Scam Artists Go after New Prey: Real Artists FAKE CONTESTS

Article excerpt

When the Art Institute of California in Napa announced a "national talent search" last fall, Taylor Spence of Laramie, Wyo., quickly sent in his $48 entry fee. "I fell for it, lock, stock, and barrel," Mr. Spence says.

What Spence fell for was a scam. There was no Art Institute of California and no talent search.

As it turns out, the California scam is not unusual. Bogus art institutes and museums have been set up by scam artists who prey on real artists. "It is a growing problem," says Drew Steis, publisher of Art Calendar magazine, a Westover, Md., business magazine for the visual arts. Mr. Steis says the magazine receives inquiries from artists every day about possible scams. Both the state of New York and authorities in California are conducting investigations into alleged scams, and Massachusetts recently obtained a judgment against one operator.The fake museums or institutes advertise in legitimate art publications for entrants to contests. The so-called contests are actually just ways for the perpetrators to collect "entry" fees or high shipping and insurance fees from the artists.

With 2 million artists in the United States, it is not unusual that the business has attracted some unsavory operators. "There is a new artist every day and they are not familiar with some of the old scams," Steis says. The scams continue because the perpetrators usually do not get jail sentences, but just agree to state injunctions not to engage in similar activity again within the state.

Although there are no firm figures on the amount of money sucked out of artists' pockets, Steis estimates it runs into the millions each year. In 1993, one art scam, the New England Fine Arts Institute, netted over $300,000 from 2,600 artists. That year, another operator took in $1.7 million after promising 3,000 artists that their work would be promoted in an art book. "The book would have been 6,000 pages if it had been printed," Steis says.

Artists desire visibility

Last year, the so-called Museum of Modern Art of Miami advertised for contestants for an art competition. Initially it only mentioned a $25 to $35 handling fee. However, once an artist responded, future correspondence indicated there would be a $250 handling fee. The museum, which was part of a so-called International Museum of Art, no longer has a working phone number. "There is no bona fide Museum of Modern Art in Miami," says Diane Camber, executive director of the Bass Museum in Miami.

Artists admit they are often suckers because they are desperate to have someone notice their material. Disreputable people "know the average artist is so eager to have their work out there in other states and possibly in an international exhibition, it makes people act before they think," says Sharon Broms, an artist in Portland, Ore.

Wyoming artist Spence says it's difficult for most artists to manage their business affairs while trying to paint. "We are asked to be completely emotional when we work and then turn around and be as hard as Ivana Trump when we negotiate," he says.

Art Calendar says it receives numerous letters of complaint from artists who say they have been victimized. …