In general, people become art dealers because they have a passion for art. The pleasure that comes with making a living combined with the freedom of owning one’s own business can make this an extremely gratifying career. Successful art dealers have the ability to cultivate a network of artists and simultaneously establish connections with collectors and museums who are interested in the work of their artists. The very best dealers develop reputations for anticipating swings in taste and value. Some seem to be able to create demand for an artist by simply agreeing to represent him or her. Most dealers specialize in a period, style, or type of art, such as eighteenth century painting, works of the New York School, or contemporary sculpture. All dealers must keep up with developments in the art world, particularly in their areas of specialty, so their careers depend upon maintaining a wide range of contacts among critics, curators, auction houses, artists, and collectors. This is a career for the social-minded person, since much of the business is conducted at openings and in sales proposals made to collectors and museum curators. Most successful art dealers enjoy spending time with people in the art world and cultivating contacts with people who are interested in art.
Art markets are notoriously volatile, and the fortunes of gallery owners rise and fall with the markets. In the most recent crash, which occurred in 1990, art prices fell 30 to 50 percent and 70 out of New York City’s 500 art galleries were forced to close. Galleries that develop reputations for representing specific styles see their fortunes rise and fall as tastes change, and anticipating these changes is difficult, even for the most experienced professionals. The pleasures and possibilities for huge profits in the profession seem to offer rewards that balance the risks in art dealing, however. Many dealers have long and successful careers, and there is a steady supply of those whose taste and talent in the art world leads them to establish galleries.
There are many paths to becoming an art dealer; almost all involve some participation in the art world. Many dealers begin with degrees in art history and work their ways up as assistants in other galleries, developing the contacts with clients and artists to enable them to strike out on their own. Others are former museum and auction house curators who decide to establish galleries specializing in the areas of art in which they have worked. Some artists discover that they have the business and social skills necessary to sell art, and they use their contacts with other artists to develop a body of work to represent.
As with any entrepreneurial venture, strong business and sales skills are a must. Most of the revenue earned by a typical gallery is generated by personal sales pitches to prospective buyers. Access to capital is also vital; gallery cash flow is variable. To survive in the long run, a gallery must be able to withstand dry spells. Frequently, galleries are partnerships in which one partner contributes capital and the other contributes the connections and knowledge to successfully operate the business.
Gallery owners whose galleries don’t succeed often remain in the art world. Some go to work for other, more successful galleries, while others pursue careers as museum or auction curators, art critics, academics, or practicing artists. Some who are hit by downturns in the art market use one or more of these options to weather the storm and then reestablish their galleries when times improve.