A New Approach to the Business in Dealing Art
■ Art entrepreneur SUSAN MUMFORD explains to ATG editor Ivan Macquisten how she is helping to change the face of dealing in the world of art
WORKING in the art trade is the dream of many, young and old. But if you have little or no experience, how do you start? And even if you are a seasoned professional, how do you know that you are keeping up with the times and making the most of the internet and other tools at your disposal? Be Smart About Art, whose mission
is “to help art professionals achieve a successful career doing what they love”, believe they have the answer.
They offer a programme of talks, workshops, ‘webinars’, mentoring and networking events, creating an online community (including resources and databases) in the process. If you join as a member, you can also qualify for discounts to all their events and training.
Never heard of them?
That may be because they have not been going for that long – 18 months – but they are already making quite an impact, especially on the London art scene. Founder Susan Mumford, an art dealer herself, hails from Little Rock, Arkansas.
It was while running a rooftop gallery in Soho for five years that she spotted a gap in the market: a great need for training in the day-to-day running of an art practice, for both artists and art dealers/curators.
Her first foray into the world of industry networking and support came in 2009 as founder of the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD), a body devoted to helping women art professionals thrive in business.
AWAD fills a need for networking, ideas and extended business opportunities. There are now around 45-50 members, ranging from dealers to gallerists and consultants.
“AWAD formally became an organisation in 2010. It started from a phone call with another dealer whose colleague was complaining that there were lots of deals going on behind the scenes at an art fair between the boys,” says Susan.
The person complaining was a significant name on the London scene, not the sort of dealer one would expect to have a problem with this sort of thing.
“It was January 2009, a terrible time for everyone, and so I said: ‘Why don’t we start our own club and do deals?’ The other aspect was that I had already joined a number of networks for American businesswomen in London and I realised that if you put together a lot of people who have things in common, you evolve a platform.”
A good example of how members have benefited from networking is the new business relationship between Francesca Fiumano, who specialises in Contemporary British and Italian art, and Barbara Stanley, who deals in Contemporary Irish art.
In 2010/11, Francesca had run a gallery for over a decade in Marble Arch and Barbara had had hers for over a decade in Putney. Barbara wanted to move into town, so she decided to share Francesca’s space and they take it in turn to look after the gallery, each maintaining their independent identities. This has allowed more time for buying trips for each of them, as well as
for Francesca to concentrate on the large number of fairs she stands at.
“Prior to that, during the depths of the recession, Francesca was hiring out gallery space to other dealers for exhibitions and wanted to maintain the quality of what was on offer so that it did not detract from the gallery’s reputation,” says Susan. “She pretty much did that through the AWAD network.” A case of pre-vetted dealers.
AWAD became a non-profit organisation in September 2012 and are now putting together a code of practice for members, with advice from lawyers, accountants and other experts.
“We are covering issues such as sale-or- return documents, terms and conditions of sale, what you should consider for insurance and so on.”
There are also three levels of membership: full, associate and start-up.
One of AWAD’s founding principles is to help early-stage art dealers and this system allows them to do this, rather than new dealers having to wait for three years before qualifying to join a trade association.
“However, we also don’t want to water down the principles of the organisation, so there are very clear guidelines distinguishing between the categories of membership.”
The message is spreading. AWAD have now held breakfasts in Hong Kong and New York, as part of the aim of extending their influence to become the leading global network for women art dealers.
“The response has been instant, there’s a huge demand.”
Monthly meetings already involve Skype and there is a member in both Hong Kong and Sao Paulo, the latter of whom is already helping members work on ideas for a Brazil-based event tied in with the 2016 Olympics. Other issues discussed in the members-only part of the meeting include recent experiences and current demands. This might cover reports from art fairs to the latest news on a supplier. Monthly meetings conclude with a 45-minute session where a guest speaker talks on a specialist subject, a great opportunity for a service provider to address a captive target audience.
There is also a quarterly social gathering and the website, due to be relaunched in the autumn, will include a members-only area, featuring a gallery space to promote works to each other.
The existing members’ gateway already hosts a number of databases, including, for instance, one on art prizes.
