Identifying your own unique set of skills and qualities and knowing how to talk about them with self-assurance is vital to developing your career in the art world. Here Zoe Mogridge, Director of Career Services at Sotheby's Institute of Art takes us through the top ten attributes most prized by art world employers and explains why they matter…
Even the most talented career starters or career changers can struggle to articulate how experiences gained so far translate to an art world workplace but it’s important to identify your transferable skills - developed either during your previous professional life or while at university.
As you read through the following ten skills, think about which examples you could give to a potential employer of times when you used them. For each example, think, what did I do, how did I do it and what was the outcome? Can you identify any skills that you need to work on? How are you going to use your next internship or other opportunities to do that? In order to grow professionally, you need to recognize the skills and knowledge you have but you also need to evaluate where there are gaps.
1. Commercial awareness
Understanding how the market works, the nuances of the buying and selling of art is fundamental to operating within that landscape. Particularly if you’re working in a commercial gallery, say, you need to know how to broker a sale, who to approach and how to have that conversation.
The art world is a social world. You need to communicate well with clients, colleagues and the public - whether that’s at face-to-face meetings, via email or phone - and to be able to express very clearly what your gallery or business is offering. A good communicator is also a good listener.
3. Negotiation and persuasion
Both highly sought-after skills, negotiation and persuasion come down to building rapport easily with the person you want to do business with. They’re also about realizing what you want as an outcome from any given meeting or dialogue. If you’re a PR officer for a gallery, how you will you persuade and negotiate with journalists to get a preview article into their magazine?
"The art world is a social world. You need to communicate well with clients, colleagues and the public..."
4. Problem solving
In all work situations, you should be alert to any problems that crop up and where there is an issue, ask yourself, how am I going to find an answer to this challenge? Problem solving feeds into creativity and being a non-linear thinker - often the best solution isn’t the most obvious.
When you’re working collaboratively, you need to keep in mind what the common goal is and how you can contribute to achieving that. Teamworking brings in all sorts of other skills like actively listening, working on your own initiative, contributing generously to other people’s ideas... Pay attention to how different people work differently - we’re all individuals.
A leader is the person who’s been given the responsibility for delivering an outcome. A good leader listens. A good leader generates enthusiasm. A good leader takes full ownership of the task. A good leader shares. A good leader is able to make decisions effectively, sometimes quickly, and can maintain their composure under pressure. A good leader has the strength to remain true to the decisions they’ve made and focused on the goal even if they’re pulled in many different directions.
7. Perseverance and motivation
To honor a commitment to deliver work on time, on deadline, on budget, you need to maintain momentum and enthusiasm. As an art professional, you’ll be working in a dynamic environment. For example, in the run up to previews and then sales in an auction house, there’s a lot going, on so being able to achieve your goals takes a lot of perseverance.
8. Ability to work under pressure
Whatever you’re doing it will involve some kind of pressure but that pressure varies. The night before an art fair opens, you might be there until midnight, troubleshooting with exhibitors to get everything ready for the next day. A curator at a big museum might have been working for more than a year on an exhibition but there’s still pressure to see their vision through to completion.
Methodical people are naturally good at organizing but anyone can develop this ability: to prioritize, work effectively across multiple areas, all the time monitoring your progress as you go. When you’re given the task of shipping an artwork to a collector, you have to do that in a very organized fashion to make sure all bases are covered - that the artwork is packaged safely, that it’s insured properly and that the right import and export documents are completed.
Not to be confused with arrogance, confidence is having faith in your own abilities. It’s not about being overstated and exuberant, it’s about being quietly diligent and knowing how to voice your strengths. At the beginning of your career, this is probably the most difficult one to master. That’s absolutely acceptable. Make the most of this list to reflect on what you’re good at and remind yourself what you’ve achieved. You might not feel like a confident person but you should always have confidence in your own professional abilities - that’s what this is all about.