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British artist calls for 'unethical' Unseen fair to cease operation after bankruptcy and buy-out

The Amsterdam-based photography event has failed to pay Felicity Hammond for commissioned work, but still plans to host a 2020 edition

UPDATE: This article was amended on 18 February to include an open letter by the new owners of Unseen

Felicity Hammond's series A Global Sense of Place was commissioned by Unseen and used in its promotional material © the artist

The British photographer Felicity Hammond has accused Unseen Platform of “deceit” and “persistent lying” after the commercial arm of the fair declared bankruptcy on 28 January.

Despite a recent buy-out by Art Rotterdam, the fair has as yet failed to pay Hammond and other associated artists for work commissioned as part of the 2019 edition of the annual Amsterdam-based commercial photography fair.

Hammond has also called for Unseen Foundation, the fair’s charitable wing, to cease operation in the wake of the umbrella organisation’s “unethical” behaviour.

Hammond had just given birth to her daughter at last year’s Unseen fair, which takes place at the Gashouder space, a former gasworks, in Amsterdam’s Westerpark each September. Hammond dedicated herself to creating a commissioned installation in the heart of Gashouder, which was used by the fair as part of its promotional material, during the first three weeks of her daughter’s life. Hammond’s commissioned work was used to promote Unseen throughout Amsterdam. The fair also sold editions of the work. But Unseen has as yet failed to pay Hammond for an agreed fee or expenses accrued.

The artist published an open letter on the website American Suburb X this week, writing of Unseen: “You are not helping artists. You are merely using the language of support. Your brand adopts the rhetoric of the foundation whilst propping up commercial entities who do not have the best interests of artists at heart.”

In response, Fons Hof, the director of Art Rotterdam and the current director of Unseen after the buy-out that took place over the first week of February, told The Art Newspaper in an email: “The story of Felicity Hammond has reached us and we wish her a lot of strength and hope that she will be partially compensated.”

Unseen Platform was founded by the Amsterdam photography museum Foam, the Vandejong Creative Agency, and the agency Platform A in 2011. On 28 January, Unseen announced bankruptcy of all commercial entities of Unseen, saying via a statement: “The three commercial entities of Unseen, Unseen International BV, Unseen Media BV and Unseen Amsterdam BV, have declared bankruptcy. The existing business model was making a financial loss due to high costs and disappointing revenues and therefore was no longer able to support its outstanding debts. The bankruptcy only concerns the private limited companies which have been financed by commercial revenues and investments.”

Despite the bankruptcy announcement, Unseen claims to continue to be forging ahead with the 2020 edition. Unseen Foundation, an independent and not-for-profit organisation, will also continue its activities.

Hof says: “Last week Art Rotterdam and GalleryViewer.com took over the intangible and tangible assets of Unseen after we made the highest bid.” Hof says his organisation “never gained insight into the outstanding debts, but, from what we hear, our acquisition sum must be a substantial part of the outstanding debts.” Hof hopes artists who have not yet been paid will “at least receive a part of their claim back”. He says: “This distribution of the funds is not under our control but lies with the bankruptcy trustee.”

Marina Paulenka, the new director of Unseen Foundation, tells The Art Newspaper that she was not given insight into the financial situation of the commercial element of the operation, and has been “shocked” by recent events.

“We had limited insight or influence on how the commercial entities conducted its business as Unseen Foundation, given its altruistic mission, operated independently,” Paulenka tells The Art Newspaper. “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.”

Paulenka adds: “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.”

In response to this, Hammond wrote: “[Unseen] Foundation participates in an unethical system whereby the money owed to multiple artists can be written off, whilst you still maintain the cultural capital we have produced for you.”

According to Unseen’s PR team, last year’s edition attracted more than 25,000 visitors and hosted 52 galleries. Paulenka called the edition a “great success,” in which “every element of of the programme has thrived.”

UPDATE 18 Feburary: Open letter to Felicity Hammond from Fons Hof and Johan de Bruijn

Dear Felicity,

We are Fons Hof and Johan de Bruijn, the owners of the “new” Unseen. We have read your open letter and are very sorry for the way you have been treated, more so as you are a new mother who should be filled with joy instead of worries during this time.

On 10 February, one day prior to your open letter, we placed our final bid on the assets of the bankrupt Unseen organization, hoping that the old debts would be paid for a substantial part with the acquisition funds we paid.

As the CEO of Art Rotterdam, one of the biggest art fairs in the Netherlands, and as founders of GalleryViewer.com, an online platform that aims to make contemporary art more accessible, we feel the Unseen festival is of great importance to the international art scene.

Obviously, it is the custodian of the bankrupt estate who is aware of the total list of creditors and they should be dealing with them. We were not aware of, nor responsible for, dealing with all creditors left unpaid by the former owners of Unseen.

However, as we are committed to art, and artist such as yourself, who make this sector thrive, we have decided to use our own funds to reimburse the artists who are owned money by the prior Unseen management and who made Unseen a success.

This Saturday we received a list of 26 outstanding artist payments owed by the bankrupt entities. We herewith offer to take over these 26 claims of the artists to the bankrupt estate. This means we are going to pay you in full out of our own resources - and then we will try to collect whatever of your claims can be paid out of the bankrupt estate for ourselves.

Please understand that we operate without any relation to the former management or the foundation. We will organize future editions of Unseen with the same transparency and trust we’ve shown doing 21 years of Art Rotterdam. We hope you trust our management capabilities and are assured we’ll do the right thing.

Feel free to contact us any time.

All the best,

Fons & Johan