Introduction to Assisting and Supporting Roles
Commonly considered low-status and admin-heavy, combining monotony with high pressure, assisting and supporting roles are all too often unrecognised for their potential as valuable and strategic platforms from which to build a career in the art world. For some, assisting roles are a stepping-stone into a more senior or more specialised role, whilst for others, they can be the basis of a long and fruitful career in executive management. In this blog, we look beyond the Devil Wears Prada stereotype and consider the reality of PA and EA roles in the art world.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an art world professional at director level or above, must be in want of an assistant. With most senior figures in the industry supported by at least one employee, there is an extensive and active market for PAs and EAs – roles that are open to both junior and senior candidates and that do not always require specialised experience. Assisting positions exist in every kind of art world business, from commercial galleries, auction houses and advisories to artist studios and family offices and provide an excellent entry-point into any of these contexts.
Sometimes the titles are used interchangeably: ‘PA’ generally refers to positions centred on administration and organisation and can often entail supporting a team rather than an individual; ‘EA’ positions usually involve working for just one or perhaps two people, and tend to require a more strategic approach to business and project support. EAs often stand in for and act on behalf of their boss when it comes to client liaison, representing the business and even sales, and thus usually require a greater level of professional experience. Candidates from a PA background are the ideal applicants for EA roles, and can usually make a straightforward transition to a senior supporting role once they have 3-5 years’ experience under their belt.
Within larger commercial galleries and auction houses, senior directors will often have more than one role supporting them. Configurations vary, but in many instances consist of a dedicated client liaison or client developer, a senior EA and a more junior PA. Such set-ups don’t tend to offer the same breadth as most EA or PA roles, but they do offer the structure and support of working within a team and sharing responsibilities. Other principals will divide duties between a personal life assistant who oversees household, staff and family matters, and a business assistant whose duties are limited to their professional life. In such instances, both assistants are usually required to work closely together, but with two quite different remits.
Both PA and EA positions will involve managing complex diary and travel schedules, fielding correspondence and maintaining data resources. Many will also balance such administrative duties alongside other duties that would not be expected of those at a similar level in non-supporting roles. Working in close proximity to senior figures not only offers the opportunity to be mentored by someone with excellent industry experience, it also means being privy to their contacts and business developments, allowing unique and privileged insights. There are instances of PAs to artists who have become crucial to their employers’ creative output, and of assistants who develop such strong relationships with clients and industry contacts that they take over responsibility for all dealings with them. Equally, there are PAs and EAs who are fast-tracked into a sales capacity due to their work supporting a sales-focussed principal.
Assistants who earn trust and go the extra mile to nurture a good relationship with their boss can become life-long confidantes. A good PA is prized, and is often fiercely guarded by their employer, who will offer excellent benefits and remuneration in order to maintain their loyalty. This is not to say that assisting roles necessarily lack career progression beyond becoming a high-flying EA. Assisting a Sales Director is a fantastic basis for building one’s own career in sales, much as assisting a Senior Manager or Director can lead to a role in business or operations management.
PA and EA roles hone skills that are translatable across all sectors and provide an excellent insight into the workings of any art world business. These roles are widely available and, as discussed above, are often much more interesting and rewarding than they are usually given credit for. Moreover, they can lead to a long, secure and lucrative career in executive management or provide an excellent springboard for more specialised and senior positions. Yes, you might be asked to pick up some dry-cleaning on occasion – or even on a regular basis – but the pay-off may be that one day you end up in a senior role yourself, hiring your own PA or EA – and occasionally asking them to do the same for you!
Anonymous via Unsplash
Estee Janssen via Unsplash