How to Become an Art Dealer

Many people know how to sell and are really good at it. While art dealers are similar to salespeople or brokers, there is much more to the profession than just getting someone to buy. They must also be experts when it comes to understanding art and have an eye for great pieces, while at the same time be able to connect with clients to see what it is that they want and need.

In order to be successful in this career, it is important to value and evaluate the art you are going to sell. Most art dealers will have a specific focus, for example, contemporary paintings or 18-19th century sculptures. Your area of expertise and interests really depends on you. What does having a focus mean? Well, that you know everything about a particular area! You can recognize the author of a piece; you know what’s trending and when; you can spot pieces in other people’s collections or at auctions; and you also know the audience you will be working with.

Art dealers work extensively with collectors, as well as individual customers who buy art for their homes, offices, restaurants, etc. This is a people business, and just like any other sales job, you need to be ready for ups and downs that affect it. This could be the economy, someone’s mood, personal finances and changes, or overnight decisions that you didn’t expect. So to sum it up, your love of art won’t be enough. You will need patience, a way with people, and a good eye for closing deals if you’d like to become an art dealer.

This infographic shows a little of what the art sales industry is like.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Carl David

David David Gallery – Director

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  • Carl David
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • 44
  • David David Gallery
  • @97yankee

I graduated from Oglethorpe College (now University) in Atlanta in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in business. I had quite a few other career options after college, but having grown up in our business, I decided to join in and make it my life’s work and career. I had the distillation of my grandfather’s, father’s, and brother’s experiences, which was priceless. I was in awe of my father’s knowledge and extraordinary expertise as an art dealer. I emulated him, and although I only had three years in our business before he passed away suddenly on an overseas business trip, I absorbed his life lessons and have never stopped using them. I have instilled those very skills and principles in my two sons who are now the 4th generation in our company.

There are no specific hours in our business. When you own it, it owns you. My days are more often than not at least 16 hours in duration. After I leave the gallery at whatever time, 6pm, 7pm, no matter, I will be on the computer at home emailing clients and sending out images or painting presentations, or just researching for new markets and inventory. I am fully immersed 7 days a week. As my father used to tell me, ‘Do it right or not at all!’ And that is precisely the way we operate our business; no exceptions!

I am generally in the gallery by 7:30 in the morning getting started on my emails and strategizing for the day ahead. Deals that we do take unpredictable turns and are impacted by a myriad of factors; the economy, auction results, political and geo-political events, financial markets, subjective tastes, and more. Oftentimes, a deal can be structured, but then a spouse may disapprove so it falls apart. We are constantly marketing and reaching out to clients both existent and new. It is a never ending quest as clients have utilized all their wall space, run out of funds, get divorced, move, or die. The only constant is change, so we must adapt and reinvent ourselves and our goods. Tastes change; so what was in vogue ten, twenty, or thirty years ago may now be a softer market or perhaps even impossible to sell. You need to be ahead of the curve, not behind it. Complacency is very dangerous, so the ability to use foresight and insight is crucial.

There are several things I love about what I do; the people we meet are, as a rule, fantastic and we’ve made many friends who were clients first. Of course, as in any other industry, we also encounter those clients who are truly arrogant and sometimes even despicable, but it’s all part of the game and we don’t take it personally; it’s just business.

The thrill for me is doing the deal; that’s where the excitement lies. When I am in the middle of one negotiation, I am already thinking of the next six deals ahead. It is like an addiction; there can never be enough deals going on at the same time.

Advice

Look the part
At first I believed I could wear casual clothes but quickly realized after some not so soft prodding by my father that the uniform was a dark suit, power tie and polished shoes. He was so right. Bankers and professional business people alike, consciously and unconsciously, will discount you if you don’t appear serious. Appearances and first impressions are all you have to get in the door. It’s all about power, respect and knowledge; that’s a fact.

Get a feel for the industry first
This is a very tough industry. More doors close than open. If you are seriously interested in becoming an art dealer, you must have patience, persistence, and a thick skin. Financial backing is very necessary, for there are many lean times as well as those when cash flow is abundant. I would suggest working for a gallery or auction house first to get a feel for the industry and see if it is really something that nags at you. Interning is a very good way to help you decide, as you will observe and experience a great many aspects of the business.

Education is important
Taking art history courses is always a plus, and so are business courses as they are a critical component in successful administration of a company. A very significant way of educating oneself is by reading the art journals that are readily available in print and online. Also, following the major auction house sales and marking the catalogues with price results is a great way to learn if you pay attention to the details. For instance, note the size, date, and medium of a work, as well as the subject, condition, and provenance. Going to museums, galleries, and auction houses is a must if you are intent on becoming a dealer. That is where most of the action takes place, and although you will not be privy to the back room private deals, you will get a good taste of the inner workings of the art world.

Donna Kreuger

dk Gallery – Owner

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  • Donna Kreuger
  • Marietta, GA
  • 6
  • dk Gallery
  • @dkGallery

I have a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign. I worked in the advertising industry as Account Manager for agencies such as Foote, Cone and Belding, McCann-Erickson, and West Wayne on major packaged goods and service industry brands for 20 years before opening a gallery.

I love a million things about my business. I love the people you meet, that every day and moment is different, the joy our audiences gain from discovering a piece they fall in love with. I love how our community is being revitalized around the art movement. Art is a powerful difference maker in community. I rather dislike minutia details of the accounting and finance…that’s why I have a very good friend handle that one.

