The first in a series of LWAI Spotlights on various roles within the Art Industry. This month we look at registrars and the roles they play across galleries and museums, how to become a registrar, and how you can expand your career once you have these skills.
Artwork registration is a heading that covers a multitude of responsibilities throughout the art world. In short, an art registrar is responsible for the movement and storage of artworks for a gallery or museum, but as with many roles in the art industry, it’s a flexible title that has different specifications depending on an organisation’s needs. Factors that change the scope in a gallery context include the size of the team, the geographical reach of the artists, the type of works the gallery deals in, and the fairs it attends.
In many small galleries the storage and shipping of works falls largely in the lap of the Gallery Manager, and additional elements can be charged across other members of the team. However, there are several reasons a specialised registrar is a valuable asset to any team, with the legalities and intricacies involved, and a qualified registrar can save time and money for a gallery. At the other end of the spectrum, in a museum context, registrars work as part of a team to coordinate the storage and movement of works in permanent collections as well as those in temporary exhibitions, which often means working closely with counterparts at other museums worldwide.
Suffice it to say; no two registrar positions will ever be exactly the same, but no matter the nuances it is a role that requires specialised knowledge to excel. While almost all international artwork movement is done through a Fine Art Shipper, a dedicated company with the infrastructure and knowledge to support a wide variety of jobs, it is the gallery registrar who will serve as their point of contact and work closely with them on paperwork and specifics. A good registrar will be able to identify the best ways to package, store, and ship pieces to provide the best care to the artwork, make sure all deadlines are adhered to and that costs are kept low and effective. Registrars are also responsible for consigning artworks from other galleries and collectors on loan, and can be closely involved in negotiations around these actions. They can also work with insurance companies, and need to have an understanding of international and domestic legislation and customs laws to avoid any problems that may arise in the course of mounting an exhibition.
All of these challenges require developing a strong knowledge base. If you’re just starting out, there are a number of places to begin a career as a registrar. Many blue chip galleries hire interns to work closely with their registrars, and starting out this way can provide you with the necessary experience to transition into a role with more responsibility. Many people in the sector began by working with shipping companies; in preparing for this post I spoke to a few registrars from our network who have moved from fine art shippers to working with galleries, and they all highlighted the importance of their past experience in their current success. Knowing what information is required of you and being able to provide it swiftly and concisely can save time and money. Organisations including the UK Registrars Group, the ARCS, and the European Registrars Conference, are vital tools to keep abreast of changes in laws and new technologies, as well as strengthening a network that can be an invaluable asset. As new systems for maintaining inventories emerge and laws change surrounding export, tax and banned materials, it is vital to be ahead of the curve in this profession.
At its best, registration is a job with scope for creativity that rewards the meticulous, but it can be repetitive if it’s not the right role for you. In my role as consultant for LWAI, I’ve spoken with registrars who’ve worked closely with shippers to devise custom means of transporting incredibly bulky sculptures using helicopters, and those who have raced against the clock to save valuable antiques from destruction after paperwork has gone missing. The international nature of the role can provide particular challenges, and while moving works around Europe or North America can be relatively easy given the strong infrastructures in place in those locales, transporting works to and from other countries can be particularly tricky and may mean having to rely on courier services like DHL or FedEx who don’t have the specialised knowledge of artwork handling.
Given the skills and knowledge required to work in this field, we at LWAI find that it is a role that comes up often with a pool of candidates that is relatively small. However we regularly see candidates who say they are often only offered registrar opportunities, and it can be easy to get boxed in. I spoke with a candidate about this, who had begun her career wanting to be a curator and had developed skills and knowledge of logistics through organising exhibitions. She mentioned that it can be difficult to balance her strong practical skills against her curatorial interests when looking for new roles, but it is the sort of career path open to many with logistics experience. Alternatively, the skills developed in registration can lead to opportunities within artists’ studios, in broader operations roles, and in private collections.
Over the past decade we’ve seen an increase in the need for registrars in galleries alongside growth in the market and of art fairs. More and more companies are looking now for registrars, collections specialists, logistics managers and exhibitions coordinators, and the specialist knowledge associated with it can only help your profile if you’re interested in a career like this. With the current global climate the remit of these positions has yet again changed, and it will continue to do so into the future, but armed with knowledge and skills the registrar will always have a key part to play.
by Rory P Brooks, Recruitment Consultant