There was a time not to long ago when Justin Giarla loomed large over the street art/graffiti/low-brow art scene in San Fransisco. He owned three galleries simultaneously: White Walls Gallery, Shooting Gallery, and 941 Geary. All three closed quietly earlier this year, with their final shows opening in February. The building was sold. Last month, Giarla and his girlfriend Helen Bayly packed up their things, apparently abandoned his truck on the side of the road, and skipped town for Portland. That’s when the truth finally became public: Giarla hadn’t been paying his artists.
In a Facebook post that went viral, Ken Harman (owner of Hashimoto Contemporary and Spoke Art) claimed, “For years, Justin Giarla stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from artists who consigned works to Giarla’s gallery, White Walls / Shooting Gallery… I don’t know if karma is a real thing (though I like to believe it is) but I do believe that [Giarla and Bayly] are sociopaths and criminals who prey on those who can’t defend themselves. If karma is real, you won’t hear me complaining.”
One gallerist doesn’t like another gallerist. No surprise there. Did Giarla really steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from artists? It sure seems that way. According to Logan Hicks, artists with claims totaling around $200,000 are getting together for a group action lawsuit against Giarla. And the comments on Harman’s post are full of artists claiming that Giarla owes or owed them money. They include Jessica Hess, Paul Chatem, Jon Fox, Jonathan Darby, Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, Andrea Joyce Heimer, and David Soukup, and while Blek le Rat didn’t comment on Harman’s Facebook post, he did sue Giarla in 2014.
Curator Sven Davis also had issues working with Giarla. He told Vandalog, “Long story short, he sold work, didn’t pay artists and didn’t pay me. Also hasn’t returned work to artists.”
With all of those accusations piling up, I’d say it isn’t looking good for Giarla. He did just sell his building at 886 Geary Street for $3,333,250, so he’s got that going for him, but not really. Multiple artists had liens on the building, so now they’re finally getting paid, whether Giarla likes it or not. After Jessica Hess won a lawsuit against Giarla in July 2012, he never paid up, so she took out a lien on 886 Geary. David Soukup did the same thing. Last month after the building sold, they both finally got checks in the mail. The building’s sale has also given others artists the impetus to sue.
Giarla and Bayly did not respond to Vandalog’s requests for comment. However, Giarla did write a post on his Facebook page in response to Harman. In that post, Giarla did not confirm, deny, or even acknowledge any of the accusations against him.
The question that remains is how this stayed quiet for so long. How was Giarla able to keep things going when he wasn’t paying his artists? I’d heard rumors that he was behind on payments, whispers of disgruntled artists, but never anything solid. But Jessica Hess sued in 2012, and she went public. How did that not get picked up? I think maybe it’s because a lawsuit here, an angry artist there, a few hundred dollars that might have gone missing… each small instance can be brushed aside, so people generally kept quiet. It wasn’t until Harman’s post that most people realized the true scale of Giarla’s alleged scam. Clearly, as an art community, we need to do better at supporting honest galleries and calling out the dishonest ones.
Photo by Lynn Friedman