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Do All Famous Artists Mistreat Their Assistants?

The art world is full of status tension and anecdotes of well-heeled divas mistreating their roustabouts. When the story broke, earlier this week, that movie star Jim Carrey would be fined $72,000 for failing to buy workers’ compensation insurance for employees in his New York art studio in 2012, people had their hands at their moralistic holsters, certain that this was another case of studio assistant abuse — a particularly hard thing to justify when an artist is rich or famous.

Fortunately, it wasn’t true! A representative of Carrey’s, citing official paperwork that proved his 2012 coverage, confirmed to TMZ that it had all been a clerical error, on the state’s part — making this perhaps the first-ever example of TMZ reporting something useful.

This sequence of events may sound trivial, but the news of Carrey’s bogus fine recalls earlier high-profile accusations of assistant abuse leveled at such famous names as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Annie Leibovitz. These seemingly ubiquitous reports are enough to fuel the assumption that all big-name artists mistreat their assistants. But the truth is that there are plenty of less-publicized stories out there that defy the belief that being a studio assistant means dirt.

Firstly, there are the well-documented accounts of artist-assistant relationships that sound totally civilized. There may be something grandiose and self-important about the instructional video artist Tom Sachs offers his studio assistants, but you have to admit, it does seem to be based on some admirable sense of professionalism and reciprocal esteem.

Occasionally, artists and their assistants can arrive at a meeting of minds that approaches deep friendship. Tom Ferrara, a painter who worked for nearly a decade in the studio of Willem de Kooning, described the Abstract Expressionist master as “very generous.”

“He gave me space to work and he told me if I ever needed materials to just charge them to his account,” Ferrara told Christie’s. “And he would definitely give me advice, although I think he was careful about being too much of an influence. He knew that anything that he said would really resonate.”

“I’ve had both good and bad experiences,” one veteran New York artist tells Flavorwire. “The good being forming a creative mind-meld, with the employing artist allowing me to act as the artist’s phantom limb during fabrication.” And it’s not as if the fun parts, like the work, don’t trickle down. “I’ve been flown around the country to help them assemble works on site,” excursions which can turn into “drug-addled club-hopping bender weeks, paid for by various upstanding cultural institutes.”

“Lots of people treat the assistants like family,” a former apprentice for Robert Rauschenberg writes. He recalls that one day in the workshop, the master approached him as an equal and recommended that he stop working on his combines and assemblages, and start making work of his own. Within “days,” he did just that. “The relationship between artist and assistant is full of variety,” he added, suggesting that for all the ghoulish stories of crappy pay and hard-shell tubes of paint thrown across the room, there are just as many scandal-free accounts of courtesy and respect that don’t get heard.

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