Wednesday, March 30, 2011

So you want to be an Art Dealer

Tax time is around the corner and you’re an accountant searching the web for inspiration about a career change. Fifteen years in the trenches and piles of unfinished returns all of a sudden have left you with an unappealing taste for crunching numbers. A right brained, fun job is what the doctor ordered.

Well I was a physician in a prior career, so before I give you a prescription to change careers you may want to investigate the art profession a little deeper. I can hear your longing voice in my head: “You have such a great job, I’m sick of tax time, I wish I could sell art, it looks fun,” and “It can’t be that much work, beautiful paintings they must just sell themselves,” Yes it’s a great job, yes it's fun, and I can assure you most paintings don’t sell themselves, though occasionally they actually do.

So here is my Jerry Maguire manifesto on what it takes to be an art dealer.

First, don’t go into the art world if your only qualification is you really like art, and you hate your current job. It's true, having a passion for art is a big part of being a competent art dealer, but it's only one component. Having a great eye is also very important, but having a good understanding of business in general is probably just as important if you plan to eat. You must have a long horizon for success, three years is not a long time line.

1. Longevity counts: Shoot for being the Billy Bob Thornton of art galleries. Mr. Thornton’s big break came with Swing Blade. He was an overnight success, except it took him more than a decade struggling before Hollywood recognized his artistic abilities. My own experience was it took me ten years before collectors started trusting what I had to say and believed my expertise and commitment to the profession. There is a correlation between 10,000 hours of training in a field before you can call yourself an expert. The day you quit adding numbers and begin to sell art for a living expect to struggle. In the art world, trust is an important factor, and so is reputation. I know first hand why seasoned art collectors, dealers, and artists want to see a track record. I have seen my share of fly by night dealers who look for big bucks and could care less about the client-dealer relationship, these relationships are earned.

2. It helps to have a strong back; sounds strange but true. Every time I move a heavy sculpture or move an unwieldy painting, I wonder if the big boys on Madison Avenue have ever had to deal with this part of the job… My guess is I’m sure they have, they just won’t admit to it, unless plied with copious amounts of alcohol at the end of a long show. Until you have enough capital to hire someone to be your back, get used to lifting and remember to use your legs.

3. You need to like working with people; especially artists. If you prefer your artists to be deceased and hate the thought of working with living artists, don't do it. Artists have enough obstacles without having to deal with gallery owners who think of them as just a product.

4. Artists are a special breed. They are driven to create and are happy when they are doing so. They depend on dealers to sell their work. If you can’t handle the responsibility or worse yet don’t take it seriously, don’t work with living artists; they have families to feed and count on you to make sales. If art is a product, you’re not an art dealer. I was in a well healed tourist town once looking at opportunities to open a gallery and talked to two local art dealers. Both talked only about how much product they moved (art), not about the artist who created the works and promoting their career, needless to say I marked the town off as not art friendly.

5. Patience and love of human interaction are a must. If the thought of having someone ask if you are the artist who created the works in your gallery is unfathomable, then don’t open a gallery. Not all people have the same level of sophistication when it comes to what they are looking at, and it’s your responsibility to treat all clients the same, even if at the end of the summer season you have started a list of “the stupidest things I heard over my summer vacation.” No one is perfect.

6. Finally, something you would never guess crucial to being successful in the art world and wasn’t a factor when I opened my gallery, is having computer skills. If you feel you're old school and having a gallery is only about hanging art on the walls, you’re in trouble from the get go. I would recommend a different profession. Don’t open an art gallery, you will fail. Remember this is a business, and you must support your business with the latest in technology, even if your own skills are limited. Yes, there are still plenty of the old guard art dealers with no email, website or cell phone, but they are not starting up, they are dying off; you will read about their demise most likely on your iPad.

Bottom line, love what you do, and do what you love, but make sure you can add numbers, sell, have a good back, have a nice smile when someone enters the room, and understand that a URL is not just your gallery name but one of the keys to your success…

Mark Sublette


  1. Nice blog Mark, pretty much sums the key points, especially the TIME point. it has taken about twelve years of presence in my area to build the trust and strong connection with clients and the public. James Harper, James Harper Fine Arts Gallery, Ormond Beach, Florida

  2. Enjoyed the whole script, very meaningful and thought-provoking to art sellers like me;)

    Umesh U V

  3. Mark, thanks for sharing the truth about being an art dealer... very wise words indeed.

    I've enjoyed visiting your gallery when I happen to be in Tucson.

  4. Mark, very candid and refreshing post. Sometimes artists need to be reminded of life on the other side of the fence too. Thank you for sharing your insights.