ART HISTORY MINOR: 12 Answers to a Career in Gallery Management

Recently I was asked to share my career path with the Vera Project in Seattle.  I was involved with the Ver(a)rt Gallery as Co-Chair for a few years and they run great programs that educate youth and artists of all nomenclatures.  I thought this survey was so helpful that I had to share it with everyone, along with some photos on installations at Ver(a)rt.

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Industry Gig Snapshot:
Academic and Non-profit Galleries

Organization Description: 
Montserrat College of Art is an undergraduate school of visual art offering BFAs in a variety of disciplines.  
17 Cox is an exhibition space, art library and artist residency. 

Position Title:  
Exhibitions Manager / Montserrat College of Art 
Director / 17 Cox
Years in industry: 4 years 

Education: Associates of Arts and Science: Art, Bachelors of Arts: Interdisciplinary Visual Art, Art History Minor 

Hours per week: 37.5 (40)

Entry level salary: $30 - 35,000 

1. How did you become involved with Vera? Maude Haak Frendscho invited me to become involved with the Ver(a)rt Gallery Committee.  She knew that I was working at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at UW - Seattle, and thought I could be of help.  I hadn’t heard of Vera before that.

2. Has anything that you learned at Vera (i.e. technical or interpersonal skills) proved useful in your career?  Learning how to delegate and manage crews of people has been the skill most useful in my current position.  Teaching skills and power sharing was a big part of Vera and that transfers really well into academic galleries.  Most of the employees at Montserrat and the interns at 17 Cox are students and it’s important to take a teaching approach rather than a dictating approach.

3.  How did you get your first job in your current field?
I was offered an internship at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at UW - Seattle School of Art.  I was taking an art history class with the current director, Kris Anderson.  I think he liked me because I brought him an apple one day - even though he was allergic to apple-skins.

Will Owen installing Magdalena Celestino's sculpture in Mysterious Life
4. How do most people break into this field nowadays?  The biggest entrance is rampant volunteerism.  But I would suggest to those interested in the field: be targeted about where you volunteer.  Pick organizations that will give you credentials or volunteer positions that offer experience in what you want to be doing (installing, curating, public relations, etc.)  The other option is education, which involves a lot of volunteerism too.  I hold the position because I came with a good reference, which serves many of the same functions as a Masters in Arts Administration, Museum Studies or a similar degree: chiefly it provides a seal of approval that this individual can accomplish the job.

5. What is a typical career path in this field? How often are there advancement opportunities? Is most advancement within or across organizations?  It’s a very coveted field to work in, but it’s not because it’s easy.  Working in the arts is attractive and fun, but you will not make as much money as you could using the same amount of effort in another field, say business.  Resumes get buried quickly, but you’ll stand out if you have a good reference or an “in”.  This doesn’t mean nepotism, it means you’ve worked (volunteered) with someone who can speak to your abilities for this particular position.

6. What do people in your field look for in a candidate? (Skills, personal qualities, etc.)  Working in the arts, at least from a gallery stand-point, means you have to adapt to change quickly.  Not all, but many visual arts spaces try to be on the “cutting edge” and that means every exhibition is different in terms of installation, public relations constantly evolve, etc.  Be willing to learn new things, be “workable”.  And polish counts in this field, going the extra mile will please your supervisor.
Specifically for a position comparable to mine, know how to install a variety of 2D and 3D artwork.  Know how to write a press release, Constant Contact and how to use a Facebook page effectively.  Be savvy with Adobe suite, particularly Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator and Acrobat. A working knowledge of how to update websites, basic HTML and experience with Content Management Systems helps too.

7.  What personal qualities are necessary for someone in your job to thrive?   Love.  Love what you do no matter how big or small you “think” it is.  Take joy in helping others.  If you do your job right, no one will even notice you were there.  The best lighting is inconspicuous, the best installation isn’t noticeable, the best advertising doesn’t feel like advertising, on and on.  Be prepared to be behind the scenes and be okay with that.  

8. Are there any books, journals, web sites, resources, associations, etc. that someone looking to break into your field should be aware of?  The Ver(a)rt Gallery Guide is a good one.  Edward Winkleman has probably the best blog and book in the field, is extremely helpful and “How to Start and Run a Commercial Gallery” is a very detailed book on the subject.  “A Short Guide to Writing about Art” by Sylvan Barnet is actually a really good, but not so short, read.  And a big fat reference book on art materials will teach you how to properly care and handle artwork.

9. What do you like best about your job?  The students and interns.  They make me laugh and give me opportunities to help them learn not just gallery skills but real life skills too.

10.  What do you like least about your job?  Deadlines.  It’s all about the deadlines in gallery work.  If you don’t like deadlines or don’t work well under pressure - get out while you can!  Gallery operate on a exhibition schedule, which means press releases, receptions, calls to artists, et al have to stay on schedule always.
Sam Smith hanging his photographs during Shades of Grey
11. What is your typical day like?  There is no typical day.  Ever.  I might be driving to New York to pick up paintings.  I might be using a roto-hammer to install eye-hooks in a concrete ceiling.  I might be emailing a German film production company about how our 16:9 ratio monitor won’t play their 4:3 ratio film correctly.  I might be fetching supplies for an artist who needs 40 cup-o-noodles and a hot water tank.  Really there is no typical day.

12. And finally, what do you miss most about Vera?  Honestly?  Kevin.