Rebekah Jacob is trying to move on.
Past the controversies, past the allegations and court appearances, past the financial trouble.
Jacob is embracing a new way of doing business that doesn’t rely on brick-and-mortar art galleries or physical inventory, and therefore comes with much lower operating costs, she said. She’s embracing the possibility of a future free and clear of unhappy clients and legal challenges.
But first she has to clear the slate. And the slate still has some debts to erase and exasperated artists to mollify.
For years, artists and dealers who worked with local broker Jacobs have tried to recover inventory and money owed from the sale of their works. They have complained about stonewalling and lack of communication, and many ultimately filed lawsuits.
Jacob admitted that she has struggled to keep her business going and that she has made mistakes.
“We’re so concerned with just keeping things steady and processing and moving things forward,” she said. In recent months, she has stopped working with most living artists. “That hasn’t been my top priority.” As a result, some business issues have remained unresolved.
“We’re about 75 percent cleaned up, and it was a mess,” she added. “I’ve built a lot of collections, advised a lot of clients. That’s a lot of time. I’ve been putting out fires and keeping my day job, so to speak. I’m the first one to want to make things right. But business goes badly, it just does.”
The problems can be traced back about 10 years. A few years earlier, Jacob opened a gallery on Upper King Street, and local painter Tim Hussey, who makes large abstract works, figured he’d finally found someone who appreciates contemporary art and who could represent him.
But soon, there were problems: Hussey couldn’t get good information from Jacob about what works were sold, and about which clients made purchases and what they paid, he told The Post and Courier at the time. In the fall of 2012, Hussey retrieved most of his paintings and sued to get money owed.
At least 15 other artists and dealers have waged battle with Jacob in the years since, even after she closed her King Street gallery and moved into a smaller space on John Street, according to legal filings and attorney Patrick Chisum, who is representing many of the artists. Court records show she failed to pay the rent and ran into trouble with landlords. Even today, some artists say they have yet to settle with Jacob.
"My concern is less about the money than the precedent she has established of contractually receiving goods for which she doesn’t pay," Los Angeles-based dealer Darrel Couturier of Couturier Gallery wrote in an email to the newspaper. He said he has been trying, so far in vain, to retrieve an important Cuban photograph from Jacob. "It’s a terrible precedent, and harmful especially to artists who can least afford it.”
Chisum said he’s been frustrated by Jacob’s regular evasions.
“I don’t know if she’s actually doing this on purpose,” he said. “(Maybe) she’s just really bad at business or really bad at communicating. I think she’s in denial and she doesn’t know how to get out of it.”
Edward Rice had a solo show in Jacob's Upper King Street gallery in 2014 but never got paid for art presumably sold. In the end, he recovered most of the works, but Jacob still owed him $30,000. He sent multiple messages but never got an answer, Rice said. About a year ago, he sued, but Jacob failed to appear in court. Nevertheless, the judge awarded damages, increasing the amount owed to Rice to about $45,000, according to a court order dated March 15, 2018. Rice said he has not been repaid.
Shane Lavalette still is waiting to be paid for two photographs presumably sold in 2015, he wrote in an email.
The artist asked to be paid repeatedly for many months, then engaged Chisum, but Jacob continued to ignore messages, he said. Eventually, a judge ruled that she must pay half the amount of the sale of the prints, plus legal fees and damages.
Jacob said she's nearly able to address outstanding debts, once account payables are up to date next quarter, and that works still in her possession and not sold will be returned to artists and dealers. In a recent interview, she did not contest the various allegations leveled against her, but in the past has said she never intentionally withheld payments or inventory, attributing disagreements to bad record-keeping.
"We are a few months away from beginning to whittle away at the judgments, which we will settle as quickly as possible," Jacob said.
Couturier, the L.A. dealer, works with many Cuban artists, some with impressive reputations.
“This is how Ms. Jacob came to contact me, as she has some dealings with Cuban art and represented some Cuban work in her gallery,” he said.
In late 2013, Couturier consigned to Jacob some important photographs related to the Cuban Revolution by Alberto Korda and Raul Corrales. After a while, he got those works back, he said. Then, in May 2018, she reached out to Couturier, saying she had a client who wanted Korda’s photograph of Che Guevara, so Couturier shipped it to Charleston.
Couturier said the sale kept getting postponed. In December, he contacted Jacob via Facebook to inquire about the picture, and she told him she had just sold it. But the $4,500 never arrived. A few weeks ago, she told him the check was on the way. Couturier said he has not received it.
He said he’s especially concerned for Cuban artists who can be more susceptible to exploitation and who have no recourse to resolve such problems.
Jacob said she was about to pay Couturier. "His check is in a FedEx envelope sitting next to me. Ready to go."
Legal recourse generally has not been fruitful. Usually, the dollar amounts in question are in the thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands — not enough to prompt criminal prosecutors to take action, Chisum said. It’s been difficult to secure financial records or inventory lists, he said.
On Aug. 24, 2018, Judge Mikell R. Scarborough found Jacob in contempt of court and ordered her to provide requested documents to Chisum and pay attorney’s fees up to $2,500 within 30 days. She paid two weeks late.
Chisum said the legal chase has been exasperating. He’s trying to hold Jacob accountable, but delays and lack of communication have stretched out the process unnecessarily, he said. He just wants it to conclude.
“I don’t care if she doesn’t have any money,” Chisum said. “I just want to know and tell my clients.”
Hoping for a fresh start
Jacob has said that work-related travel has made it difficult for her to appear in court or adhere to a strict schedule she doesn’t always know about.
In the fall of 2017, Jacob learned that only 20 percent of her gallery inventory had sold, and sustaining the retail operation was a serious weight on her budget.
“Six years ago, the formula for a successful gallery was big art, big walls, big space,” she said. “To play on a certain level, you had to have those elements. But the model has shifted.”
Most art dealers outside the big markets like New York City have invested heavily in digital media, and rely on art fairs.
“It’s a great facilitator for me, because I want to be based here, but I don’t have a client base,” she said.
Relying more on digital platforms enables her to tap into bigger markets without relocating. And because she specializes in photographs created by artists involved in the Works Progress Administration of the late-1930s and early 1940s, by photographers of the civil rights movement and by Cuban artists, digital marketing has proven essential. She has become a broker who accesses work via auctions and dealers and arranges its transfer to collectors.
“It’s not really a walk-in, buy-off-the-wall kind of business,” she said. “I have a client-based enterprise, not an artist-based enterprise.”
And that’s just how she likes it. There is little inventory to manage and no artists’ egos to satisfy, she said. Now she’s striving to put her house in order.
“We’re doing a detailed evaluation about what caused the problems in first place,” she said. “I’m not playing victim. I’ve got to own some things, too. There were some things out of my control, but at the same time my name was on the business and I’m responsible.”
She said she’s been honing her artistic interests, focusing on historical photography especially, and working with clients with similar interests. When she knows what a buyer wants and how much he wants to spend, she goes on the hunt for the right work, she said.
Though this broker approach is catching on generally, not many in the South have adopted it, Jacob noted. It’s a lot easier than managing a gallery and representing artists directly.
“When you’re working in a secondary market, it’s just a transaction,” she said. “It’s an easier, cleaner, more controlled way of doing business. You don’t get a lot of curve balls. You can pretty much determine how it’s going to work out. You can’t do that with primary market.”
Mostly, she’s working with people from far away, not clients who live in Charleston, which is more of a tourist market, not a collector’s market, she said.
“I’m the happiest I’ve been since I started,” she said.
It all adds up to a new strategy, one that might bring success, if she can satisfy the outstanding debts, improve cash flow and repair a badly tarnished reputation.