While good art is timeless, a successful art gallery needs periodic refreshment. The manager of an art gallery, therefore, has cultural and commercial responsibilities which overlap and enforce each other, coupling a dedication to the gallery’s artistic content with a commitment to a pleasant looking balance sheet.
A gallery is, after all, a commercial venture. The role of gallery manager requires an affable personality with a penchant for schmoozing over canapés and champagne, as most successful gallery managers rely on personal contacts from within the artistic community.
The art world demands good taste but also good nous. It is as much about Cezanne and Picasso as it is about spreadsheets and PR. You need to at least be able to wax lyrical on watercolours if you’re going to get anywhere, so a basic love of art is a good start.
Salary & benefits
Don’t let the sharp suits of The Thomas Crown Affair fool you: the art world isn’t all well-connected millionaires in wine bars. In fact, the salary of an art gallery manager isn’t very competitive.
A starting gallery manager can get £15,000 a year, while a more experienced gallery manager might get £30,000 at most. Senior gallery managers can get £30,000 to £40,000 a year. However, some galleries do give commissions for every piece of art work sold by the manager.
It is a very hands-on role, involving the ability to multitask and be authoritative on a wide range of subjects. You have to be able to negotiate, promote, plan, present and, above all, understand the content of your gallery.
The range of tasks depends on the type, size and scope of the gallery, and the number of staff helping. As a rule, nine-to-five does not really apply.
The job involves limitless functions, events and exhibitions, and has the potential to include extensive travel to the cultural capitals of the world.
You will generally be based in a city, but there are regional galleries that use their own means of promoting and exhibiting their art.
You won’t necessarily need a degree but bear in mind that you will need to have a combination of artistic knowledge and business sense, and that you will be competing against others with specialist knowledge and training.
With that in mind, some qualification or background in art, history of art, or business will help.
As with all arts industries, experience is expensive, elusive but essential: you will probably start out on unpaid experience, but this should pay off in the long run through contacts made and lessons learned.
Training & progression
Art gallery managers don’t necessarily undergo any formal training. Arts degrees are a good foundation, but not essential. Some managers undergo short courses on framing and installation - two skills that are often used in an art gallery.
Some institutions, such as Sotheby’s, offer art courses that can help develop a manager’s critical eye.
Universities might offer subjects on art history with a focus on art dealership. As with most art courses, these can be expensive. Nonetheless, they’re useful for both professionals and art manager applicants.
One problem with this field is that there is no extensive structure. There aren’t too many professional development options for art gallery managers. You can end up relying quite heavily on chance and a good network of contacts.
Bigger galleries may have more extensive professional hierarchies, so those from smaller galleries usually move there once they gain that necessary experience from the smaller galleries.