Help Desk

Help Desk: Art Consultant Transformation

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

This week’s column features the artwork of David Byrd, whose solo exhibition Introduction: A Life of Observation is currently on view at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle. Mr. Byrd is 87 years old and this is his first gallery show. As Kucera puts it in the press release, “There have been a number of ‘discoveries’ in the art world lately.  This one is the real deal.”

I am an artist and art teacher of 15 years. I am ready to get out of teaching mode and into something new and becoming an art consultant is highly appealing to me. I have a BA in Art History and an MA in Transformative Arts. I simply do not know the first steps I should take to start this new career. I don’t want to own my own business–obviously I am not yet qualified for that. I would like to work in an established art consulting firm. I’ve searched the web and can’t find any. Can you give me some pointers?

If you’ve been reading this column for a little while you already know that I champion pencil-and-paper brainstorming, so get your writing hand warmed up. Make a list of everything you think an art consultant does, and then for each of those tasks, I want you to list the sub-tasks and skills that are necessary to accomplish each item. For example, if one of the duties of an art consultant is to stay abreast of developments in contemporary art, one of the subtasks might be subscribe to gallery mailing lists, the skill for which is research. Take twenty minutes and a couple of pieces of paper, and work out all of the different things that you think you are going to have to do to be successful.

David Byrd, Suicide, 1996. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches

Done? Good job. Now that you have that list, compare it to your current resume or CV. What have you been doing for the last fifteen years that has given you a skill set for becoming an art consultant? No fair being sarcastic and saying, “I’ve been managing petulant students, which has given me the patience and poise necessary for dealing with capricious wealthy collectors.” (Actually, okay, that works—but in general try to be serious). Concentrate on defining the organizational and interpersonal skills that you’ve developed that will help you get started as a consultant. By reframing your abilities, you’ll have a head start on writing a coverletter/introductory email and you’ll also boost your confidence. Check in with some trusted friends, too, or a significant other; these people have critical distance and can tell you what they think about your talents and competencies.

Next, get ready to talk to a whole lot of people. The Art Partnership’s founder Leslie Watkins offers this advice: “Like any new venture, tell everyone you know what you are doing, reach out to your social network to see who can connect you if you don’t want to start out on your own. Network like crazy.” So start talking to your fellow art teachers and administrators, other artists, and art community friends. Ms. Watkins continues: “If you are looking for a job within a firm, contact some of the larger firms (art consulting firms tend to be small by nature – there are a couple of larger ones in CA). Call art consultants in other parts of the country and see how they work and what organizations they attend. Develop relationships with galleries.” Try contacting some consultants in your immediate area and see if you can arrange a brief face-to-face meeting. Tell the consultant that you’d like to talk to her about how she got her start, and offer to buy her a drink or a cup of coffee. Bring your list of skills and ask if there’s any job that an art consultant does that you’ve overlooked. Don’t forget to follow up with a thank you letter.

David Byrd, Bartender, 1954. Oil on canvas, 24 x 28 inches

Ms. Watkins also points you in the general direction of some organizations that you’re likely to work with if you become an art advisor for corporate clients. She notes, “A lot of our work comes through commercial interior designers and architects – what organizations in your area do they attend? Here [in Philadelphia] it is Corenet, International Interior Design Association, International Facility Management Association.” Take some time to familiarize yourself with these and similar organizations.

Speaking of associations, another art consultant told me, “The Association of Professional Art Advisors is a great resource for someone looking into becoming an art advisor or corporate art curator. Coming from an artist/teacher background I would say gaining experience working in galleries and auction houses would be most relevant, as well as working for an established art consulting firm. There are so many kinds of art consultants/advisors, many of whom are just one person, not a company. Some only work with private clients, some work with big corporations, and there are public art consultants too.” I asked this person how she got her start, and she told me, “I came from working at [a museum]; before that, I worked and interned in a number of non-profit artist organizations. I had no experience with art consulting, but my relationships with art professionals and knowledge of the emerging art scene in my city led me to join my current firm.” So you see? You’ve got some serious work ahead of you but it can be done.

David Byrd, Man Downing His Medicine, 1990. Oil on canvas, 20 x 14 inches

As a final note, I am concerned that you “searched the web and can’t find any” art consultants. Just as a test, I tried the search terms “art consultant San Francisco” in Google and got seven consultants in my area on the first page. One of the main jobs that you will have is researching artists, galleries, and clients in order to stay informed and build a contact list. If research is not your strong suit, you’ll have to brush up on this basic skill before proceeding with everything else. Good luck!