‘I did a lot of things wrong’: Why artists turned against a small-town gallery owner in B.C.
Marlowe Goring’s art gallery was the talk of the town when it opened in 2013 in the retirement community of Qualicum Beach, B.C.
The gallery featured the works of aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau — “the Picasso of the North” — and various West Coast artists. There was talk of incorporating a chic wine bar.
But about a year and a half in, the gallery went bust and residents in this normally staid town are said to have become furious with Goring over unpaid debts and unaccounted-for paintings.
“Everyone was knocking on his door,” said Dan McLeod, a local builder who helped construct the gallery. “People were chasing him all over the place.”
It was a shit show of my own making
While some people wrote off their losses, others set lawyers on Goring, posting angry blogs and even calling police in a bizarre series of disputes that illustrates the sometimes-ugly underbelly of the art world.
Goring, who has since filed for bankruptcy and moved to Victoria where he works as a framer, told the National Post he always assumed he could “sell my way” out of his debts, which was a mistake.
“I did a lot of things wrong, lost what little money I had, and most of my friends,” he said. “It was a shit show of my own making.”
A groundbreaking 2016 study laid out in stark terms the challenges of operating an art gallery.
German economist Magnus Resch sent out a survey to gallery owners across the U.S., Britain and Germany. Of the 1,300 respondents, 55 per cent reported revenues of less than $200,000 and 30 per cent operated at a loss.
Goring, who had previously run a frame shop, chose an old Home Hardware location to open a gallery called Art Worx.
Goring turned to Ontario art wholesaler James White to supply him with a number of Morrisseau and other paintings. Under a consignment agreement, each time Goring sold one of White’s paintings, he was to pay White the wholesale price before pocketing the rest.
When White learned in July 2014 the gallery was shutting, he went to B.C. to try to recover his paintings. Goring turned over 13, but 22 pieces — with a retail value of $221,000 — were unaccounted for.
“We have been friends for years, our families have stayed with each other and I believed we were close,” White wrote to Goring after his visit. “That is why I have tried to believe in you and refused to accept that you could steal from me and create a story of lies.”
“I have been sitting here, knowing that this moment would come and I have dreaded this more than anything in my life,” Goring replied. He blamed sluggish sales, high overhead costs and unpaid taxes. And then he cut to the chase: “I have no money and I also have none of your art.”
White asserted in a December 2015 statement of claim that Goring had either “stolen most of the missing paintings” or had “traded away (White’s) paintings in exchange for services or for money received which was not reported.”
Goring never filed a response and in an April 10 decision, Ontario Superior Court Judge Joseph Fragomeni found that Goring had committed civil fraud and breach of trust and awarded White $170,000 in general damages and $10,000 in punitive damages. The judge also gave Goring 90 days to account for each of the missing paintings.
Goring told the Post he was unaware of the lawsuit and assumed he had resolved the dispute when he let White put a lien on his mother’s estate. Nevertheless, he promised to “own my responsibility in this.”
Aside from one or two occasions when something might have “slipped through,” he denied selling other people’s art without paying them. Asked where White’s missing paintings ended up, Goring said he needed time to go through his books as he was battling depression at the time.
I have been sitting here, knowing that this moment would come and I have dreaded this more than anything in my life
“My entire dream, my marriage, my life was just going — I was a spent man, truly,” he said.
As word of the Ontario judgment spread, many of Goring’s detractors on Vancouver Island began to speak out.
Liz Virgin said Goring owed her and her husband “several tens of thousands” of dollars in rent for use of the gallery space. They brought in a lawyer to tell Goring he had to pay up or move out.
“It was not fun,” she said, adding they never got their money.
McLeod, the builder, said he and several tradespeople who helped construct the gallery were also out tens of thousands of dollars.
He said Goring tried to pay off some of that debt by giving him three paintings. However, when he learned those paintings — plus two more he bought off Goring — belonged to White and that White hadn’t been paid for them, he immediately worked to settle things with White by paying for two more of his paintings.
“(Goring) is a likeable guy, a good schmoozer,” but not always forthcoming, McLeod said, adding that several tradesmen received paintings in place of money owed.
Goring said he felt “intimidated” by McLeod and so he gave him a handful of paintings. He said he couldn’t recall gifting paintings to anyone else.Seen here is ‘Father Spirits’ by Norval Morrisseau, which James White also says he consigned to Goring.
“As a rule, it’s not in my — no, I don’t usually, I’m in the art business. I don’t usually give art away,” he said.
But Allan Dunfield said that’s what happened to him. The Qualicum Beach artist said he met Goring over a decade ago and credited Goring for elevating his profile.
But Duffield said their relationship became strained when Goring owed him several thousand dollars for about half a dozen paintings. Dunfield said Goring gifted him a Morrisseau painting, but he later learned the painting belonged to White and turned it over.
Goring said he has no recollection of this. “As far as I knew we were even,” he said.
Port Alberni artist Brad Piatka, who died from cancer in 2016, had a long-simmering feud with Goring, said Piatka’s friend, Rob Longeuay.
Brad is waiting for his $1000.... Just pay up and return his paintings!
One day in 2014, the two visited Goring to check on Piatka’s paintings and discovered about five pieces were unaccounted for. After pressing for answers, Goring said a couple were “on loan,” Longeuay said.
Concerned that Goring wasn’t paying Piatka properly, they decided to return and gather up all of Piatka’s remaining work.
Longeuay followed up with a stern Facebook message in late 2014. “Brad is waiting for his $1000…. Just pay up and return his paintings!”
Days later, he filed a complaint with the RCMP. Despite assuring the officer that the $1,000 debt would be paid, Goring never paid up, Longeuay said.
Goring said he remembers a friend of Piatka’s “coming into the gallery and threatening me with bodily harm.” He confirmed that some of Piatka’s art was used temporarily in show homes, but that they were returned. He insisted the $1,000 debt was paid.Another of the paintings in question is seen here: ‘Seven Watching Spirits’ by Norval Morrisseau.
Other artists cut their losses and moved on.
“People catch you by surprise and they aren’t who they appear to be,” said Jacqui Townsend, widow of the artist Bill Townsend. She said her husband was never paid for some sold paintings and for money he lent to Goring for back taxes.
In the end, they just wrote it off.
“The people he hurt — and he did hurt a lot — said it was not worth worrying about,” she said.
Goring said Bill Townsend cut off their relationship before he could pay him back.
“He actually phoned me and told me he never wanted to talk to me again,” he said.
Not everyone was willing to let things go.
The people he hurt — and he did hurt a lot — said it was not worth worrying about
Unbeknownst to him, Goring became the subject of two blog posts last year by artist Sea Dean. Titled “Theft, Stolen Art,” the posts described how she had consigned two pieces of art to Goring only to discover that Goring “did a disappearing act one night, along with all the art in his gallery.”
She asked anyone who knew Goring’s whereabouts to contact her. “I would be happy to offer a reward.”
Goring said he isn’t that hard to find.
“A lot of these people just like the drama,” he said, adding he gave artists ample opportunity to retrieve their work.
Goring said he’s not trying to play the victim, but he can’t help but feel “let down” by the arts community.
“The moment everything went bad it was just like, everybody just — I was left there alone with no support after I supported all these people,” he said. “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I’m an honest guy.”
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