Galleries

That Must Be Fun: Navigating Misconceptions About Gallery Work

The field of gallery work, especially as it relates to commercial gallery spaces, tends to be somewhat misunderstood. It is certainly not thought of in all quarters as a serious career. As a gallery professional, when I meet someone at a social function and the question of work comes up, the statement “I manage an art gallery” almost always elicits the same reply, particularly from those who don’t work in the arts: “That must be fun.” While work in the art market is stimulating and those of us who get to do it are incredibly lucky, those four words, and the mindset they represent, are indicative of some fundamental misconceptions about gallery work and who gallerists are.

The average American rarely, if ever, steps foot in a commercial gallery space. And the majority of Americans have never purchased (and will never purchase) an original work of art. So, it makes sense that most perceptions of gallery work are shaped by popular culture. Scripted television shows like Sex and The City or GIRLS have given us fictional gallery workers like Charlotte York and Marnie Michaels. In the 2003 rom-com classic Love Actually a group of school children snicker at a gallerist’s show of large scale nude photos festooned with Santa hats. And the 2012 Bravo reality series Gallery Girls primarily showed the lives of privileged young women working in the industry. Moreover, recent documentaries and news stories about the art market skewer dealers (alongside others) as shadowy insiders grifting from the nouveau riche. In short, when commercial galleries appear in media they are conversely the object of ridicule about elitism or the subject of suspicion regarding the murky nature of money in the visual arts. And gallery workers themselves are often envisaged as delicately coiffed trust fund babies in need of a hobby.

In addition to this problem of perception in the media, it makes sense that a central conceit of gallery life, the wine and cheese fueled reception, is viewed as a sort of party which gallery staff attend rather than an event which gallery staff work. Anecdotally, at least, it seems that many people see gallery professionals as individuals who have fun for a living. These lucky few spend their days toying with art and rubbing elbows with a bevy of glamorous collectors and talented artists. And in the imaginative mind, this hobnobbing is occasionally punctuated by a glass of Rosé over a sumptuous crudités spread.

Misconceptions about gallery work are not limited to those outside the field. Not long ago, I met an aspiring gallery professional who commented that the best part of gallery work was that curators and directors don’t have to lift a finger, saying, “You just point and people hang it for you.” The disconnect between this comment and the reality of daily life for the majority of individuals who make their living in art galleries astounded me.

So what is the reality for many commercial gallery professionals?

Outside of major hubs like New York or Los Angeles and beyond the walls of mega galleries like Gagosian, Zwirner, or Pace, smaller regionally-based and local galleries tend to be financially precarious and gallery owners are often one-man-bands. This means a gallerist has to possess an incredible array of skills. They must be equal parts curator, writer, preparator, installer, art handler, maintenance supervisor, publicist, public speaker, photographer, graphic designer, accountant, events manager, educator, caterer, bartender, server, and custodian. This isn’t to mention the softer skills of social diplomacy required when dealing with sensitive artists, frugal buyers, and a curious public. This job description would be a tall order for anyone, but when you consider the limited financial incentives involved in the local and regional market it becomes taller still.

The gallerist, in spite of this broad skill set, remains an enigmatic figure. And the pressures of gallery work are often veiled behind the well-crafted façade of the art world. The reality is that employees at the majority of commercial galleries are not, in fact, filing their nails at the reception desk of a white cube on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. But instead, they are engaging in numerous skilled tasks, often across many exhibitions at once. They are, additionally, providing needed services to artists and bringing artwork to the market - often acting as the only professional representation certain locally known artists will ever have.

So, why does it matter if the general public or even art people themselves understand what or who a gallerist is and what their work is like?

Misconceptions about gallery work devalue the labor of gallery professionals. Not only in the eyes of those with an already limited affinity for the visual arts. But also in the minds of those who are genuinely interested in galleries, art, and collecting. An artist once told me that commercial galleries are a racket because gallerists provide virtually nothing in exchange for their 50% commission. This line of thinking is extremely troubling. A good gallery owner, indeed a good gallery professional at any level, does much more. And for this reason gallery workers are worthy of recognition. But the reputation of privilege and frivolity persists. So, too, does the idea of the unfriendly gallery person.

In the popular imagination gallerists are chilly and inaccessible. In reality, though, commercial gallery work is essentially the effort to bring art to new audiences and thereby to new potential clientele. For this reason, gallery staffers must be public people, yet they are often perceived as closed off. This is in part the fault of gallerists everywhere who fantasize that they are the second coming of Larry Gagosian. Gallerists on the lower end of the market who seek to cultivate a reputation for elitism and aloofness do so at their own peril and degrade the reputation of the profession in the process.

Those of us in the gallery field are more often than not amiable people who care about art and artists and work to help them navigate this complicated marketplace insofar as we can. Commercial galleries also provide an incredible, if unspoken, community service in that unlike most art museums they never charge admission. For free, anyone can visit an art gallery and see artwork that is being made by artists right now. And they can often engage directly with the artist, too.

