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Getting Started as an Art Dealer

Learn the Basics of the Industry

Art dealers facilitate the sale of artists’ work to museums, galleries, corporations and collectors by representing artists, displaying their work and negotiating sales; in person or through an auction house.  Art dealers play a major part in the development of an artist’s career. 

For individuals interested in becoming an art dealer (or art broker), it is important that you learn to value and evaluate any art you intend to sell. On the whole, most art dealers focus on one particular type of art. For example, modern sculptures from artists like Damian Ortega or contemporary paintings by Damien Hirst or Marina Abramovic.  You may enjoy the Old Masters of the Golden Age or Renaissance art. No matter the area of specialty, it is much easier to focus your efforts on a specific area instead of trying to become an expert on the vastness of artwork that has been produced or is being created today. 

Once you choose an area of focus, you should be able to recognize the author of a piece, know what is popular, and have the ability to spot good pieces in other people’s art collections or at auction. You should also have a thorough knowledge of the audience you are working with.

As an art dealer, you will also need to work very closely with art collectors and individual customers who plan on buying art for their homes, restaurants, offices, and other places where art is appreciated. Just like any other sales job, a career as an art dealer is a business about the artists and the client, so you need to be prepared for the ups and downs that may affect the demand and supply of artwork.  These changes could be anything from economic changes to a client’s swaying moods or overnight decisions that weren’t planned. Patience is very important for an art dealer to possess, and the ability to know when to close a deal is also something an art dealer should focus their efforts on developing.

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Build a Deep Understanding of Art

Knowledge, Originality, & Passion Are Essential Qualifications

While just about anyone can strike up an interest in art, there are several essential skills you must possess in order to make it as a successful art dealer. It is very important to have a deep knowledge and understanding of your specific area of art, but it is also vital that you understand the way that people choose to enjoy art as well.  Additionally, art dealers must be great multi-taskers and have a grasp of the marketing and business in the art world. Good communication and the ability to mediate between museum, artist and the public is also vital. 

Art dealers must also be skilled in public relations and fundraising and have good writing skills. 

Although a degree is not necessary to become an art dealer, many businesses and larger corporations prefer individuals with a postsecondary or advanced degree in fine art or in art history. A degree in art history provides individuals with an in-depth knowledge of all aspects of art, from sculpture created in the early 1800’s to contemporary artwork created with photography.  You will learn how pop art and conceptualism changed an era, what minimalism is, and about the Fluxus Movement of the 1960s.   Some programs require an internship which gives students valuable experience while working under the guidance of a professional.  Students will also benefit from taking courses in marketing and business to gain an understanding of the financial aspects of the business. 

Whether you plan on working with individuals, companies, or families who have the same level of understanding about art as you do, or working with those who may need your guidance, knowledge is key within the industry. You may choose to study independently or perhaps work towards a degree, but either way, continuing education should be something you set aside both time and money to accomplish. 

Aside from a thorough knowledge about your chosen area of art, you must be an art lover to be successful in the industry. If you are simply interested in entering this career path to make money, you may want to find another area of expertise. That’s because money may come and go, as you will work in an industry that can be fickle. But with enthusiasm and originality, you can find a way to stand out from the crowd and build your client base. 

After all, doing what you love is an ultimate goal for many people across the globe, but as an art dealer, you actually have the opportunity to do just that. While it does take a great deal of time and energy to gain recognition in the art world, with enough passion, perseverance, effort, and backbone you can achieve the respect from industry insiders. By staying focused, patient and maintaining your passion and knowledge of art, you will have the best chance at becoming a successful art dealer.

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Gain Experience & Build Industry Connections

Getting Your Foot in the Door Can Be Difficult

Getting started as an art dealer requires some participation in the art world. Some individuals intern while in school at art galleries or museums, others apply for a job as an assistant in a gallery upon graduation. Some who are auction house curators may decide to open a gallery of their own after years of experience under the guidance of other like-minded art dealers and artists.  Many will take jobs in a marketing department of a gallery, or as a registrar or archivist in a museum, or selling art books in a bookstore. Some will even sweep floors just to get their foot in the door.  Some artists find they have the marketing and business skills necessary to sell their own art, and use their contacts to develop a body of work to represent. No matter what route you take, hard work and staying current with art trends and new artists is a given as the art dealer career field can be very competitive. 

The art world is highly competitive and notoriously difficult to break in to. But that shouldn’t keep you from making industry connections. Whether you choose to apply for an internship to work with other local art dealers or you take a position with a local gallery to gain more experience, networking is key for a successful art dealer. This is the best way to meet collectors, clients and other dealers that you may be working with in the future.

Another way to network is by joining art organizations and associations, or non-profit art centers that provide exhibition space for new or cutting edge art. Government agencies and other art groups also offer opportunities to network, and can be found in most states and larger cities.  In Pennsylvania alone, there are more that 80 organizations for artists and aspiring art dealers to join or gain contacts through exhibitions and regional art fairs.

Get to Know Our Experts

Carl David

  • Title:
    Director
  • Company:
    David David Gallery
  • Where:
    Philadelphia, PA
  • Experience:
    44 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    dk Gallery
  • Where:
    Marietta, GA
  • Experience:
    6 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Porter Contemporary
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    18 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Art Dealer Infographic