Blog / 2021 / The Art Business Lies I Refuse to Tell (And Why I Hate the New Jersey Department of Labor)

January 4, 2021

It happened again: someone who knows me personally contacted me instead of the gallery asking to purchase my art. It rarely goes the other way—I almost never make big sales to someone who only sees my work because of an exhibition. Still, I never lie to venues. Even when the gallery complicates the sale unnecessarily, or withholds my portion of the payment for way too long, or fails to thank me for doing all the work.

I don’t lie because, well-meaning though a patron might be, I value my integrity more than being able to take home the gallery’s percentage along with my own.

In fact, it’s because I value my integrity that I don’t pretend to make bank with my art, but instead acknowledge openly the advantages I have. It’s why this situation really boils my potato, and it’s why I despise the New Jersey Department of Labor.

To explain, we have to go back to the beginning of the pandemic, when I applied for unemployment. Every week, I’d sign onto the New Jersey Department of Labor site to report that I worked 40 hours and made $23 (or whatever sad sum it was in a given week).

Eventually, the weekly benefits started rolling in, eliciting both a sense of relief and a renewed wariness in me. As a freelancer, you learn to never fully trust the system to recognize your humanity, even when it is federally mandated to do so during a pandemic. I put all the money I received in a special account, vowing not to touch it if possible, preparing for the day the system would decide it wanted the benefits back.

illustration of a house-shaped briefcase, tiny artwork by independent artist Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Work from Home (Self-employed Briefcase)
2020
acrylic, colored pencil, and marker on paper
3 x 3 inches
(Part of a COVID-ispired gift I made from my parents.)

When that day came a few months later, I chose to fight the NJDOL’s decision to renege. That’s how I discovered that not only does the Department of Labor’s website ask freelancers to lie, but it punishes those who won’t.

The form actually instructs self-employed people to answer “no” when asked if they did self-employed work in a given week. That’s already incredibly messed up, but, though directing us to lie is bad, it’s also just the beginning. What’s not clearly stated—and what the DOL’s own staff seems not to care about—is that, if you don’t answer “no,” the site zeroes out the hours and earnings you’ve inputted when you submit the report.

According to the NJDOL, I’d only received benefits because I’d misrepresented my activities by reporting zero hours and zero earnings to them. How, you may ask, did they know I was making stuff up seeing as I am bossless and therefore there’s no one to tell on me? Well, because most weeks I was also sending in detailed profit/loss statements, reflecting precisely what I thought the form was delivering: 40 hours of work and varying sums for my earnings.

In other words, the DOL ascertained that I was cheating them because I both lied and told the truth to them. Or—once more with logic!—the Department of Labor’s malfunctioning form ate my homework, and the NJDOL thinks it makes sense to blame me.

With hindsight, it’s clear I should have answered “no” to the question about self-employed work. What’s more, I should have reported working only one hour when I made $23, even though that too is a lie, since, as an artist, I can’t just stop working when I’m not being paid and hope to ever have a career to go back to when the economy picks up again.

I know that most people, including the NJDOL, would say that I should have perjured myself. But well-meaning though they are, most people, including the NJDOL, are really boiling my already-cooked potato. They’ll never convince me that lying is the right choice, and they really should stop trying.

independent artist Gwenn Seemel art on paper

“False hope,” that’s what I wrote in the memo of the reimbursement check I sent to the DOL last month. It fit better than the full message:

I know you think artists are self-indulgent fluff-for-brains who are too irresponsible to deserve any sense of security, but did you really have to pretend to care just to waste my time by having me fill out forms and provide extensive supporting info every week for months? Art councils and promoters and galleries already do a fine job of bullying artists. Next pandemic, please leave freelancers out of it and stick to denying benefits to employees by using the time-honored (and spectacularly childish) tactic of never answering your phone.

I know we’re all at wit’s end after four years of 45 and almost ten months of COVID, but I’m guessing that the artists in your life are now at the point of having no more wits left to give.

If the DOL or the COVID economy more generally haven’t screwed you over, please consider supporting independent artists. The images above are all the artworks priced at $200 or less that I sold last year. Without the people who purchased these artworks—or bought other items/services from me—2020 would have mashed me up like the well-boiled potato I am.


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