Art Frankly is an online jobs and recruitment platform for the global visual arts community to seek and post jobs, list spaces, and discover other opportunities while building a professional presence.
Art Frankly Features is designed to give job seekers an inside look into the art world in an objective and transparent manner. In this edition of “What’s Life Like,” we talk to a business development professional at a major international auction house wrestling with an urge to be client facing.
Age: late 20s Location: New York City Field: business development Organization: international auction house Education: BA, art history; MA, art history Years in the art world: 5 Years at company: 5 Years worked until first promotion: 3 Number of emails received per day: 100
You get in in the morning, you get your coffee and…? I get my coffee and I like to do a round-up of the day before I begin. I will have already read the [New York] Times. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is go straight to the Arts section, to make sure there isn’t any news on the auction houses, whatever. But when I actually get to the office, I open up Artinfo, Twitter, and sometimes Hyperallergic, just to get a less market-oriented reading on things. And I like to go to our website and also our competitors’ websites for any new content they may have posted.
Do you really do that? Yes, yes. Or any big announcements they may have splashed across their homepages. Even in my own auction house, I don’t always know exactly what’s going on.
So now you know how your day is going to be spent. How much time is spent being an email jockey and how much of it is spent writing copy for business development? You do have a mix of long-term business development and very short term, quick turnaround business development [projects]… so on a given day, it depends. It could be 50% of my time is spent writing. It could be less because I have long leads and can switch between projects, that sort of thing.
I probably have a few meetings a day. Not too many, luckily. And then the remainder is a lot of herding of cats. Because you are the liaison between the specialist departments, operations, executives, marketing, and catalogue production, all those teams are going through you. That involves, inevitably, a lot of emails, phone calls, cc’ing a billion people on everything. It’s constant communication.
And in the auction house, what do you think of support versus sales? There’s sales and then there’s everyone who supports the sales, right? I think equally that a lot of people discover themselves in support roles and really thrive in them in ways that they never thought that they would. And support roles are a great place, especially if you want to work in the business but you don’t necessarily want to be client facing.
It’s interesting you put it that way, because if you ask if you want to be client facing, I’d always say, well absolutely. Because you know, it’s exciting, and you like talking to people. But when it comes down to physically doing the work of a specialist, not only procuring the property, which is extremely strenuous, but then selling the property and the number of connections you need to be able to do that—it’s the most hustle-y position you can think of, plus you need to do it with a glamorous edge. But I think for a lot of people, they may think—of course I want to be the face of the company! I don’t know what people assume a client-facing role is, except that they imagine it’s white wine lunches and going into [elegant] homes. It’s a lot of hustle. They’re the ones up late at night pricing things. They’re on their computers seven hours out of the day as well. I don’t know that anyone who works in an auction house will then tell you that it is glamorous. And I don’t mean that it’s awful and nasty and lowbrow, but the thing about it is, you’re working in a very corporate environment of emails, Blackberries, photocopies. It’s not always hobnobbing on the Riviera, and I think those people who do get to do that are rather few and far between. I think that the glamour ends as soon as you go upstairs. Because it’s very intimidating to walk into an auction house—you see people in all black, and there’s flowers, and catalogues, and an auction room. But once you go beyond that it’s just another office with people who have weird deskscapes. I think people imagine a “Devil Wears Prada” sort of thing in the auction house and it’s not true. Those people give it the public face. And that being said, even those people with the Chanel and the Prada—they’re sitting in cubicles.
So what kind of person goes into business development? Not me. [Laughs.] I don’t mean it in the way that that sounds. I just never anticipated I would be in business development. I thought I’d be an expert in the paintings department or something.
Is that because you didn’t know about support roles as much? Yes, that’s one of the reasons. I just thought you become a specialist and work with dusty paintings all day.
That doesn’t really exist now does it? Not so much anymore. It does, but you really need to work your way up to that.
What should entice someone to go into business development? Well, you get to see everything. You get to see everything that we sell and everything that we don’t sell. And that’s very interesting.
What’s the best part of your job? What gives you the most satisfaction? You’re always reminded of what you don’t know. And I love that. At some moment you could be working on a project with the Chinese ceramics team, and they’re experts in their field and have been in business for years and years. I don’t know a damn thing about Chinese ceramics, but I find it wonderful to work alongside people who do know, who are experts in Chinese ceramics, say, but also have a business sense and an interpersonal sense. And through that process, I love that you’re really a sponge for lots and lots of information. It’s a great art historical education of its own. And that’s why I love working in a big auction house, where there’s things like American furniture, or ceramics, and whatever and you’re not in a bubble of just contemporary art.
About my job in particular, I have no problem talking to people outside my company about what I do. They seem to think that I’m very lucky to work in art and they find it an interesting topic of conversation. I have to remind myself how fortunate I am to work in something that I find intellectually stimulating and fulfilling. I’m not the type of person who can separate my work life and my personal life completely the way people who work on Pivot Tables [in Microsoft Excel] all day can.
If you could change one thing about your position what would it be? Money. More money.
Amy Davis is Art Frankly’s Editorial Director. Amy is an art world professional who crafts the most effective communications, brand, and editorial content on behalf of the organizations for which she’s worked, including Phillips auction house, Mana Contemporary, and McClain Gallery, among other national and international institutions. Amy has an MA in history of art from the Courtauld Institute of Art and a BA in English from Dartmouth College.