On television series Sex and the City, Kirstin Davis plays an intelligent art dealer named Charlotte York. Unique access to top art collections from around the world and sophisticated social and professional circles give art dealers a certain shine--enough to be idealized on television, anyway. The Charlotte Yorks of the world must have an eye for what's hot and keep their fingers on the pulse of trends in the art world. They must also anticipate what will appeal to their current and prospective clients and which artists will make or break their galleries. Success at the job also entails playing to people's personalities to build a base of clients. In the art business, much of a dealer's success depends on her network, which includes artists, critics and collectors.
Most dealers concentrate on a specific genre of art, such as expressionist, pop, folk (outsider) or contemporary art. Many art dealers who are starting their collections and galleries have a safety net of savings, trust funds or loans to sustain them while they go through the difficult process of acquiring clients and building a reputation. The business isn't for wallflowers, as meetings between dealers and prospective clients and artists take place at parties, auctions and gallery openings. It also helps to be a bit of a risk taker because the profession is anything but stable. The art market depends on the health of the economy, and one dip in the market can force a small gallery owner or independent art dealer out of business. Most dealers have degrees in art history and start out in the industry as assistants. Others have extensive collections themselves and then decide to get into the business.
After obtaining undergraduate and/or graduate degrees in art history, or after having cultivated a specialization, individuals who want to become art dealers get in on the ground floor at galleries or auction houses such as Christie's or Sotheby's as assistants. It's at this point that they learn how to develop the business and interpersonal skills that will allow them to establish their own businesses. Would-be art dealers also work in art museums as curators or even docents as they decide what to specialize in. After a few years, an aspiring dealer should be confident that he or she can spot the artists that will be successful. People who are able to withstand market shifts and build their clientele after 10 years should have a strong reputation and count museum curators among their clients.
The art dealership field "is not easy to earn a living in by any means." It's expensive to run a gallery and to "run it right." Those who succeed usually do so because they know how to "pinch pennies where it counts." Unfortunately, "staffing falls into this [penny-pinching] area," so don't expect to make much and "you won't be disappointed." One insider notes that many "gallery people" could "very easily earn more waiting tables in a restaurant." As dealers' sales abilities and expertise grow, they experience "slight income increases," and it "doesn't hurt to build a client base." As far as the perks go, "there are few if any." The job consists of "long hours, hard work, tough negotiations, possibly a great deal of travel and very little time to yourself."
One art dealer says that some days he "feels like a babysitter to the rich and famous who treat you like the favorite house pet of the moment." Art dealers "grow tired" of telling "would-be artists that they just don't have what you're looking for and possibly permanently destroy the hopes someone may have had about making art their life." On the upside, they do "see lots of wonderful art" and meet "high-profile, fascinating people," some of whom "will actually become friends." The art world is "fun and trendy," and galleries are "pretty chi-chi." Also, the art field seems to be "one of those few vocations where what you do and who you know matters more than what the color of your skin or your gender is." In sum, insiders say, "the job is not all bad, but it's hardly a glamorous life." If you survive "with sanity intact," you "might be able to look back on your life and say it was all worth it."
Possible proximity to masterpieces; Sophisticated work environment; Interesting people; Travel
Long hours; Pay by commission; Difficulty building a client base
Creative; Sophisticated; Outgoing; Penny-pinching
Risk-averse; Poor money manager
Average about 40 per week
Average entry-level salary: $20,000
Bachelor's and/or master's degree in art history; Knowledge of art; Business and accounting skills; Foreign languages; Research abilities