The Artworld’s brain drain

The Baerfaxt writes that, according to a study by Thomas & Associates, 77 percent of professionals who work in international museums, galleries, auction houses, foundations, and performing arts centers said they were planning on staying in their current position for five years or less “due to lack of career advancement and other opportunities.” I guess this includes much of the art world. It shows that, contrary to all recent exhortations about the professionalization of the arts, we still have a long way to go.

I know, just by listening to anecdotal chatter, that many young artists coming out of art schools do not count on pursuing art as a career for too long. They count on doing the art thing for a while, then getting a real job. They are well aware that youth is the prime commodity in the global art world, and that the logistics of party-going and biennale-hopping do not mesh smoothly with adult lives. The new study indicates that much the same is true for the commercial and administrative personnel of the art world. Selective press reporting has given rise to an image of the artworld as a mature professional milieu, like dentistry or accounting – well, let’s say like advertising or magazine editing – where a secure living can be made and a satisfying sense of progression can be achieved by those who are talented, credentialed, and connected enough. That may be true for a select few.

But much of this “profession” still seems to be a way station for urbane twenty-somethings emerging out of good colleges who love the lifestyle for a while, but then get fed up when they realize that the ladder of advancement in a commercial gallery amounts to “get your own gallery.” Or when they confront the sad fact that their museum salaries amount to one-fourth of what their former classmates are getting in their first year out of law school. This is no way to run a global cultural industry. You can’t have disgruntled amateurs minding the store. For nonprofits and commercial entities alike, it would be a wise move to start behaving like a real industry. Invest in the talent.

3 thoughts on “The Artworld’s brain drain”

  1. I wonder if this has as much to do with the multitude of young people seeking gainful employ within the Arts, compared with the limited number of vacancies, as anything else? Perhaps we also suffer from a paucity of managers, and inspiring leaders, and that this puts some people off. And there may also be a need for more rigorous peer or board review for incumbents in senior positions so that more “career advancement and other opportunities” take place. But I do think much of this is natural fallout from a popular area.

    Of course if more Arts graduates also took business and management electives, that might help…

  2. True story: A Phi Beta Kappa friend of mine – one of the smartest people I know – worked herself ragged for one of the most prestigious galleries of New York starting in 1990, at the tail end of the last boom. She made $17,000 a year. After a year she went to the gallery owner and said, “I just can’t seem to survive on $17,000 a year.” And her boss said, “Well, I assumed your parents were supporting you.” And no, she didn’t get a big raise. She quit working for galleries, got her PhD and now works in cultural affairs for a government council. Her richer friends stuck around for a few more years and became directors.

    Another friend from the same era worked her way into good slots at several top galleries. I congratulated her on that success two years ago, and she said, “Oh, c’mon, honey – I’m 33, and Mom still pays the bills.” The bottom line is that entry-level (and above) work in most galleries and auction houses is still radically underpaid. Those without outside sources of income can rarely make it work for long in onerously expensive places like London, New York or Paris. So they need to either find a backer and start a gallery, or find a new profession with a living wage.

    Thus, if the arts suffer from “a paucity of managers, and inspiring leaders,” as Ian suggests, it’s in part because those leaders are being drawn from a talent pool limited to those with either financial independence or an incredible willpower to succeed despite hardships. Those who are merely smart and hardworking too often get weeded out early.

  3. I wonder if this has as much to do with the multitude of young people seeking gainful employ within the Arts, compared with the limited number of vacancies, as anything else?

    I think that’s it in a nutshell.

    Moreover, people volunteer to work for free in museums and galleries. Salaries won’t rise to match those in other industries until there’s more demand for workers than supply of eager interns.

    Yes, the skills of a gallery director or curator are more valuable than those of a free intern, but art institutions (both commercial and non) have a very limited market compared to dentistry or accounting and often find themselves in financial dire straits.

    A veteran gallerist in SoHo once told me that depsite over 20 years in the business and certainly a roster of historically important artists, his business still had incredible ups and downs, being flush with cash one month and scrambling to pay all the bills the next. Much larger salaries in such settings can sink a business, which is why most galleries stick to the bonus model. When there’s money to be had, everyone gets some, when things are tight, salaries don’t bankrupt the business.

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