I was recently interviewed by senior writer Susan Shain about my position as a gallery assistant at JanKossen Contemporary. The post appeared yesterday on the Penny Hoarder Blog. I was intrigued by her thought provoking questions, and it was a great reminder as to why I chose to study and pursue a career in the arts. Below are the original questions/answers from the interview. Enjoy!
1. Tell me your title, location, and art background. Do you have a website you'd like me to link to?
I’m a gallery assistant for the U.S. location of JanKossen Contemporary in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, New York. Our gallery exhibits abstract and conceptual art by established and mid-career artists. We’re based in Basel, Switzerland.
My personal art is both a celebration and commentary on the beauty industry and contemporary consumerism. I specialize in documentary photography, but have recently ventured out into more sculptural works. My art has been awarded and exhibited internationally, including the Brighton Photo Biennial, The Orlando Museum of Art and the Aperture Foundation in New York. I also work part-time at Parsons School of Design. My website is www.sherrilittlefield.com
2. When did you start working at a gallery? Did you have prior experience/education?
I hold a Bachelors in Studio Art from Florida State University and a Masters in Fine Art from the University of Central Florida. During my undergraduate and graduate studies, I worked a variety of jobs including retail and modeling. I had an internship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Tandem Press, and during summers, worked as a team manager for a contemporary art fair, Snap! Orlando. Tandem Press and Snap! sparked my interest in galleries and art business. I credit my organization and time management skills to these various jobs. Shortly after graduate school, I was hired at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, Georgia, and remained there until I took the gallery job in February 2015.
3. How did you find and land that first gallery job?
A series of random events lead me to a job listing for a week-long gig as a booth assistant for JanKossen Contemporary during Art Basel week in Miami Beach in December 2014. At this time, my husband and I happened to be searching and interviewing for jobs in Chicago or New York. I applied, and by chance, the owner happened to be in the process of opening a second location in New York. We got along well during the art fair, kept in touch – and she hired me in January of 2015. I moved a month later.
4. What are the first steps someone else can take to get a gallery job?
Research the area you’d like to live in and apply for galleries that are hiring. Never assume that an internship with a gallery will lead to a career with that same gallery – unless that’s specifically indicated. There’s a lot of wonderful resources out there that explicitly list gallery careers. (New York Foundation of the Arts is a great one) Most people in my position have a Master’s in Business Administration or Art Business degree, opposed to my Fine Art education and background. If you find yourself at a disadvantage, know your strengths and figure out how you can apply them to your position. Making yourself irreplaceable means you can make your own opportunities.
5. How much money can someone earn working in galleries?
This question varies by region and size of the gallery, but in New York City there’s a lot of competition so be prepared to take a low salary. I’ve even heard horror stories of junior gallery assistants (no, not interns.) being paid $50/day. The average in the Chelsea district for a junior gallery assistant is $12-$20/hour. A senior gallery assistant can expect a salary of $24,000-$29,000, while managers should expect $35,000+. It’s important to note that in addition to the salary, many directors/owners will cover all travel and lodging expenses when sending their employees to various art fairs- meaning you could potentially travel internationally 6-8 times a year.
6. What skills/qualities do you need to be successful?
First and foremost, a good attitude—but organization doesn’t hurt either! It’s important to know what you’re working with and who your audience is- and this applies anywhere. Own your job—make the most out of your situation, regardless of what it is. I’m familiar with the artists we represent here, but I was just as familiar with the cosmetics I was selling while I was working at Kohl's Department Stores in college. I’ve been told people are attracted to my quirky sense of humor and real personality. I’m not afraid to approach celebrities at events and I’m also not afraid to call high-profile people out on their BS. Luckily, I’m just able to do the latter with a smile.
7. What's the best part about working in galleries? The worst?
Three weeks ago we exhibited a German artist who wasn’t familiar with twitter so as an example, I opened my phone and searched his name. He was able to see and read the kind things people had said about his work over the years. I thought it was awesome to bring that moment to him- things like that make my job phenomenal. My boss also has a great sense of humor. She’s in Basel, Switzerland (where the gallery is based) and we’ll skype once a week. Our calls will often have me laughing to the point of tears. The worst experience I've had so far was writing rejection letters to artists who didn't get into our juried show. I've been on the other side of those letters plenty of times and know that feeling of discouragement. I've also had to deal with some tough personalities- but retail prepared me for that long ago.
8. What's something you want everyone to know about working in galleries?
Be smart. Know the difference between an independent contractor and an employee. There’s a lot of misclassification that goes on here and it’s important to protect yourself. Gossip also travels fast. Never badmouth your boss, colleagues or artists you represent to others. Don't treat other galleries like they're your competition- because they're not. The success of your neighbors can boost your business, and maintaining good, genuine relationships with those neighbors can result in positive referrals.
9. What's the best piece of advice you have for people who'd like to work in galleries?
Be willing to learn, because there’s always something that can be improved and there's always something that needs to be done. Speak with everyone who comes through your gallery- a simple “hello!” and smile can go a long way.