Gallery work is, as many people suspect, deeply enjoyable. But it is also emotionally and physically taxing in its own way. I know many in the business who work around the clock even when the gallery is closed, conducting studio visits, installing purchases in the homes of clients, answering frantic emails from artists on weekends at midnight, to name just a few common tasks. Though the work is often fun, it’s not always easy.

Ultimately, the best way to understand gallery work is to be in the trade. But one can learn a lot by speaking to real world professionals. A little bit of research also goes a long way. Instagram accounts like @arthandlermag, @jerrygogosian, and @contemporarycostanza humorously illuminate some of the things that go on behind-the-scenes. But truly, visiting galleries, reading art news, and following your local gallerist are essential to developing an understanding of gallery culture and the people who make it all happen.

And, if you ever have any questions for your own friendly local gallerist, you should feel more than welcome to email me.

Five Must-Read Art Business Articles for August 2018

August tends to be a slow time throughout the art market, but there were some interesting stories in the news nonetheless. From the changing strategies of galleries and dealers in the face of new market realities, to a couple of interesting Old Master issues, there is a lot to learn about both old and new in the field. Read on to see links to this month's five selected top stories along with short blurbs to accompany them.

  1. David Zwirner appoints curator-cum-Instagram-influencer as its first online sales director—why?
    by Margaret Carrigan via the The Art Newspaper (August 3)
    Carrigan explores the Zwirner's decision to add Elena Soboleva, a self-described "curator, innovator and global art adventurer" to head their online sales. Zwirner is one of the largest galleries in the world, and has seen a huge increase in sales via online in recent months. As they look to corner this market and improve on their strategies in the space, it made sense to reach out to an expert with a following of her own. This posting is likely a harbinger of changes to come at other galleries looking to bolster their digital footprint.

     
  2. Sotheby’s Posts $57.3 M. Net Income for Second Quarter of 2018, Down 26 Percent from Same Period Last Year
    by Annie Armstrong via Art News (August 6)
    Although overall, Sotheby's saw a steep decline in income from the same period last year, company officials pointed to a bookkeeping issues related to Asian sales to underscore that overall sales remained strong. In Asia, sales were actually up 15% overall which points to the future of the market to some extent. The financial health and sales strength of leading auctioneers like Sotheby's, Christie's, etc. is indicative of the broader condition of the market.
     
  3. The Strategies Art Dealers Use to Discount Artists’ Work
    by Anna Louie Sussman via Artsy (August 20)
    Discounts are a regularly used tactic throughout the gallery market and one that remains controversial. Many good collectors insist on discounts while artists tend to push back against them. Sussman's article does a great job of bringing together a nice array of sources in different positions in the field to learn more about strategies behind this practice as well as opinions of it. A great read for artists and gallery professionals alike.
     

  4. Italy Revokes Export License for Frick Collection’s First Painting Acquisition in Decades
    by Staff via Artforum (August 24)
    The Frick Collection, one of the great private-turned-public collections in the world, recently made its first painting acquisition in years. Now this purchase of a full length portrait of Prince Camillo Borghese by François Gérard is in jeopardy as the Roman culture ministry responsible for approving export permits has reneged on its initial 'ok' on the grounds that the gallery where the painting was purchased did not fully complete their paperwork and left out important details about the piece. This is a great illustration of just one of many potential pitfalls of acquiring Old Masters in Europe and it will be an important story to follow especially if it heads to arbitration in the Italian courts.
     

  5. A large Artemisia Gentileschi painting is coming to auction for the first time ever.
    by Benjamin Sutton via Artsy (August 28)
    Gentileschi is one of the great women artists of the Baroque period, and has seen a renaissance in interest over the last decade or so. The Dorotheum, the great Viennese auction house, will offer a painting of Lucretia by the artist featuring a pre-sale estimate with a high end over $800,000. Of course compared to other Old Master pictures this may not seem like a huge sum but it is significant. Sutton notes that the National Portrait Gallery acquired a self portrait of the artist as Saint Catherine last month for over $4millon. Lucretia will be sold at auction for the first time on October 23 after more than a century in a private collection. It will be interesting to see how the market reacts.

Five Must-Read Art Business Articles for July 2018

In this second installment of what will hopefully be an ongoing series, I outline my five must-read art business articles for the month of July. This month it was very tough to narrow down the five articles I selected. With issues as varied as Brexit, Holocaust Restitution, Copyright Law and other details in the news, I picked a few pieces that I felt covered issues of key concern to a broad audience. There is so much incredible arts journalism being written right now, so be sure to follow these links and explore other stories that interest you.

  1. Ending a Seven-Year Dispute, a US Court Rules That Artists Aren’t Entitled to Royalties for Artworks Resold at Auction
    by Eileen Kinsella via artnet (July 9)
    Kinsella was one of the first journalists to break the news that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down a California state law, the 1977 California Resale Royalties Act (CRRA). The law had required fine artists to be paid royalties of 5% when their work is resold. The court ruled that the statute was pre-empted by the Federal Copyright Act, which does not provide for resale loyalties to artists. This is a blow to artists whose works sell for high values in the secondary market after leaving their studios.
     
