind of person who can ferret out important information about what’s being sold to whom, then you can make real money (much more than you could ever make as an art-market journalist) trading on that information and never making it public. As a result, reliable information tends to stay very closely held.
Another consequence is that, of all the different ways that a journalist can make some money on the side, art is almost certainly one of the worst. If you’re working in extreme secrecy, referring to collectors only by cryptonym (Balsillie was “Anka”), and never making anything public, that’s a pretty good sign that what you’re doing is in direct conflict with core journalistic principles.
There’s nothing wrong with journalists making extra money from, say, writing a book, or working as an advisor to a Hollywood show. If you’re being paid to share your subject-matter expertise with a broad audience, that’s generally fine. On the other hand, if you find yourself embracing the level of shadiness and secrecy that’s endemic to the art world, then that’s a pretty good sign that you’ve crossed a line.
It’s fine to buy art; it’s even fine to sell it, sometimes. But no journalist should enter the art world with the intention of making money. As Evan Solomon found out this week at great personal cost.