Dispute with Irwin House Gallery looms over new exhibit by Detroit artist Jonathan Harris

The art gallery alleges he still owes them commission for his viral ‘Critical Race Theory’ painting

Jun 23, 2022 at 4:25 pm
click to enlarge Jonathan Harris working on his new series "Pledge Allegiance." - Courtesy of Jonathan Harris
Courtesy of Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris working on his new series "Pledge Allegiance."

Detroit artist Jonathan Harris was catapulted into the national spotlight after his “Critical Race Theory (CRT)” painting went viral in 2021.

The piece shows a white man “erasing” prominent Black figures like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King with white paint. The message was loud and clear, and after such a powerful piece, everyone was waiting to see what Harris would create next.

A new exhibit by Harris titled Pledge Allegiance was slated for Thursday, June 23, but has been pushed back to July 21 at the David Whitney Building in downtown Detroit.

The exciting news about the exhibit's opening is being shadowed by a dramatic fallout with Irwin House Gallery, which previously represented Harris.

Irwin House is alleging that Harris refuses to pay for services provided before and after the success of “CRT.” This includes “writing and developing his promotional materials, housing the artist for ten months at zero to subsidized rent, and providing unlimited access to spaces for him to create, self-promote, do business and socialize for almost two years.”

The feud is detailed in a letter published by Rolling Out, which Irwin House Gallery Director Misha McGlown also sent to Metro Times.

“All of this culminated in the whirlwind success of his ‘Critical Race Theory’ painting at the end of 2021 – which was painted, exhibited, and ultimately sold on Irwin House property, and brought to the attention of the press via Misha’s focused writing and extensive outreach,” the letter reads. “... None of this was compensated and, despite being presented with extremely modest invoices for services, the artist has to date expressed and demonstrated a refusal to pay for the heap of services he needed, requested, accepted, and received.”

The gallery also alleges that Harris owes them commission fees from "CRT" prints sold, and is asking for a percentage of sales from the upcoming exhibit, which was originally supposed to be held at Irwin House.
McGlown declined to give an exact amount the gallery is asking for, but says she spent countless hours doing administrative work for Harris including developing his website, scheduling media appearances, and general management of his affairs.

“It’s almost like he’s taken offense that we believe that we’re entitled to something that we helped him build and create that, dare I say, would not have been possible without us,” she tells Metro Times. “That painting going viral didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened as a result of a continuum of work from the day I met him.”

McGlown says she felt blindsided by Harris taking Pledge Allegiance to another gallery — Nicole Tamer Art Gallery to be exact — who will now profit from her hard work.

“I’m looking at the overall relationship with the artist and the success that he achieved from the level of support that was provided for him over an extended period of time,” she said. “The end result of that is him now turning over all of those resources and the ability to finally profit to another gallery — a white gallery that has had no stake in building that momentum.”

Harris had also been renting a house owned by Irwin House, several doors down from the gallery, since June of 2021. He left in April when the lease ended and has since cut ties with the gallery.

Disputing the allegations, Harris says he has paid McGlown for her services and feels the letter was “malicious.”

“She sent me an invoice for administrative services, which was paid,” Harris says over the phone. “And I was paying rent at the time so if that’s the number we agreed on, I don’t understand why this is being brought back up.”

He adds, “I didn’t betray her by taking my work to another gallery. I would just ask her to be honest about what [Irwin House] looked like before I got there.”

McGlown clarified that Irwin House has received a $3,000 check from Harris, “a fraction of what he’s been invoiced for.” She says the check only came after the press got word of her grievances.

“I appreciate the gesture, the timing is questionable, but it only makes up about 1/6th of the amount that we are asking,” she says. “He likes to cite that he paid his rent, but I’ve had to constantly remind him that his rent was subsidized and initially he did not pay. He paid approximately $2500 for five months, utilities included with full reign of the house, full use of the gallery, full use of all of our resources and support with everything that he did.”

Irwin House is asking for five percent of sales from "CRT" prints, which Harris says he never agreed to.

“Anybody has the right to accept or decline a contract and I don’t like how it’s being positioned like that’s all that was on the contract,” he says. “If I don’t agree with other things, of course, I would not sign it.”

