10 Things I Learned Working in an Art Gallery

The “art world” encompasses many different people and organizations that tend to fall into broad categories, both nonprofit and commercial: museums, auction houses, dealers, galleries, etc. Before my recent stint in a gallery, most of my experience had been in museums. This was my first real experience in the commercial art world, and it was really interesting to learn the basics of how galleries work. Here are ten of them.

1. Each operation has its own particular specialty, and its own personality.

Dealers and galleries tend to focus on particular areas of expertise, such as Old Masters, 19th century, modern and contemporary, and even particular media – paintings, prints, sculpture, etc. Some dealers and galleries work with living artists, representing them and promoting their work, and some never do.

2. Things move at a fast pace.

Inventory changes all the time; you never know what you will have the opportunity to see and work with, but it is always interesting. And once a new work comes in, it comes with additional considerations, both practical and aesthetic: How large is it? How will it hang? How much light does it need? Where will it work best with other works in the gallery?

3. How to catalogue a work of art.

When a work comes into the gallery, it must be examined and catalogued. If it is framed and under glass, it is usually taken out of the frame to closely study its physical characteristics and assess its condition. Once you know the artist, title, and date, you will also need to know the medium and support (canvas or paper, for example). It’s also important to know whether it has any additional annotations, such as the artist’s signature or collector’s stamps.

4. When it comes to research, a detailed catalogue raisonné is your best friend.

Once the basic features of a work of art have been determined, further research is generally the next step. This means knowing the trusted reference sources for an artist, and whether a catalogue raisonné has been compiled. This catalogue contains the official list of, and information for, all of an artist’s known and authenticated works. If an artist were particularly prolific, there may be several catalogues; for example, one for paintings, and one for the prints or drawings. If a work has been included in the catalogue raisonné, it is a documented work by that artist, and it also increases its value. Things are thornier if there is no established catalogue, or if the attribution is contested.

5. People wear many different hats.

Of course, this also depends on the size of the staff. But if an operation handles almost everything in-house, the staff have to know how to do any number of things: basically everything that goes into exhibiting and selling works of art, as well as ensuring their care. There is cataloguing and research, as I’ve mentioned, but also photography, graphic design, market research, client services, packing works of art to leave the gallery, coordinating shipping, documentation, and more.

6. There is nothing quite like working on an art fair.

Before working in a gallery, I had a limited understanding of what goes into showing in an art fair. There are hundreds of art fairs around the world, in which hundreds of dealers and galleries host booths displaying the best of their works for collectors and buyers.

It takes a staggering amount of work and logistical coordination to pull it off successfully. You have to curate an exhibition of works, creating a cohesive and appealing display. Everything needs a wall label, so all of the cataloguing and research must be complete, and then all of the labels printed and assembled. Depending on where the art fair is, whether in the U.S. or abroad, all of the works of art (and any accompanying tools and supplies) have to be moved from the gallery to the fair venue, which means packing and shipping them out, navigating customs, and making sure everything arrives safely.

7. How best to carry works of art.

This might seem like a really basic task. But in all of my earlier experiences, handling art was never part of my job description. I never had to look at something and consider how to carry it from point A to point B. If something is framed, it is best to carry it in a way that does not put undue pressure on the frame – lift it from the wire on the back. If it is unframed, it is best to carry it flat, and in such a way that does not flex the support material.

8. The basics of how to frame and un-frame things. Staple guns are great.

I was working with works of art on paper – prints and drawings. Generally, when things were unframed, it was either for research or because the frame was in need of repair. I learned that there are different standards for framing certain media: for example, prints and drawings are framed under different surfaces (glass or plexiglass) depending on the medium. Once framed, it has to be properly wired to hang it on the gallery wall.

9. Everything needs a paper trail.

This is something galleries and museums have in common. Anything that comes into the gallery’s collection, or leaves it when it is sold, has to have a paper trail. It has to be photographed, catalogued, and researched, written agreements signed between the owner and the gallery, and it must be tracked anytime it moves from the gallery for a fair or exhibition.

10. Be prepared for anything.

A work of art turns out to be larger than expected. A shipment is held up because of the weather. Three things you thought would hang well together don’t work well on the wall. Related to the fact that things move at a fast pace, you really have to be able to think on your feet.

+1. Scotch makes a spray glue called Scotch Super 77.

Useful, but it is really, really sticky. Wear gloves, and touch things at your own peril. If anything ever made me feel that I was not smarter than a fifth-grader, it was this glue.



11 comments on “10 Things I Learned Working in an Art Gallery

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