The Role of Art Dealers in Art Industry

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Old paintings in golden frames

An art dealer connects collectors, museums, and artists, brokering art sales or buying and selling art themselves. Many art dealers own galleries to exhibit and sell art.

Learn more about how to become an art dealer.

What Is an Art Dealer?

An art dealer brokers art sales and/or buys and sells art. They typically specialize in a period or genre of art like contemporary or impressionist art and can play an important role in enhancing the profiles of up-and-coming artists. Dealers gain in-depth knowledge of their specialty, familiarizing themselves with artists in the field and collectors and museums that specialize in the art they broker or sell.

While many art dealers own galleries, not all do, and it’s not required to enter the profession.

How an Art Dealer Works

An art dealer uses their extensive knowledge of art and the art world to find and acquire pieces. They may sell those pieces to collectors and museums for a profit or act as intermediaries between artists and those parties to facilitate a sale. Art dealers spend a significant amount of time networking, attending art openings, and cultivating contacts in the art world.

If they own a gallery, they also spend time with the administrative work involved with running a business. Many art dealers have business partners that provide the capital needed to open a gallery, while the art dealer uses their connections to handle the art side of the business.

Requirements for an Art Dealer

Art dealers often have degrees in art history or fine arts. They may start as artists themselves and shift over to sales or start with an entry-level position at a gallery, museum, or auction house. Over time, they develop the contacts and knowledge they need to start working as an art dealer.

According to gallery owner and art dealer Louis M. Salerno, Owner of Questroyal Fine Art, there are two things every dealer needs: a good eye, which is the ability to visually identify artists and quality, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

“Finding the right paintings to offer to your clients is a dealer’s number one priority,” said Salerno. “Usually, if you choose correctly—meaning you choose a work you would buy yourself that is of sound condition and value—then the painting will sell itself.”

“Knowing what this type of painting looks like is the part that requires a good eye,” he said. “You need to be able to tell the difference between quality works and so-so works.”

Salerno explained that having a good eye is a skill that can be learned. “Nearly anyone can visit museums to compare works of art or read books about an artists’ life and paintings. Training your eye can take a while, but it’s something that will exponentially improve over time.”

As to an entrepreneurial spirit, Salerno said it’s the common denominator among the successful art dealers he knows. He also noted that not all of them have a formal art education or background.

“They found their love of art and dedicated themselves to learning about it,” he said. “They then transformed this love into innovative marketing strategies and infectious adoration of their ‘product’—two things that always draw in buyers.”

Professional Associations

Clients want to ensure the art dealers they’re working with are reputable. One way to enhance credibility is by joining a professional association for art dealers. For example, the Art Dealers Association of America has high ethical standards for its members. Membership is by invitation of the Board of Directors.

The Fine Art Dealers Association also has high professional standards. Membership in this organization is by invitation after being recommended by current members.

Up and coming art dealers may want to start with local organizations like the Dallas Art Dealers Association.

Even if you don’t qualify for full membership with a professional organization, you may be able to join as a friend of the organization or a volunteer. Getting involved in any capacity enhances your network so your business can grow.

Career Outlook for Art Dealers

The key to career longevity for art dealers is anticipating trends. Taste in art changes, much like tastes in music and fashion. Art dealers should be ahead of the curve.

Even as tastes change, art is always desirable. It’s a tangible way for people to invest while also bringing beauty into their lives. Economic trends sometimes impact the ability to invest in art, but the market typically comes back.

Key Takeaways

An art dealer connects collectors, museums, and artists, brokering art sales or buying and selling art themselves. Many art dealers own galleries to exhibit and sell art.

Art dealers often have degrees in art history or fine arts. They may start as artists themselves and shift over to sales or start with an entry-level position at a gallery, museum, or auction house. 

Art dealers need a combination of art knowledge and entrepreneurial skills. They can benefit from joining professional organizations and expanding their network.

The key to longevity for art dealers is anticipating trends.

The artist sets brush to canvas; the collector hangs a finished piece proudly on the wall of their home or gallery. What happens between these two moments is often obscure to those outside the artistic community. As an art dealer in London, however, it is impossible to ignore the fact that we play an important role in the process.

There is a stereotypical image of the starving artist, and whilst it is not the case for all, many famous artists have struggled to find a market for their work during their lifetime. Vincent van Gogh is often cited as a famous example, although in his case the lack of acclaim and financial success during his lifetime may partly be attributed to the fact that the body of his work was created during the last years of his life. The fact is, while an artist may be exceptionally talented at creating art, they may not necessarily have the skills to market it.

This, then, is the role of the art dealer; to bridge the gap between artist and collector, to champion their chosen artists and bring their work to public attention. Art dealers act as curators, often travelling extensively to create a collection which they can then showcase to the art-buying public in their galleries, at art fairs, and increasingly online.

Individual art dealers will often specialise in a particular period or style; for example, you can find a number of dealers who specialise in Old Masters, or in contemporary art. Here at Mark Mitchell, we specialise in 19th-21st century British and Continental fine art.

For the prospective purchaser of an artwork, this makes it easier to locate a piece which suits their style and taste; simply find an art dealer with similar sensibilities, and their collection is bound to offer pieces you find attractive.

The art dealer may also have an influence in the manner of presentation. Combining an understanding of the current trends in home décor as well as an artistic education, the dealer may choose to present a piece either in an original frame or to reframe it in a manner that will be appealing to the modern purchaser.

For the artist, the dealer offers representation and an advocate to promote their work to a larger audience. For the purchaser, the dealer offers not only a curated collection but also the reassurance of authority. The dealer is relied upon to assure the provenance of a piece – in some cases, with such authority that they are trusted to identify unsigned artworks based on brushwork, form and other stylistic features.

The secret of a good art dealer is, therefore, not only in their knowledge but in the relationships they build. Rather than simply acquire art and sell it on, they build relationships with the artists represented; in the case of living artists sometimes even influencing the work produced. Rather than simply sell any piece of art to the person walking into the gallery, they build a relationship to find that person the right piece of art. In this way, they present a vital part of the artistic community.

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