Where to make a living in the art business

How much are jobs in the art business worth? Sophie MacPerson Ltd should be able to tell us. As a top name among specialist recruiters in the international art business – offices in London, New York and Los Angeles, 20 years in the business, a database of 15,000 potential candidates – SML ought to be well placed to provide an overview of salaries across the commercial art world. 

Indeed, this doesn’t seem to have been done before by anyone else; the SML Art Market Salary Report is the first and only report on salaries across the commercial art world.

And as the opening lines of the report’s Foreword has it, “the art world is still notoriously opaque when it comes to disclosing details about pay,  promotions, and opportunities”. So any light that SML can shed will be much appreciated …

The report draws on SML’s own recruitment and placements during 2022 to create what it calls a reference for real-world pay and packages. The package part is interesting; there’s a “pervasive” impression that the art world doesn’t pay well, but SML suggests there is significant earning potential in some areas – especially of course sales and business development.

Overall, SML says it’s seen art world salaries increasing in recent years, with the biggest jumps in the States. In part this is because 2022 was “a year of re-invigorated growth after the pandemic”, with gap-filling replaced by a more strategic approach to building effective teams for the long term.

There are no real shocks: outside the director level, base salaries are highest at commercial galleries, where senior sales hires can clock up $425,000 (in the US) or £250,000 (in the UK) – and of course there definitely will be commission on top. 

At the other end of the scale, entry-level salaries remain depressingly low, especially in the UK: gallery assistants get £23-30,000 pa, a sales coordinator job in a specialist auction house has the range £25,000 to £32,000 pa. The same jobs in the States have salaries around 50 percent higher.

Comms and client relations look a safer bet for anyone looking to get a foothold in the business. If you want to get rich from the art world, the obvious pathway is sales – especially business development or senior sales roles at major auction houses or international commercial galleries, where base salaries can reach seven figures.

Otherwise the report isn’t easy to summarise. As well as fairs, auction houses and commercial galleries, SML has listed salary information separately for artist studios, communications agencies, and the predictably nebulous “alternative art world & arts technology”. (There’s no data for jobs in art logistics and private/public collections, though these do get some text-only chapters in the report.) We’ve picked out some key numbers:

Art advisories: Assistants and researchers earn £25-40,000 in the UK, $47-110,000 in the States. Senior directors start at £100K or $200K.

Art fairs: In the UK exhibitor relations people start at a modest £24K, comms and partnerships command £40-60K, fair directors get from £65K (and hopefully more than that). The US equivalents are $60-85K for exhibitor relations, $60-130K for comms, $120K+ for directors.

Auction houses: An executive assistant gets $45-60K ($48-70K in US), Client Development/Strategy comes in at £50-65K ($54-140), the Business Director range is £50-130K ($90-180K).

Commercial galleries: This sector has the most job types, but gallery assistants have a range of £23K to £30K and Executive Assistants £25K to £45K ($40-70K and $55-100K in US). An Exhibitions Director gets £40-85K ($103-213K). Sales directors clock up £55-150K pa ($90-200K).

Communications agencies: One to three years’ experience gets you £29,000-£41,000 (UK) or $55-75K (US). Nine years plus is worth £55,000-£110,000 ($80-163K (US)

Useful though the report is, there are a couple of caveats. SML’s figures give base remuneration only – essential given the variability in add-ons and the difficulty of calculating their worth, but not a true reflection of take-home pay for the packages on offer in the upper tiers. 

And most salaries are given as a range and only a few have an average. That too is reasonable enough, since it mirrors the real world, and it’s probably necessary since job definitions can be pretty vague in this business. The day to day activities of a senior director at an art advisory business will vary widely from one firm to another, depending on local circumstances, the quality of the contact book, the amount of money a client is playing with, and so on. In these circumstances, it’s difficult to compare like with like.

That applies to jobs generally across the art business. ‘Gallery assistant’ is probably an acceptably generic job title, for instance, but even then the position’s duties and responsibilities will vary considerably between a small independent on Alserkal Avenue and a giant million-dollar operation in Palm Beach.

Not that Alserkal Avenue or indeed the Middle East is covered – the statistics come only from the UK and the USA. That obviously reflects the locations for SML’s offices; “whilst we do operate globally, we have chosen to focus on the two markets in which we worked most extensively during this period: the UK and the US”. The recruiter does say its European placements have doubled since pre-pandemic post-Brexit 2019, so perhaps there will be a broader range in the next survey.

A more pertinent problem is that we don’t know the cohort sizes: how many VIP relations posts at UK art fairs were measured to get a salary range of £40,000 to £80,000 pa? Surely more than two, but how many more?

Maybe it’s too much to hope for a definitive statement of how much you’re worth in the art market: there’s just so much variation in geography and in job specifications. Even so, we’d have been interested in some specific trends – like where the activity is: which jobs get the most applicants, how often people job-hop, and so on.

Still, SML has done a decent job with its broad-brush approach. There’s also some information about trends in financial packages (“there is growing expectation for employers to offer top candidates bespoke compensation packages”) and handy benchmark examples for variable pay structures (mostly based on commissions, of course). 

Also useful is SML’s commentary on salary transparency, which will become a significant factor in recruitment. There is mounting pressure on art world businesses to be more open about basic pay – not least through US state-led pay transparency laws, which seek to promote equity and were initially rolled out in New York in November 2022. There is talk of similar measures being introduced in the UK and EU.

SML says it will be producing the report biennially. The full 2023 version is available as a free download here.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply