Get To Know The Stakeholders Of The Art World

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Art gallery. Stakeholders of the art world.

The art world as we know it today is like a complex human organism that only functions if all of its organs function well. These “organs” organise the sales and purchases, collections and exhibitions of artworks, and they are the tastemakers of today’s art generation. So who are these organs, these stakeholders of the art world, and what exactly do they do?

Gallerists own or run an art gallery. They exhibit and promote artists’ works in these galleries, and participate in art fairs in order to promote the artists whom they represent. Experienced gallerists have their own clear aesthetic, interests, and focus. They choose the artworks for their gallery based on an aesthetic and a story that they can connect with and sell. Whenever an artwork is sold, the gallery takes a commission on the sale. Gallerists typically display works straight out of an artist’s studio. Aside from the obvious role of putting on exhibitions and creating publications, there are countless other important tasks that gallerists carry out behind the scenes. These include doing research for exhibitions, helping artists with their archival work, and researching artworks that come through the gallery. Ultimately, the main goal of galleries is to facilitate the production of excellent work by their artists.

Gallerist Larry Gagosian
Gallerist Larry Gagosian. Photo by Boru O’Brien O’Connell

Collectors, of course, are key! They are the people who love art so much they go through great lengths to collect it. Collectors come in all different shapes and forms, from the rich and famous to ordinary people with ordinary bank accounts. But each and every one of them is partially responsible for helping artists, and art itself, survive. Back in the day, particularly during the Renaissance, most avid collectors were known as patrons of the arts. These patrons were wealthy and often influential members of society who would financially support the best artists, purchase many of their artworks, and commission them to create specific works. The patrons would frequently model for their artists and feature as characters in their paintings – a way for the artists to thank their patrons for their support. Today, it seems that the patronage model is slowly returning to the art world. RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of the performance art nonprofit Performa, explains contemporary patrons as people who are similar to the “angel investors” of the tech world. They see potential for growth and want to support the incubation period.

Curators are employed by museums or galleries in order to acquire, care for and develop a collection. They arrange collection displays and loaned works, and interpret the collection in order to inform, educate and inspire the public. They are in charge of organising and realising exhibitions. The role of the curator has greatly evolved over the past decades. These days, there are many highly influential freelance and independent curators who are not attached to any particular institution and have their own personal style and philosophy behind creating an exhibition. Curators are often seen as the new superstars of the art world, active in many different fields ranging from being guest-curators for important museum exhibitions or being the curators of large art world biennales and fairs, to writing influential essays and books in the more academic fields of art criticism and art studies. For an insight into curators shaping the art world today, check out our article “10 Influential Curators Shaping The Art World Today.”

Thelma Golden - The Studio Museum's director and chief curator
The Studio Museum’s director and chief curator Thelma Golden, one of the most influential voices in the art world today. Photo courtesy of Wall Street Journal

Art dealers are usually educated professionals who are specialists in the field of art business. They have to be on the cusp of what is exciting, new or collectible. They’re always up-to-date with the changing trends and tastes of the art world. They buy from both auction houses and artists, then sell the works that they have acquired in their galleries or find collectors who are interested. It is also common practice for museums, art institutions or non-profit organisations to seek advice from art dealers when looking to borrow certain artworks to include in their exhibitions.

Art advisors or art consultants are there to find the exact art their client is looking for, while making sure it’s within their budget. They often receive a discount on works from galleries and artists. It is common practice for advisors to purchase the artwork at full price and collect the discount as their pay. This means the client receives free consulting advice and the consultant makes a profit through maintaining relationships with galleries and artists. Advisors are not tied to specific artists or galleries – they manage relationships with experts to bring in the best pieces. Art advisors don’t push their personal style or preferences, but rather mirror their clients’ taste to find the best pieces for their art collection. That’s their job. They always stay up-to-date with the art world, participating in gallery tours and keeping tabs on openings in order to know what’s new, important and interesting in today’s art world.

Art critics form the link between critical academic thought and the art world. They study and interpret artworks and artists, and create art theory. Historically, art critics have been responsible for the coining of important art movements and they can be held at least partially responsible for having propelled artists to stardom. Art critics give artworks, art movements, and artists a place in art history. The first surviving work that can be considered art criticism or art history is Pliny the Elder’s section on the history and development of Greek sculpture and painting in his Natural History (c. AD 77-79). However, the Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, writer and architect Giorgio Vasari is considered to be the first author of a true history of art. The book in question is The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in 1550.

Museum institutions, of course, are important parts of the organism. They are home to some of the most important artworks in the world, and are the first go-to place for the public to experience art in the flesh. Within museum institutions, there is a vast range of job descriptions to keep the engine running smoothly. Museum directors supervise all aspects of a museum’s collection and the museum staff,  and are responsible for overseeing administrative tasks and fundraising. The museum director is also effectively the chief curator and has the final say on the exhibitions and displays. Then there are the curators, who usually have a certain area of expertise and are in charge of certain parts of the museum collection and are the main people in charge of curating exhibitions. Besides these roles, museum institutions have many other important figures dedicated to making the institution run smoothly and to keeping the artworks in top condition. Among these are conservators, who are in charge of the restoration of artworks, archivists, art handlers, technicians, educational department staff, marketing department staff, development department staff, and many more.

Auctioneers work in auction houses, which are part of the secondary art market. In the secondary art market, art which has already been owned by someone other than the artist is traded. When the decision has been made by a collector/dealer/foundation/business to sell an artwork, it enters the secondary art market. Buyers and sellers come together in an auction house and announce the prices at which they are willing to buy and sell artworks. The goal is for mutually agreeable prices to emerge. The sales are facilitated by auctioneers, who are the ones leading the auction and the sale of the artworks. They are in charge of the bidding process and sell the artwork to the highest bidder. Auction houses make their money by taking a commission on each sale, which can go up to 25%. Conversely, the primary market is defined by the fact that art is purchased directly from the artist. The only times that works at auction have come directly from the artist’s studio have been at charity auctions, and of course in the case of the anomaly known as Damien Hirst’s 2008 “Beautiul Inside My Head Forever” Sotheby’s sale. On the cusp of the financial crash, Hirst sold 223 brand-new pieces directly at auction and walked away with $172 million.

Last but not least, there are the artists. The entire art world organism wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the artists, the heart and soul of the organism. Artists are the core creators, the very reason we are all doing what we’re doing. They’re the ones who keep bravely and passionately reinterpreting and recreating the world around us. Artists do many things: they shine light on the cracks in society, they challenge the status quo, they ask questions, they express things that are hard to express, they create and appreciate beauty, they criticise with humour and with gravitas, and they do so much more. As far back as the Paleolithic era in 25.000 BCE, humans were creating art in the shape of cave paintings, carvings in bone and stone, and small statues of female figures such as the Venus of Willendorf, which were likely meant to symbolise fertility. And although the times will keep on rapidly changing, there will always be artists to reflect on life and delve deep into its essence. Perhaps the methods, materials, media and styles will change, but the goal of the artist to create beauty, to seek truth, to uncover layers of reality and to enrich lives will remain the same.

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