Working in the art world offers a whole range of career options - from curating to teaching, writing and more. Whichever path you choose to follow, you’ll need to understand the working culture of the art business. Zoe Mogridge, Director of Career Services at Sotheby's Institute of Art - London, runs through the five crucial professional moves you need to make if you want to get ahead in art…
Not only is networking an important professional skill in itself, it will unlock for you how the art world works. But it’s not about leaping into a ready-made network. It’s about starting productive conversations, one person at a time.
For students, networking begins in the classroom. The Sotheby’s Institute student body comprises people from a rich diversity of career backgrounds. As an art business student with an interest in the legal aspects of art, you might well find yourself sat next to a qualified lawyer.
Think about who you’re already connected to and who you’d like to connect with and why. Go to private views - but know why you’re going. Is it because the artist is attending and you’d really like to talk with them? What are you going to talk about? How are you going to introduce yourself? Join professional associations. If you’re interested in fine and decorative art, for example, you could join the British Antique Dealers Association and attend their events and symposiums.
2. Nurture your contacts
Now you’ve developed those meaningful professional relationships with like-minded people, it’s important to maintain them. This will give you insight into the industry and jobs you aspire to. And in time, you might find your contacts become good friends!
Remember, though, it has to be a two-way process. Don’t suddenly email someone you haven’t spoken to for a year with a request to pick their brains. Be willing to share. If you’ve heard about an exhibition or if are doing a piece of research that you think might be of interest to them, get in touch. Keep the conversation going.
Social media is your friend here - use it to show that you’re generous, authentic and interested in the world. Next time you see a great piece of street art or something that looks really odd in juxtaposition, share it. It shows that you have your eyes open.
3. Build your reputation
Reputation is everything. In a sector that operates on trust, it’s one of the most important assets you own. Discover which aspects of your reputation make it so important to your clients or employers. Maybe you’re discreet and willing to commit? Perhaps you’re a brilliant negotiator? A great salesperson? A creative thinker? No matter what professional qualities form the core of your reputation, you must protect them. If you get a reputation for being a flaky or gossipy, you’ll find it difficult to establish a career. A great reputation will make people want to do business with you.
4. Be flexible
The art world has many high profile employers but as operations they can be quite small. Often art professionals work in tight-knit teams who are multitasking continually. You might be hired to be the marketing manager for a gallery but then suddenly find yourself working on exhibitions.
Being nimble, able to adapt to various aspects of a business is really important. The cultural industry is a dynamic work environment, one which regularly changes in the face of new developments. Recognize the skills you bring and how to apply them in different contexts so that you can be responsive to business needs, always ready to step into different roles if required.
5. Spot opportunities
Think like an entrepreneur. You can be enterprising as a member of staff. Critically ask questions of yourself and the working environment. Reflect on ways in which you could make changes to the way things are done – there could be a cost and time saving. Share your knowledge of any new innovations in the sector that you think may be of interest to colleagues and your manager. At the same time, keep an eye out for changes to the industry that might advance your own career. Where are those new opportunities appearing? How could they enhance your professional life? Noticing innovation and taking action is what the entrepreneurial mindset is all about.