WORKING WITH ARTISTS PART 2: IN THE GALLERY
In the second part of our look at positions that involve working closely alongside artists, we consider the role of the Artist Liaison within a contemporary gallery, and how it navigates between the spaces of creation and commerce.
For a commercial gallery dealing in contemporary art, the most hard-won and valuable assets are not the multi-million-pound artworks it exhibits, but rather the relationships it cultivates with the artists it represents. The commercial advantage of a strong relationship with a successful artist cannot be underestimated in a market where galleries vie to work with the hottest talent, and that hot talent can cherry-pick who represents them in which location. Hardly surprising then that roles dedicated entirely to the nurturing of these relationships have emerged as a crucial part of the gallery team.
The scope and nature of an Artist Liaison, as these roles are called, depends not only on the size and programme of the gallery, but above all on the success and status of the artist (or artists) they work with. Whilst some Artist Liaisons look after up to ten artists, others are dedicated to just one or two, and indeed some artists refuse to work with anyone other than the directors. Galleries are more than willing to adapt to the needs and expectations of their top performing artists; after all, what one gallery won’t offer in terms of support and commitment, another will be eager to provide in exchange for the promise of loyalty.
So what does it take to maintain these precious relationships? On a professional level, the function of an Artist Liaison is to work closely with the artist and their studio on gallery exhibitions – deciding which artworks will be shown, ensuring that production is on time, collaborating on exhibition and marketing material, coordinating press interviews and appearances, and strategically planning a programme of future exhibitions and accompanying events. The ultimate commercial objective of the Artist Liaison, however, is to secure new artworks for their gallery before any competing galleries, dealers or collectors can get their hands on them – and this preferential treatment is something that is earned, not given.
In an effort to become an artist’s ‘primary liaison’ and take precedence over their competition, Artist Liaisons will often have to go the extra mile and take on responsibilities beyond the remit of their gallery, supporting the artist with external and institutional projects and exhibitions – even if with competing galleries. In doing so, the successful Artist Liaison makes themselves indispensable as a trusted touchstone and confidant, and can come to be charged with more and more ‘extra-curricular’ responsibilities, from PA duties to wedding planning. While such a close, even intimate relationship can offer excellent commercial benefit to the gallery, for the Artist Liaison it can often mean having to be available 24/7, extensive international travel – often at short notice – and a willingness to roll up one’s sleeves and get stuck in.
Of course, every artist has an individual relationship with the galleries that represent them, and different expectations of the Artist Liaisons they work with, but in general the strength of the relationship between an artist and a gallery’s Artist Liaison is directly proportional to the commercial success of that gallery with that artist. For the Artist Liaison themselves, the ultimate advantage of investing in their relationship with an artist is the cultivation of loyalty on a personal level: if they were to move to a new gallery, the artist would move with them.
Indeed, within the context of the gallery, Artist Liaisons are the access point to artists for all other departments, and the source of the most covetable and valuable new artworks. In some instances, the sales team do not have their own relationships with represented artists, and so rely heavily on the Artist Liaison for their chance to offer fresh artworks to their clients. Within an internally-competitive sales department, constantly hungry for the newest and best pieces, the Artist Liaison is the best friend a salesperson can have.
For other galleries, however, close relationships with the artists they promote are held to be crucial to the success of individual salespeople, and thus artist liaison duties are absorbed into the remit of a sales role. Such positions illustrate the crucial link between access to and sale of artworks, and indeed, it is said that it is easier to sell the work of artists one has a personal connection with.
What are the key differences between working with artists within a studio and within a gallery?
When working within an artist’s studio, the artist is your direct employer and looks to you for support in terms of the smooth running of production and of the studio itself. As an Artist Liaison working for a gallery, at one remove from the artist’s own working environment, it may be possible to enjoy a relationship with the artist that is less professionally constrained. The artist is not your boss, the gallery is. This can leave an Artist Liaison free to take on a more strategic role as mentor, helping an artist to navigate the commercial market. That being said, it is always best to maintain a certain emotional distance in order to be the calm sounding board that so many artists crave.
Both roles require good personal relationship skills, and both will be most enjoyable, and successful, if there is ‘good chemistry’ with the artist, or artists, in question. A willingness to engage at a creative, even emotional, level is important, but also the ability to stand aside and provide sound commercial advice. These are roles that can be hugely rewarding, but equally demanding in terms of what may be expected of your time and patience.
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