Less than two weeks after Unseen, the Dutch company that runs the photography fair Unseen Amsterdam, declared bankruptcy, London-based artist Felicity Hammond published an open letter criticizing the organization over its failure to compensate her for commissions and advertising work that she completed for the 2019 edition.
Hammond also called out an affiliate but independent organization called Unseen Foundation for actively seeking sponsors to reboot the fair and proceed with the 2020 iteration this autumn. While the foundation is not financially intertwined with Unseen’s commercial entities, Hammond takes issue with its promotion of a brand that she says doesn’t pay its workers.
“I am writing to retract my payment request for the artworks sold, expenses incurred, and the commission realized as part of your art fair in 2019,” the artist’s letter reads. “You have no intention of paying me or the countless other artists, filmmakers, and writers whose invoices are long overdue.” Hammond added that the fair’s failure to remit the payments owed to her is compounded by the fact that she was working for Unseen while pregnant and during the weeks immediately after giving birth to her daughter.
When Unseen as well as two other arms of the companyUnseen Media BV and Unseen International BVfiled for bankruptcy, the news was unexpected. Last September, the eventwhich has occupied a former gasworks factory every September for the last eight yearswelcomed more than 25,000 visitors and featured work by 140 exhibiting artists. When it closed, Unseen’s artistic director, Marina Paulenka, called the edition a “great success.”
Earlier this week, Het Parool reported that Unseen Amsterdam will be taken over by Art Rotterdam; Fons Hof, the fair’s director; and Johan de Bruijn. Both Hof and Bruijn are founders of GalleryViewer.com. “During Art Rotterdam last week, many galleries expressed their confidence in us as an organization to continue Unseen,” Hof told the daily newspaper. “That was the deciding factor for us to make an offer for the assets. Unseen is a unique event that has meant a lot for photography in the Netherlands. Moreover, over the years it has developed into a very strong brand. It would have been really a shame if it had all been lost.”
Despite the buyout, it remains uncertain whether the unpaid artists and contractors will be fully compensated, which Hammond believes is unacceptable. In her letter, she claims that the Unseen Foundation “participates in an unethical system whereby the money owed to multiple artists can be written off.” The artist said that she plans to sever ties with Unseen Amsterdam and has also asked that all mediaphotos, videos, and interviewsrelated to her work be removed from its website. “I refuse to further contribute to your cultural capital which should have ceased to exist when you were declared bankrupt,” her letter concludes.
In response, Paulenka, who is employed by the Unseen Foundation, told Artforum that there have been some misconceptions about the role of the foundation, which develops initiatives that run parallel to Unseen Amsterdam and promotes the work of emerging artists, but is not involved with the organization of the fair, Book Market, or associated special projects.
“We had limited insight or influence in how the commercial entities conducted its business as Unseen Foundation, given its altruistic mission, operated independently,” she said in a statement. “As such, just like the artists, the art world and the team members of the commercial entities I was unaware of the financial status, and we were all shocked when we were informed on the 28th of January. As a separate entity, Unseen Foundation was not affected by the bankruptcy, yet we share the grief over the course of events, and it is very painful to see how personnel, creditors, several artists and freelancers working with the commercial entities, are hurt by the bankruptcy.”
Hof told Artforum that he did not learn of Unseen’s unsettled bills until after Art Rotterdam and GalleryViewer.com made the highest bid for Unseen’s assets. “We have never gained insight into the outstanding debts, but from what we hear our acquisition sum must be a substantial part of the outstanding debts. We therefore hope that the artists who have not been paid by now will at least receive a part of their claim back. This distribution of the funds is not under our control but lies with the bankruptcy trustee. The story of Felicity Hammond has also reached us and we wish her a lot of strength and hope that she will be partially compensated.”
According to Het Parool, in addition to Hammond, the arts professionals who claim they are waiting for payment from Unseen include Karolina Wojtas, who won the ING Unseen Talent Award last year; Daria Tuminas, the head of the fair’s Book Market and the Unseen Dummy Award; and Jasper Bode, director of Ravestijn Gallery.
[Update: 2/14, 2:45 PM] A statement provided to Artforum by Marina Paulenka has been added to this article.