He declined to go into detail about what was included in said contract. He also doesn’t think Irwin House should receive any commission fees from his upcoming show.

click to enlarge Jonathan Harris and Misha McGlown when they were still working together. - Courtesy of Eric Thomas, The Neighborhoods
Courtesy of Eric Thomas, The Neighborhoods
Jonathan Harris and Misha McGlown when they were still working together.

“She wants a large piece of my Pledge Allegiance body of work since she found out that I was going to show it somewhere else,” he says. “How do you say you want a piece of the sales from a body of work that hasn’t been completely finished, hasn’t been shown, hasn’t been sold? I don’t even have a price on them myself, but she has this high, four-digit number she believes she deserves. That goes to show you the type of things that are on that invoice. It’s silly.”

McGlown maintains she is due a percentage of those sales because most of the work was created on Irwin House property and there was an understanding the show would be held there.

“First and foremost, his follow up show to ‘Critical Race Theory’ was expected to be here and I held those dates open for him,” she explains. “Those are dates that we could have given to another artist or used to bring in revenue from something else. He never disclosed to me that he was planning to move it to another venue and that is an opportunity for revenue that he took away from us.”

She continues, “All of that work was created here. It was promoted here. It was photographed here. If you want to come in and have video shoots and photoshoots for your body of work, those are things people pay us for. These are things that he got for free. So, yes I do feel entitled to that.”

McGlown does acknowledge that the initial working relationship between Harris and Irwin House when he came to the gallery in 2020 was informal.

“I should not have been working one second without a formal agreement,” she says.

While it’s clear neither Harris or McGlown want to continue a professional relationship due to grievances (which both declined to specify), the dispute feels like an episode of “he said, she said” with neither side seeming to budge.

Does an artist owe profits to a gallery that helped build his professional career behind the scenes, even if he’s no longer with said gallery? McGlown says it’s an issue of principle.

click to enlarge Harris with his "Critical Race Theory" painting. - Tafari Stevenson-Howard
Tafari Stevenson-Howard
Harris with his "Critical Race Theory" painting.

“Bigger than this one relationship between a gallerist and an artist that went bad is how are we going to act out here as Black people with so much at stake and with so many our of businesses in dire need of all our support,” she says. “Is this really how we are going to do each other? There are not as many Black businesses as there should be in a city like Detroit, so we really have to be more intentional about how we’re supporting each other or not supporting each other.”

Though it seems counterintuitive given what’s transpired, both Harris and McGlown emphasize there’s no ill will towards each other. Harris is, however, hurt by the idea that he is somehow appropriating Black trauma by working with a white gallery.

“I was given an opportunity,” he says. “I ain’t come to this gallery because it’s a white gallery. This is about location and foot traffic. If it was a Black gallery that was right there, I would have worked with them too. It’s a lot of people walking around the David Whitney Building and if they see this Black art positioned the way that it is, they’re gonna come in and look at it and question their own privileges and their own freedoms.”

Harris just wants to move on with his career, which he hopes to do with Pledge Allegiance.

Pledge Allegiance will feature 12 paintings based on photographs with a subject holding the American flag. One painting depicts a Black man with the flag wrapped around his wrists like handcuffs.

“I chose 12 different individuals, male and female, white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Chaldean, and I gave them a flag and told them to demonstrate how they feel about being American,” Harris explains. “The whole premise is each person pledging their allegiance to the flag, saying I’m here and I would like to be treated as an Ameican, to be loved as an American, to be treated with dignity and respect, like a human being.”

Much like “Critical Race Theory,” the message is heavily political.

“I want Black people to know that we are powerful, that we’re brothers and sisters and we have to treat each other with grace,” he says. “And I want white people to know that their ancestors have done things that still affect Black people today. They always say you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but a lot of us don’t even have boots. I just want them to understand that this system is in place that’s holding people back and we’re watching it unfold every single day. If [Pledge Allegiance] changes one person’s heart, one person’s mind, or soul that don’t look like me, my job is done.”

Pledge Allegiance is being presented by the Nicole Tamer Art Gallery at the David Whitney Building; 1 Park Ave, Detroit. The show opens July 21 with a reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and will be up until Labor Day.

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