  2. 19th Century Women Artists Get Overdue Recognition—Will Their Market Follow?
    by David D'Arcy via the New York Observer (July 18)
    This piece examines the ascendancy of 19th Century women artists in recent scholarship and exhibitions and questions whether the market for such works, which has often been rather soft, can gain interest to match the renewed energy in the institutional sector. D'Arcy provides a review of the Women in Paris exhibition now on view at The Clark in Western Massachusetts and includes a few market examples. The market for these artists will be interesting to follow going forward.
     

  3. The End of Exhibitions? As Attendance Plummets, New York Dealers Are Scrambling to Secure the Future of the Art Gallery by Rachel Corbett via artnet (July 18)
    Corbett outlines what people in the gallery business have known for some time, which is that gallery attendance is on the decline across the board. As individuals seek out new and varied venues for seeing and purchasing works of art, the gallery exhibition seems to be increasingly less relevant. This fact precipitated the inaugural Chelsea Arts Walk, which offered visitors after hours visits with thirty members of the ADAA. This article indicates some of the tactics galleries are using to resurrect their practice; ideas of relevance to those working in every part of the sector.
     

  4. Christie's Sales Soar in Strong Art Market
    by Kelly Crow via The Wall Street Journal (July 24)
    Crow is one of the best market analysts working today. In this piece she breaks down Christie's central role in the current market and their astounding success in the first half of 2018. Perhaps most notably, Christie's online-only sales rose nearly 50% to $37.7million. The overall success of Christie's first six months of 2018 was helped in no small part by the once in a lifetime auction of the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection which made up a fifth of their total revenue for the period. Their sales though, along with competitor Sotheby's, indicate that the market conitues to be going strong.
     

  5. How Leo Castelli Changed The Art Market Forever
    by Nate Freeman via Artsy (July 31)
    This great profile by Nate Freeman gives a very accessible introduction to the story behind one of the most legendary art dealers of all time: Leo Castelli. Through his eponymous gallery, Castelli not only shaped the careers of many American artists in the mid twentieth century but also laid the groundwork for the commercial gallery model that exists, almost unchanged, today. Without Leo Castelli, there would never have been a Larry Gagosian.

Five Must-Read Art Business Articles for June 2018

Artists, collectors, and people interested in art often ask me for good venues to learn more about art business and the art market. There are so many great publications and blogs to follow it can be tough to keep up. So, I will be putting together a curated reading list each month to help highlight some of the key stories related to the business of making and selling fine art. This month's listing includes stories on the financial perils of being an artist and insights into the auction and gallery business. I hope you might keep an eye out at the end of each month as I share must-read articles to keep you apprised of the goings on in the art world.

  1. Advice for Artists on How to Make a Living—When Selling Art Doesn’t Pay the Bills
    by Carroll Michels via Artsy (June 25)
    In this excerpt from her popular book How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, Seventh Edition, published recently as an editorial on Artsy, Michels expertly outlines different career options for artists to help supplement their creative work. The majority of working artists do not make their entire living from their work, so this is especially timely and helpful.
     
  2. Artists Support Themselves Through Freelance Work and Don’t Find Galleries Especially Helpful, New Study Says by Benjamin Sutton via Hyperallergic (June 14)
    Benjamin Sutton does a great job in this article of breaking down a recent study from the Creative Independent on how artists support themselves. The findings are quite interesting, if not totally surprising. One important note I do not think Sutton mentions though, is that the majority of respondents to the survey were younger artists in the early part of their career. This likely influenced the results.
     

  3. Cheim and Read, Storied New York Gallery, Will Close Its Chelsea Space After 21 Years and Transition to ‘Private Practice’ by Eileen Kinsella via artnet (June 28)
    As shakeups in the commercial gallery market continue, news broke this week that New Yorks' Cheim and Read would close its Chelsea gallery space, move uptown, and shift to a private practice model. Kinsella's article provides some excellent background analysis on Cheim and Read, and gives some insights into the change, which is indicative of larger movements in the marketplace.
     

  4. Why Guarantees Are Actually Good for the Art Market
    by Doug Woodham via Artsy (June 28)
    In this article, Doug Woodham does a wonderful job of explaining the sometimes obscure process by which major auction houses offer guarantees to consignors. He breaks down the issue giving some very interesting real world examples, highlighting the differences between house guarantees and third party guarantees. This is a useful piece to read for those interested in learning more about the functionality of the auction marketplace.
     

  5. Meet the entrepreneurs catering to fresh crop of digitally-savvy art collectors
    by Isabel Togoh via The Irish Independent (June 24)
    This piece covers the incredible rise of Unit London, a gallery in London run by two entrepreneurs in their late 20's. Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt founded their first space in 2013 and just this week moved into a new 6,000 square foot permanent home in London's Mayfair district. These young gallerists have built an international following for their artists and have utilized social media to make their gallery accessible to a broader range of potential collectors. They are a bright spot in the gallery market and their story provides some solid insights for other gallerists on how to do business.