This week we sit down with Kelly Cahn, who is an independent art advisor. She was a Partner and the Head of Research and Gallery Outreach at The Heller Group for eleven years. Prior to that, she was a gallery assistant at Callan Fine Art in New Orleans. She received a BA from Tulane University in New Orleans and a MA from Christie’s Education in New York. We are excited to share Kelly’s thoughtful advice for working in the art world with you here!
What was your first job in the Arts?
While I was studying at Tulane University in New Orleans, I worked at Callan Fine Art, a gallery that specialized in 19th and 20th century European and American Art. I loved the experience of working directly with works of art rather than just studying images of them. The director and owner of the gallery were really wonderful about discussing the significance of the works with me and with the gallery’s visitors which really made an impression on me. The stories they shared about the works and the artists brought the art to life.
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
In school, I learned about the academic side of art, which I loved. However, I was eager to learn how the business side functioned. Working in a gallery taught me so much more than I could learn in a classroom.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
I took a class in Russian Architecture that completely changed how I viewed art and architecture. I loved how something visual could reflect philosophical, political, and historical viewpoints. This class inspired me to major in art history at Tulane and then I moved to New York to get a Master’s degree from Christie’s Education.
What do you do now?
I am a professional art advisor.
Where are you from?
What is the arts community like there?
Kentucky has a fantastic art community. My family lives outside of Louisville now and we always time to visit the 21C Museum and the Speed Art Museum whenever I am home.
Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?
For me, the best art is work that speaks to a broad audience. Art that is truly powerful appeals to more than just the New York cultural elite. It engages people from various backgrounds and brings people together.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Don’t just work in the art world — get out and actually see the art of our time and engage with it.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
I’m most proud of the impact I’ve had on others. I stay in touch with almost everyone who ever interned for me, whether they stayed in the art world or not. I genuinely love watching people grow and develop and hopefully I’ve helped them to do so.
What is something you do every day at work?
I try to see art live and in person every day, whether it’s a studio visit where I interact with the artist, a new exhibition at a gallery or a museum, or finding art in public places. There is no substitute for experiencing art firsthand.
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
A good employee is someone who is dedicated, hard working, motivated, communicative, and a team player. A good boss actively mentors and empowers their employees to do their best work.
What do you think makes a person hirable?
I look for someone who is smart, a team player, and has a solid work ethic.
What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace?
Get out and form connections with your colleagues in the art world as much as possible. It’s important to constantly build and develop relationships with everyone you encounter.
What are things you can do proactively boost your CV?
Take initiative to start a project and see it to fruition. Document what you’re doing to go above and beyond just your job requirements (volunteer work, professional development). Always, always be learning.
Are there any tips you can give people entering the workforce?
Many people I speak with have a very specific ideal about where they want to work (usually blue chip galleries) and I think that can be very limiting. There are so many different facets to the art world and there are often amazing opportunities to grow in smaller settings.
In your experience, what are things to do and things to avoid during an interview?
In interviewing other people, I often find that candidates talk more about what the job can do for them than what they can bring to the job. Employers want to know how you can contribute to their business.
What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?
I loved The Long Run at MoMA. In an era where so many clients want trophy pieces from specific periods of an artist’s career, it is important to remember that artists continue to innovate and experiment and that other phases of their career are equally worthy of consideration. I found the later works by Agnes Martin in the exhibition to be profoundly moving.
I also thought the Georgia O’Keeffe show of 1939 Hawaiian works at the Botanical Gardens was fantastic. It focuses on a transformative moment in her oeuvre and I left feeling nothing short of inspired.
If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?