Michael Reid is a featured speaker in a Christie’s Education course being held in Sydney Australia at Reid’s gallery next week. The subject is Mapping a Career in the Art World. Reid is a longtime Sydney gallerist also has an outpost in Berlin. He’s a frequent commentator on the art market. Here are his own notes on what it takes to have a career in the art world (slightly edited to make them globally relevant.)
Practical skills are the keys to being at the top of the arts pack.
A good education, with a major in fine arts, is simply expected. Everyone in the arts is well educated. So what?
Learn and be willing to do what others are reluctant to do.
- Be able to read a balance sheet and to prepare budgets.
- Master accounting software.
- Become a champ at MailChimp or any other newsletter service.
- Learn to use graphic-design programs such as Photoshop, GIMP, Illustrator, etc.
- Learn to use software programs to manage collections and hire help.
- Become proficient in the various methods of art shipping, both domestic and international.
- Become familiar with commercial printing for postcards, flyers andcatalogues. Know your GSM (grams per square metre) from a galley proof.
- Undertake a short, postgraduate course in Project Management. That’s essentially what a gallery does: it manages art projects.
Remember: Tunnel vision won’t help your career in the art world, and it’s bad for business.
Consider alternative art-world career paths.
- PR / marketing
- Art shipping
- Designer / framer / printer / art insurer
- Interior designer or interior architect
Not everyone in the industry has to be a curator or an auction-house specialist, or work in an art gallery. The art world is a big business. Try to gain experience within the industry and across a wide range of possible aligned art careers. This may mean working in advertising and then the arts; in interior design and then the arts; in architecture and then the arts; in graphic design and then the arts. See the pattern? Do something skillful and practical, and then take the knowledge you gain from it to the arts.
Remember: You can achieve victory by circling your intended prize. Do as Chairman Mao Zedong did in seizing control of China: take the countryside first, and then the encircled cities will fall.
Choose carefully who you work with
Be as selective about who you work with, as you are about the job you want to do. Create or seize opportunities to work with someone you can learn from.
‘A prudent man should always follow the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent’ – Niccolo Machiavelli.
Master the various social media.
- Have a LinkedIn profile etc etc etc.
- Develop your own social-media profile; this is your art-world asset that moves around with you.
- Always have the most up-to- date camera on your smartphone that you can afford. It’s all about images, baby.
Do the job you’ve been asked to do, and do it well.
Always audit your behaviour. Are you actually doing what you’ve been asked or hired to do, or are you trying to do the job you want to do?
Create your own opportunities to further your career.
Do something for yourself, by yourself, that’s outside the mainstream of your paid work. Don’t sit around waiting for opportunities to appear. Make change happen for you.
- Write a book, or a column or a blog.
- Curate an exhibition.
- Undertake a project – for example, set yourself the task of taking photo portraits of your generation of artists.
Be prepared to work hard.
Long workdays and irregular hours are part and parcel of working in the art world. Accept and get comfortable with the long hours. Devour them.
Get a foot in the door.
Do internships with a wide variety of organisations, such as an art gallery, an art shipper, an auction house.
Employing people is expensive. Every single position that is advertised already has a particular type of candidate in mind. No organisation or firm can risk employing someone on spec. Help a prospective employer mitigate this risk by working with them – and showcasing your talents – in a manner that isn’t costly or risky for them.
Build your professional profile in the art world, but don’t let the art world consume your personal life.
Be seen, build your personal profile, and then be selective. To begin with, get involved in the community you’d like to become a part of. If you want to work in a commercial gallery, you need to identify the galleries whose artists and exhibitions resonate with you. Then go and see ALL their exhibitions, and if possible, attend all their openings, artists’ talks, etc. Gallery owners and their staff are immensely proud of the exhibitions they stage. Even though the digital world has expanded audiences for galleries, there is still nothing artists appreciate more than art enthusiasts making the effort to turn up and view an exhibition in person. Over time, you’ll become familiar with, and eventually meet, people from the art world within the gallery environment. The arts community isn’t huge, but it’s very committed and dedicated. Contacts are key in breaking into the art world.
Once you have established yourself professionally, avoid the overheated social hothouse of the art scene. Don’t go to the opening of an envelope. Your attendance should send the message that an event is noteworthy. Absence, when noticed, can be a very strong presence. Attend only what you need to attend to further your career. Socialise with your real friends.
Don’t suck up to your superiors.
Your polite proficiency is what your colleagues need most from you. What will be most valuable for your career is their respect, not their affection or friendship.
Remember: If you lose a person’s professional respect, you are professionally expunged.
With artists, in particular, and with the majority of collectors, be firm and friendly, but never familiar. You are wanted and needed for your professional experience and expertise, not for your sparkling personality.
Everyone is a butler to someone.
The arts is a competitive service industry. Any number of other people could perform the tasks or supply the products you’ve been hired to perform or provide. What will set you apart is the quality of your service. ALWAYS be available. Always put yourself in the curator or the collector’s shoes. There is no downtime. Answer the phone from clients on Easter Sunday morning with a smile in your voice.
Why? Your business is between you and the client only. As an art dealer, for example, only you need to know what your client has hanging on their bedroom wall.
When asked for advice, give it generously.
When a collector, artist or colleague asks you for advice, give it serious thought, then give it generously. They’ll come back again and again. In this way, you’ll become an opinion former.
Don’t climb ladders after age 50.
It’s statistically more dangerous to climb a ladder, even a stepladder, once you’ve reached the half-century mark. Delegate that job to younger, more agile colleagues.
Travel and accommodate yourself in some style.
You don’t meet prospective clients, or indeed your intended professional peer group, in economy class. As Aristotle Onassis once said: ‘The greatest asset any businessman can have is a suntan. … To be happy, make sure you are tanned, live in expensive buildings, even if you have to stay in the cellar, go out to expensive restaurants, even if you can only afford one drink, and if you have to borrow, borrow a lot.’
Remember: Position yourself physically within the social environment of your clients.
With success comes unhelpful criticism — ignore it.
There’s a Turkish saying: ‘The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.’ You need to be sure that you set the ‘dogs’ barking, indicating that you’re doing something extraordinary and attracting attention. Make it the soundtrack to your professional life.
Always be – or at least try to be – polite and diplomatic.
But if a situation calls for something more forceful, don’t hold back. Lay waste to whatever stands between you and the outcome you believe is right.
‘Never do any enemy a small injury for they are like a snake which is half beaten, and it will strike back the first chance it gets’ – Niccolo Machiavelli.
‘In difficult times, we must not lose sight of our achievements’ – Chairman Mao Zedong.