You'll Never Be As Good as Banksy …
at getting attention—that doesn't mean you can't get a whole lot better at PR
Sophie Macpherson Ltd is the art market's leading search firm. Sophie and her team are often asked by clients for a better understanding of the landscape of the art market and how it is changing. In an effort to answer some of the questions she receives, SML Consultant Elizabeth Yarlott has written this column on the most pressing issues facing art market enterprises. This first one is on the increasing emphasis on PR in the art market:
The commercial art world has been a relative latecomer to PR, way behind the fashion and luxury retail industries that are its peers. Until the mid-1990s, it was rare for a gallery to spend time and money on anything more sophisticated than print – fliers, invitations, and perhaps an advertisement in a trade magazine. Hiring a PR firm was considered an extravagance. Aside from those few artists who purposefully courted the press, many established contemporary artists were cautious of overexposure and the associated taint of commerciality.
Competition has spurred a change of attitude toward PR. As mid-market commercial galleries and art fairs flowered over the last two decades, the arts communications sector has expanded to include numerous agencies that work solely with art world clients. These agencies help the mid-sized firm keep up with international galleries which all have their own in-house teams.
Leonardo, Kusama & Banksy
At its most powerful, PR and digital marketing can create a frenzy of interest: contrast the lines around the block of visitors at the various Christie’s locations where Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi was exhibited with its less-marketed unveiling in the National Gallery Leonardo show of 2011.
Another artist who attracts lines around the block for her museum exhibitions is Yayoi Kusama. Her work flourishes on digital media which, in turn, draws big crowds to her social-media friendly museum and gallery shows. Instagram is a limited platform for engaging an audience with your artists but its reach is unparalleled in today’s art world. Ignoring it isn’t an option; taking advantage of it requires some level of expertise.
Perhaps the greatest exploiter of social media is the street artist Banksy. He has primarily done this through subversive camera-bait pranks, none greater than his consigning a work to Sotheby’s that was designed to self-destruct, Love is in the Bin. Banky’s social media prowess is natural gift but there are some widely applicable principles that can be learned and applied to arts enterprises.
Galleries and dealers are increasingly active on digital media. Instagram, in particular, has emerged as a platform for selling and a short-cut across the traditional exhibition, art fair and auction channels. As a result, we are seeing new roles in arts businesses dedicated to the design and delivery of complex digital communications strategies, requiring technical skills and familiarity with specific programmes and platforms. Moreover, the advancement and growing commercial success of virtual viewing rooms and e-commerce platforms has resulted in the creation of new roles that fuse communications with sales. A prime example of this is the appointment last year of a curator and social media influencer to an Online sales Director role at one of the most successful international blue-chip galleries.
PR Isn’t a Luxury
In our experience, communications staff from parallel industries such as luxury retail, fashion and jewellery are attractive candidates for both agency and in-house roles in the art sector. Price points, clients and working culture tend to overlap, as do journalist and media contacts. Galleries tend to prefer candidates who have worked in small in-house teams, especially those with experience of international exhibition programmes, but the experience of balancing several clients at once within an agency context can equally be a great selling point.
For this reason, agencies provide an excellent entry-point for candidates looking to build a career in arts communications. Agencies are known for their fast pace and work with a range of art world businesses spanning both the public and private sector, so offer unrivalled opportunities to build a network, as well as providing a macro view of the industry. They are usually structured according to a linear hierarchy – Account Executive, Account Manager, Account Director – presenting an appealing career trajectory. Once communications staff have reached Manager or Director level in an agency they tend to aspire to go in-house, and to have a chance to dedicate themselves to longer-term strategy for a single brand, as opposed to balancing the needs and schedules of numerous clients.
Larger international galleries have developed regional teams that collaborate to effect a unifying global strategy, while smaller galleries and businesses look for Communications Managers who can oversee all aspects of marketing, PR and digital – sometimes assisted by an external agency. In smaller businesses such as historical art galleries, dealerships and studios, communications may still be the responsibility of more general managers or even assistants, but an increasing emphasis on branding and visibility can be identified across the majority.
In an ever-more saturated market, artists and art businesses are coming to realise that investing in PR and marketing can help them to stand out from the crowd. Moreover, as trust in art e-commerce grows, both collectors and gallerists are placing more emphasis on digital sales platforms, creating new roles that require experience in both sales and communications, and thus illustrating the intrinsic link between the two.
If you would like to discuss this in greater depth, please contact Sophie here.