“We add to that list every week, so you can see what is coming up and what is relevant, both for our dealer members and our artist members. It’s certainly in the dealers’ interests to help raise their artists’ profiles through competing for prizes.”
international approach includes details of local service providers in centres across the world where members stand at fairs and do business.
“If a frame is broken, for instance, then they have the details of a recommended local framer.”
Be Smart About Art (BSAA) was the obvious next step, but for Susan it meant giving up dealing in the UK (she did not want to be in competition with her members/clients) and restricting herself, in that department, to the US. However, she maintains an independent curatorial practice, project managing art commissions. As a recommended service provider for training for professional development, BSAA also have a members’ network, an outreach programme for other arts organisations, delivering mentoring and training, and mentoring programmes for individuals. Members enjoy discounts for sessions, but events are also open to the wider industry and the public.
So what can BSAA members or guests expect? Their events list is made up of talks, seminars, workshops, training sessions and even boot camps!
Topics covered have titles such as Selling art and selling your soul? A talk on how to balance creative expression with making a living; How to price art, establish market prices and decide commission amounts; or the Dos and Don’ts for Artists seeking representation. Other sessions include how to deal with PR and the media, strategy and planning for selling at fairs and making more sales in general.
Then are the regular First Fridays, networking events where you may meet curators, artists, designers and other professionals.
So what do attendees most want to know? Top of the list is pricing, and there are workshops on that. Other topics include everything from how to sell art to how to maximise your sales at fairs. For artists, how to secure representation
is one of the most popular sessions. “Something that people really don’t understand is what the arrangement between the artist and the gallerist should be. Should there be a contract? What should the commission structure be? How do you incorporate things like the frame into the deal?”
BSAA also cover the boring but important aspects of dealing, especially those like understanding the VAT margin scheme, which can save you money.
“It’s very often a matter of helping people think outside the box. For instance, a dealer working with sculptors could also sell their drawings.”
Defining your niche and being absolutely clear about who you are and what you do is key, says Susan, as is thinking about different income streams and how to capitalise on them and boost margins. It can be as simple as not including delivery in the price of a work of art.
Then there is the potential pitfall of rushing online and creating a website without having the first idea of what is needed. Nowadays, of course, understanding social media is important, but just as important is knowing what level of involvement you need.
“You don’t have to do everything, just make sure that what you do you do well,” says Susan. “Don’t just identify yourself as Contemporary art dealer. You have to work on your identity and then build up credibility as a dealer or artist.” Credibility? “You need a history of
exhibitions, a stable of artists, quotations from the press and clients, to build your brand name and mailing lists.”
Central to the debate chaired by ATG at the Olympia fair this week – in which Susan is a speaker – is her belief that new dealers do not need to tie themselves to gallery space. This frees them to be more mobile and versatile, she says.
“You can have an online shop window, which needs to reinforce the brand. An effective design, first-class functionality, with images that are quick to load, and
a site that is easy to navigate and get information are all essential. It must also be mobile friendly: do not set up a flash website.”
“You could do some early-stage art fairs to help build a client base. You need to be seen to be exhibiting and be doing so on a regular basis. You have to have a plan of what you are going to be doing.”
Susan also writes a regular blog – sent out on Sundays for leisurely reading – packed with tips.
Needless to say, social media is high on her list of priorities, not just with BSAA managing its own Twitter feed, YouTube, Facebook and Pinterest accounts, but also with talks and training events highlighting their use in business management, networking and marketing.
BSAA have recently moved to Covent Garden and offer mentoring sessions nearby at the Royal Society of Arts.
With all this activity, where does Susan see the industry heading?
“We are already seeing an increase in self-representing artists, an increase in contractual agreements between artist and dealer because the terms need to be clarified and possibly an increase in things like artist collectives.”
So, power shifting from the trade to artists? Not something many dealers will want to hear. The answer? More online presence for dealers, lowering overheads, improving best practice, says Susan.
“It might be that we see an increase of what we already have in the US, with things like art consultancy.” In other words, changing the role of the middle man between artist and buyer rather than seeing them disappear altogether.
So in these tough, increasingly competitive times, best practice and transparency should combine to boost confidence among those you do business with and, perhaps counter-intuitively, investing more in the sort of co-operative community provided by the likes of AWAD, rather than jealously guarding every piece of knowledge you have, will pay dividends.