The first year after opening Hotcakes, was a blur. Locally, the gallery was getting a ton of great press, and after being a part of the Stray Show, Thomas Blackman’s more adventurous satellite fair during Art Chicago, artists started coming out of the woodwork to show at the gallery. One to five artists, from all over the world, would contact me every day. Needless to say, it was totally overwhelming, and artists continually found new and creative ways to overstep every possible boundary.
In the beginning, I was a total pushover. Some guy would come into Hotcakes and after looking at the art for two minutes and complementing my artistic vision for ten, he’d mention that coincidently he was also an artist. That his work would fit perfectly into my very clear mission to present affordable art in a comfortable environment in order to grow a group of young art collectors in Milwaukee. I’d earnestly tell him I was excited to see his art. I’d explain that he should send me 10-20 images of his work, an artist statement, and a list of past shows, and that he could click on the “Show at Hotcakes” link on the gallery’s homepage to get a better idea of exactly what I was looking for.
Then he’d start giving me the hard sell. Say that slides didn’t do his work justice… I needed to see his paintings in person… His work was totally unique… Would change my life. That he lived just a couple blocks from the gallery, and it would only take 10 minutes. Admiration quickly turned into not so subtle statements suggesting that I was some sort of bourgeois prick who didn’t really care about artists at all. Before I knew it, I’d be sipping Two Buck Chuck out of a handmade ceramic mug in some guy’s attic, staring at 40’x10’ surrealist paintings of the astral plane that he was willing to let go for as low as $18,000 each (before my commission, of course). An hour later and only an eighth of the way through his rooftop retrospective, I would have to leave cause his three cats, that had obviously NEVER been brushed, were making my nose run so badly.
Then there’s the “trunk art.” In the four and a half years I ran Hotcakes, at least a hundred people must have asked me to come out to their cars to take a look at their art. There was the political lobbyist who made abstract expressionist paintings to relieve stress, but all his friends kept telling him how talented he was… that his work belonged in a gallery. Which catalyzed a cosmic chain of events leading to me staring at beat-up canvases in the trunk of a Honda Accord. There was the factory worker whose welding instructor at the community college assured him that Mike at Hotcakes would LOVE his sculptures of nails bent and welded into abstract models of the Milwaukee Art Museum and Harley Davidson motorcycles. Then there was the middle-aged woman who decoupaged Walt Witman poems into cigar boxes to express how difficult it was to come out to her husband and four grown children, but didn’t know that some scholars suspected Whitman was bisexual or understand why cigar boxes would make me think of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Some artists left their art behind like some sort of banal Banksy impression, or played bizarre mind games. In the bathroom at Hotcakes I often arranged a bunch of bizarre objects on a shelf underneath the little 12”x6” window. After one opening, I found everything in a pile behind the toilet and the window open, like someone had climbed out. On my desk was a 4” plastic figure of The Man in the Yellow Hat from Curious George. He was positioned at such an angle that when I sat down in my chair, he was staring right into my eyes. When I clicked off my screensaver, a website was on the monitor for a company that sold security systems and spy cameras.
One morning immediately after I opened, a couple of my neighbors that lived in the apartments above Hotcakes came in to complain. Apparently, a drunk man had driven his convertible Saab up onto the sidewalk at 4 a.m., rang all the doorbells on the building, and for 20 minutes was standing up in his car screaming for the curator to come out. That he was a “photo grapher” and I NEEDED to see his pictures right away!
Even outside the gallery I wasn’t safe. A couple times a month, I’d go to Barnes and Noble to flip through all the art magazines, because I couldn’t afford to actually subscribe to any of them. One Sunday afternoon, I was approached by a women who insisted that if I was reading New American Paintings, I MUST be a curator. I told her I wasn’t, but she badgered me until I admitted that I did in fact have a gallery. Even after explaining that I only showed contemporary paintings and installations, she gave me a ten-minute sales spiel about how I needed to show her sister’s brilliant floral still-life photographs.
It got to the point that after the first two years of owning Hotcakes, I didn’t even answer the gallery phone anymore. It’s not like people called asking to buy art. The phone rang about twenty-two times a day. Seventeen of those calls were from sales people asking if I was happy with my credit card processing service, two calls were from nonprofits asking me to give them something for free, and the other three calls were artists asking how to submit samples of their totally unique work that somehow was always “a perfect fit for my gallery.” When I asked if they had been to the gallery or even looked at my website, they would always admit that they hadn’t… YET. Three and a half years after I opened, I even had an artist who lived seven blocks away, but hadn’t actually ever been to the gallery apply for a show. Needless to say, she never showed at Hotcakes