The Big Picture
The art world is full of people who like saying "there are no rules in the art world," which is only sort of true. There's certainly nothing written in stone (there's barely anything written on paper). And sure, what you do in the studio is entirely up to you; there aren't any rules about what you choose to make or how you make it. But there are general customs in the art world, and widespread expectations among arts professionals, which you should know before you head out of the studio and start meeting these people.
The customs have changed, too. It used to be a given, for example, that you would need many years of studio time before a gallery would look at your work. Today, galleries compete over the newest talent to come out of school, even trying to scoop up MFA students before they've graduated. That's not to say everyone is ready for a commercial gallery, by the way. Pressure to sell can stifle development, especially at the beginning of a career. But because there's a real possibility to sell work as an emerging artist, you have to confront issues, and understand how the art world works, in a way that emerging artists never had to before.
Of course, you don't have to follow custom or accept other people's expectations. We're not prescribing a bunch of rules that you need to follow. If you want to buck the system, go right ahead. Do the wrong thing. Just do it on purpose, not by accident, and know why you're doing it.
Also, what worked for someone else may not work for you. You have to weigh the information and recommendations in this book according to your personality, your goals, your art. Aiming for a big New York gallery, for example, is very different from establishing a regional practice in a smaller city or trying to survive on direct sales from your studio. No priority is better or worse -- it's your definition of success that matters and no one else's -- and each one calls for a different approach.
Who are we to be telling you all this? One of us is a gallery director, the other an arts lawyer. We've been close friends since the beginning of college. As is true of most arts professionals, we do what we do because we love art and we love artists. We've both been in New York for a decade, and over the years a lot of our artist friends have asked us a lot of the same questions -- about career choices, business issues, and legal problems.
"When you look at the history of art, you see a history of mavericks -- people doing the wrong thing. I wish that I saw more artists doing the wrong thing. That's really more in the spirit of art that I love."
Fred Tomaselli, artist, Brooklyn, N.Y.
After a while, something obvious (in hindsight) dawned on us. Unlike other creative professionals, artists don't have agents or managers to deal with these issues for them. They have to do it all themselves, at least until they're very successful. Galleries are supposed to act like agents for their artists, but not all of them live up to that standard. And even the best ones still have to balance the needs of their artists with the desires of their collectors -- a conflict of interest that simply doesn't exist for agents in other creative fields.
So we thought it would be useful to write a book that tells artists how to act as their own agents and managers -- a book that answers all those questions people keep asking us.
We knew that the only way to do these topics any justice was to find out what other arts professionals had to say about them. We interviewed nearly one hundred people across the country -- gallerists, curators, accountants, lawyers, and, of course, artists -- and spent the better part of a year synthesizing their opinions, and ours, into the book you're reading now. And because we also wanted you to hear these people in their own words, we have included quotes of theirs throughout the book. The quotes represent the most commonly held -- and occasionally diverging -- views in the art world.
Quick Tour of the Art World
There are a lot of people in the art world who play crucial roles in how your art is made, shown, understood, sold, and remembered. First, there are all the people who can help you develop your art, your ideas, and your goals: other artists, your former professors, the directors and staff at residencies and foundations that support artists.
There are the framers, printers, fabricators, and other production people whose skills you may need to tap (or learn) to finish your work.
Curators choose the work for group and solo exhibitions. They usually have an academic background, with a master's or PhD in art history or curatorial studies. The ones on staff at museums or nonprofits are called institutional curators.
Independent curators freelance, putting together their own exhibitions or collaborating with museums, galleries, nonprofits, and alternative spaces. There are also private curators who work for corporations or big collectors, maintaining and developing their collections.
Art advisors and art consultants help private collectors, corporations, and institutions buy work, for either a fee or a percentage of the work's price. Some of them focus on emerging artists and may want to visit your studio or introduce you to their clients.
Dealers show your work and try to sell it. They tend to specialize in either the primary art market, meaning art sold for the first time, or the secondary art market, meaning resale. Primary market dealers represent living artists and manage their careers. Secondary market dealers help sell work that's already been bought at least once. They don't usually work with artists; they deal directly with collectors and other dealers.
Many dealers call themselves gallerists, to emphasize their roles as curators, managers, and producers. Others stick with "dealer" because they don't want to downplay the commercial aspect of selling art. (We'll use the term gallerist throughout this book, although we think the distinction is only as meaningful as you want it to be.)
Most galleries have some kind of gallery staff to help run the space. They may organize their staff by task or by artist. The main tasks include:
Sales: staying in touch with collectors, finding new collectors, previewing your work, describing it to visitors, following up with leads, handling sales transactions.
Curator: selecting artists for the program, selecting work for shows, organizing and installing shows, preparing written materials for shows, applying to art fairs.
Artist support: keeping in touch with you, helping you with whatever you need, advising you on career decisions such as applying to residencies, running your studio, and participating in shows in other cities.
Registrar: tracking the location, condition, price, and status of every work that moves through the gallery; filling out, negotiating, and enforcing consignment agreements; overseeing shipping.
Art handler (or "preparator"): packing, shipping, and storing the work that moves through the gallery; installing shows.
Archivist: cataloging all your images, press, and written materials.
Bookkeeper: accounting, paying the bills.
Gallerina: greeting visitors, answering phones, administrative tasks. (Yes, the guys are called "gallerinas," too.)
Gallery manager: basically the head of operations, managing the space and equipment.
Press person: following up with story leads, distributing press releases.
Director: overseeing everything and every one, reporting to the owner.
"The art world is not the monolithic monster it can seem to be. Sure, it has a lot of monstrous parts, but it's just people with different interests and viewpoints. As an artist, you are one part, and you decide how you interact with the rest. It's not 'your work meets the art world monster.'"
Bill Davenport, artist and critic, Houston
In small galleries, the owner might do everything. Larger galleries have several directors and may employee dozens of people.
Then there are a whole bunch of people whom you may come across but not work with directly:
Art critics write about shows -- if you're lucky they'll write about yours. Whereas their job is obviously to assess the art they see, there are also reporters and bloggers who cover the art world from a news or personal perspective. (And, of course, the publishers and their staffs at art magazines and newspapers.)
Art fair directors and their staffs manage the numerous art fairs that take place around the world every year.
The basic function of auction houses is to take work from collectors looking to sell and auction it to the highest bidder, for a percentage of the final sale price. They also provide services for collectors such as valuation, placement, and private sales. Some have expanded their role into traditional gallery terrain -- not necessarily to the delight of gallerists -- showcasing new work and making primary art market sales.
Where You Come In
No matter where you are in your career, we think you will find this book helpful. It covers everything from tracking your inventory to installing a show; from designing your website to drafting an invoice; from paying your taxes to protecting your copyright; from landing a gallery to planning a commission. The book includes forms, charts, and sample agreements that you're likely to need during your career. And it has a slash in the title, so it will look cool on your shelf.
We organized the chapters in roughly the order of issues you'll encounter as you begin your career, but with the idea that you will probably skip around a lot. We'll tell you where to look whenever we mention something that's explained in another chapter, so don't feel compelled to read through cover-to-cover the way you would with a novel.
Now just to be clear, we're not telling you how to make art. This book is about what you didn't learn in art school, not what you did. We're also not telling you that if you do everything we say, you will be the next Damien Hirst. But whatever your potential, this book will help you realize it.
Copyright © 2009 by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber