This month, Lacey West Art International (LWAI) is 10 years old – a momentous occasion that would normally be celebrated amongst myself and my team with prosecco, fun games and silly photos but has instead been put on hold whilst all of our attention has focused on the coronavirus pandemic.
The art world has definitely been through a lot of changes in the last 10 years, but I have a hunch many more changes are to come following the economic fallout due to coronavirus and how we learn to adjust to our ‘new normal’.
But first, let’s go back to the beginning…
Originally from Texas, I came to London just after university in 2004 to complete a Masters in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute. My plan was to then move to New York and pursue a career in galleries but two weeks after arriving in London, I decided I was never going back to the US. I felt I was finally in the place I was always meant to be – I was home. Following my Masters, I managed to immediately find a Gallery Manager position (and get sponsored) with a small, contemporary gallery in Notting Hill. After a year of working closely with the owner and learning the ropes, I asked to be made Director as I was essentially running the gallery – managing the space, dealing with the artists, making sales, etc. A year and a half later, I was ready for the next step and was offered a senior role in a Mayfair gallery specialising in Modern Masters. But it was a small team who were quite set in their ways and I didn’t feel my skills were being put to the best use, so the owner and I mutually agreed that I move on after 9 months in the gallery.
It was then 2009 and the economy was still reeling from the 2008 financial crash so it wasn’t a great time to be on the hunt for a job, but I had faith in myself and my abilities. In addition to roles in the art world, I decided to consider other industries that were of interest to me and I had always thought I would suit a role in recruitment. I was offered an interview with a recruitment agency that covered roles in several industries and by the end of the interview, I had convinced the interviewer that there was a market for art recruitment (at the time there was really only one company specialising in art recruitment with a monopoly on the art world) and they wanted me to set up and manage a branch of art recruitment as part of their company. However, when it came down to signing the contract, and after discussing with family and friends, it was they who convinced me that I should instead go out on my own.
I knew I had always wanted to have my own business and had set a little goal for myself that I would do so before the age of 30. Up until this point, I had thought I would have my own gallery but after working in galleries for a handful of years and seeing all the difficulties that come with that type of business first-hand, I decided that path wasn’t for me. So, at the age of 28, after spending a summer writing a business plan and securing investment, LWAI was born.
On average, it usually takes start-ups about 3 years to really get going and before the penny drops, so to speak. In LWAI’s case, it took about 18 months and in those 18 months, I spent most of my time doing the art fair circuit armed with LWAI flyers and a brief spiel as to why I was the next big thing in art recruitment.
I walked away with lots of good business after speaking with art fair exhibitors and since then, LWAI has remained consistently busy. Today, there are a few options when it comes to art recruitment companies, but I can confidently say that LWAI is one of the best and that we have recruitment down to an art.
Recruitment demand is generally driven by the activity of the art world so we are often busier during fair season and major auction sales, things slow down as we near Christmas and pick up again in February. Mid-July to mid-August is usually fairly quiet as many galleries close for the Summer and everyone goes on holiday, except that hasn’t been the case for the past few years because we now cover so many countries.
In the last 10 years, there has obviously been a big surge in digital roles. We have seen many roles involving digital marketing as art businesses look to improve their digital presence and it is not uncommon for galleries and auction houses to now have full-time Social Media Specialists as part of the team. Roles combining art and technology have become common place with the rise of art world apps; blockchain technology which has been introduced to broaden the market’s transparency, track ownership and provenance, and provide an infrastructure for the tokenization of fractional artwork sales; with augmented reality there is now a new generation of artists producing work to be viewed with VR headsets; online viewing rooms for gallery exhibitions and now, because of the pandemic, art fairs have become commonplace; and online auction houses and platforms such as Paddle 8, Artsy and Barnebys offer alternatives to traditional sales. As changes are ushered in more quickly due to the effects of COVID-19, this interest in digital roles will continue to boom.
The last 10 years have also seen a massive expansion of the art world into Asia with Asian collectors wanting to acquire works by major Western artists, major Western galleries opening up outposts in not only Hong Kong but less saturated markets like Seoul, and major auction houses beefing up their Asian departments with new, prominent Specialists and also expanding to the Asian market with offices and salesrooms. Many candidates looking for roles in the art world are often flexible in terms of location as they want to be where the action is, so any emerging market is usually of interest. Along with Western galleries and auction houses moving to Asia, so have Westerners in general.
Perhaps the biggest change over the last 10 years is the increase in Art fairs. Large cities, small cities, major fairs and satellite fairs, one for almost every day of the year. Dealers have never had so much choice (some say we may be at tipping point) and up until the pandemic, most galleries were making the bulk of their annual income by participating in as many as 10-15 fairs per year, an astronomical number considering how much expense, preparation and energy goes into each one. With this expansion comes more jobs and whole departments in galleries dedicated to art fair participation. Galleries can also now easily be classified depending on which art fairs they participate in and the more desirable galleries for candidates are often the ones that exhibit at fairs like Frieze, Basel and Armory.
Private museums are another phenomena that have sprung up which are a way for wealthy collectors to display their collections to the public. These museums have evolved to not only show a collection but also run the same talks, events and programs as a public museum would which then requires a large team to support.
The blurring of art and luxury goods has become more prevalent with the rise of collaborations between fashion labels and major artists, my favourite of which was the recent collaboration of Jeff Koons and Louis Vuitton on some rather fabulous handbags featuring paintings and names of Modern Masters. With this change, more commercial galleries who are used to selling in high volume tend to recruit salespeople from the luxury world who have track records of upselling to clients and working to sales targets.
These are just a handful of the changes we have seen in the art world (apologies, the preferred term is now the art ‘industry’) over the last 10 years and I imagine that it will only continue to grow and fluctuate. Being sponsored to work in another country, something I was able to achieve with little work experience and on a very low salary though very much based on meritocracy, is a lot harder to attain now and I would go so far as to say that unless you are a very senior candidate with a wealth of desirable experience, almost impossible. As the industry expands there is more and more competition and we see candidates on a daily basis struggling with this. So much is still about being at the right place at the right time with the right skills and attitude. But in general, and still relative to today, the candidates that succeed are the ones with that go-getting attitude, people who make themselves indispensable and that can truly drive a business.
by Lacey West, Director