Advice

It’s a life choice
It is a complete lifestyle business (in order to be successful), so be prepared for that, and make sure your family is too…and you have to absolutely love it!

Get the right education
I think marketing or PR or communications is a great background. Art History is learned on your own, so I don’t’ think it is necessary to have that degree, but it is a great second major or minor. Successful galleries are great marketers and communicators.

Volunteer or intern first
If you are passionate, you will easily get your foot in the door. Find an art style that makes your heart flutter, and you will soar. All three of my employees volunteered first. They quickly became paid staff.

Jessica Porter

Porter Contemporary – Owner

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  • Jessica Porter
  • New York, NY
  • 18
  • Porter Contemporary
  • @pc_gallery

I began my career with a dual degree from the University of Delaware in Art History and Foreign Languages (French and Japanese), quickly finding myself in the curatorial department of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Currently, in addition to running Porter Contemporary, I run a consulting business utilizing my art and law background that focuses on assisting companies and individuals navigate the start-up phase of building a business. I also teach courses on the basics of art collecting, counsel artists on creating a career strategy and jury, and curate exhibitions for other organizations, galleries, and institutions.

I can honestly say that no two work days are ever alike. Because things can vary so much from working directly with an exhibition, working with artists, being on site advising clients, doing studio visits with artists, teaching classes about art collecting, planning events, or marketing artists. I can’t really say there is ever a typical day.

What I love about my field is meeting new people and connecting artists and collectors. It is (at least from my perspective) a very social business to be in, and I find that to be very enjoyable and energizing. But with all the things I do, I’ve had one vacation in eight years…I certainly dislike that!

There are so many things I wish I had known and some things I’m glad I didn’t know when I started my career. It took me a bit to find where I was most comfortable in the art world, and I do wish that I had had more opportunities to explore careers in art more broadly at an early stage. I was very focused on museums and curatorial aspects for my future, which I enjoyed, but long-term it wasn’t a great fit for my personality. It took me a while to figure that out.

Advice

Learn from others
There are many great programs out there, but I think the best thing is to try working with many different dealers and maneuver to find a mentor out of them. Mentors have been one of my most valuable assets.

Start by interning
Despite all the criticism of late regarding internships, I still think they are the best way to get in the door somewhere. It is the best way to demonstrate your qualities and earn someone’s trust and tutelage.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become an Art Dealer?


No school will prepare you directly to become an art dealer. This being said, some areas of study are great in order to build the skills you will need to be successful. For example, you can get a degree in art history, which will give you the background knowledge you will need for buying and selling the right type of art. On the other hand, studying a business degree is another option –it will prepare you for all the financial, sales, and marketing aspects of art dealing. So optimally, if you choose to get a degree, you could study business major with an art minor, or vice versa.

Of course, this is not the only option. You can self-teach both the art and business aspects of the business, or learn them directly by working in an art gallery. This can be complemented by some college course-work if you feel there are some areas you’d like to get formal classes in, for example, finance or digital marketing.

Your choice of education will depend on your budget and your learning style. Some of us don’t have discipline to learn on our own, while others do not succeed in a classroom. In either case, you have to be well prepared for the business aspects of being an art dealer and be very well-versed in the arts, not only the focus area you choose.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME AN ART DEALER?

  • University of Pennsylvania
    An Ivy League school, UPenn offers major and minor study options in art history at the History of Art Department. The programs work with local galleries and museums to offer a fully integrated education. Here, you can also choose to combine your studies with a business major or minor. Tuition is $47,668 per year.
  • Brown University
    One of the top ranked universities in the US, Brown is located in Providence, Rhode Island. Here, you can choose a BA in Art History and Architecture, and combine it with other areas, such as business, since the university has a strong interdisciplinary approach. Tuition is similar to UPenn at $46,408 per year.
  • New York University
    With its amazing location for learning about the arts, NYU offers a major option in Art History, which can be combined with both a major and a minor from a different department at the university. The College of Arts and Sciences tuition is $21,873 per term.
  • University of Washington
    UW in Seattle gives you the option of either getting a BA in Art History or taking the courses as a minor. The School of Art has frequent study seminars abroad offered to their students in such locations as Rome or the Netherlands. Tuition is $12,394 in-state and $33,513 out-of-state.
  • University of Colorado Boulder
    Offering a classical bachelor degree in Art History, UC Boulder also has a strong business program, which allows students to take on both fields at the same time. Estimated full-time in-state tuition for undergrads is $10,791 per year, and $33,333 for out-of-state students.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Most experts will tell you that the best way to get started is to begin working in the industry. For many, this means volunteering or interning at first and hopefully having that turn into an actual job. It’s not only about getting work but also learning the ins and outs of the art industry, getting to know people, understanding how to work with clients, and also soaking up knowledge from your boss who is usually the gallery owner.

Once you get started, it’s important to make and maintain contacts. This is the type of industry where you can build long-lasting relationships, and when your own gallery is up and running, the person you met 20 years ago might just be a lead for closing a great deal, getting an amazing collection, or a client themselves.

Another important part of getting into the industry and staying in it, besides networking, is having a good reputation. You should always be serious about what you do. Be known for closing fair and honest deals and portray a general image that gives confidence to your clients. It’s a relatively small industry after all, so if you don’t maintain your name from the beginning, people will know about it.