Survey Results: How contemporary art museums, and centers work with commercial galleries, artists, and collectors

Posted on News
Posted on News

In March 2017 I surveyed American, European, and British museums, kunsthalle, contemporary art centres and large nonprofit galleries that exhibit contemporary art (for the sakes of clarity I will collectively refer to these different types of institutions as museums) about how they work with the private side of the art world. By private I mean commercial galleries, artists and collectors - essentially anyone who is not a nonprofit institution. The results of this survey have been quite interesting.


Key Learnings:
  • If you are a collector it might be worth considering a mediator between your collection and a museum.
  • If you are a gallery, keep promoting your artists to museums, however, consider doing it in a smarter way, either by outsourcing or by employing better timing. 
  • If you are an artist with or without commercial representation, museums are open to working with you.
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Expanded findings from the survey:


1 - 22% of the museums surveyed said that they tend work only with artists, 78% work with artists and galleries, 0% answered that they work solely with commercial galleries.

2 - 73% of museums prefer to get in touch directly with the artist when organising their solo show or for group show requests. There seems to be a consensus that the artist is the first point of contact for a museum.

3 - 27% of museums claimed that they never get in touch with commercial galleries for artwork loan requests, or with requests to work with the gallery’s artists.

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4 - The financial relationship between commercial gallery and museum is far more complicated and fractured than one can imagine.

I’d like to expand on this, as during this research and my day-to-day job, I have seen prejudice from both sides.

Prejudice#1: Museums often believe that as soon as they show a work, the prices go up and galleries will monetize on the success of the exhibition that the museum organised.

This is almost never the case with emerging artists and the primary art market. In my personal experience, it usually takes half a dozen of mid-sized museums to show an artist’s work for it to have any long-lasting effect on the artist’s career let alone on their prices. Some galleries might try and monetise on their artists involved in exhibitions and will invite prospective buyers to see the work during the run of the exhibition, but these are short-term benefits that might have an effect on the price of the work(s) in that one show rather than long-term effects on the whole body of work by an artist.

Prejudice #2: Commercial galleries, on the other hand, often believe that museums expect them to contribute to the costs of the exhibition when organised by a museum. Usually, the contribution will take the form of a payment towards shipping, or insurance, or some other expense.

87.5% of the museums participating in the survey do not expect the gallery to sponsor their show. Moreover, 61% said that they don’t expect support even if it’s a solo exhibition of the gallery’s artist.

5 - 100% of respondents stated that they are happy to work with artists not represented by a commercial gallery, including emerging artists.

6 - Museums that accept unsolicited proposals (44% of respondents), accept them from:

  • 42% - artists
  • 33% - curators
  • 17% - commercial galleries
  • 8% - private collectors
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7 - We asked if museums bring in external exhibitions, asking the question we allowed multiple responses. We found that 81% of museums bring in exhibitions created with independent curators. 75% of museums co-produce the exhibitions that they bring in with another institution. The same number of respondents are happy to bring in an exhibition that is co-created with an artist, and only 31% are open to bringing in an exhibition that was created with a private collection.

8 - The one question where there was no unity in answers was when we asked about the percentage of works museums borrow from commercial art galleries, collectors, and artists.

The answers to this question varied greatly. Surveyed museums responded that for some exhibitions no works are borrowed from the private sector, whereas for other exhibitions all works came from the private sector.  


Conclusions:

Here I will expand on the key learnings introduced at the very beginning of this article.


Conclusions for collectors

I find the museum’s attitude towards collectors puzzling, considering how many collectors become donors and patrons to museums, how many are involved in committees, and how many sit on boards of art museums.

This finding does ring true with the anecdotal evidence that I collected over many museum mingling events. Almost every curator I spoke with has a dreaded story about that one unprofessional collector who kept intervening in the curatorial and organisational process. It seems to also support another anecdote that museums “do want to work with artworks and objects from private collections but not with the collectors”.

Actionable point: If you are a collector who wants to work with museums, our survey seems to suggest that you have two options: either get involved with the museum in a different capacity before becoming a lender or involve a mediator to work with a museum on your behalf. This can be either be a curator or a collections manager that you hire, or a service such as Vastari.

If you are a museum which wants to work with collectors, it seems that you have little competition from your peers.


Conclusions for artists

The fact that the majority of museums want to work with artists with or without representation, has been an incredible and empowering discovery, as many artists believe that to have a successful career they must be represented by a gallery.

Actionable point: Depending on where you are in your career and where you want to go, if you once had an idea about working with a certain museum, now might be the time to take the plunge.  


Conclusions for commercial galleries

What does this all mean for commercial galleries? Well, as the numbers show, it’s a lot of work for little reward. Let’s do some basic math: 44% of museums which took the survey work with unsolicited proposals. Out of that 44 %, only 17% are happy with proposals from galleries. In other words, less than 8 museums out of a 100 will even consider an unsolicited proposal from a commercial gallery (v. the equivalent of 20 from artists, or around 16 from curators). And if those 8 museums look at your proposal, it does not mean they will reply to it. To get 100 theoretical museums to look at your proposal, you need to send out 1200 emails ((8/100) x1250=100), without counting the follow-ups. Now think of the amount of time you wasted…

Actionable point: I am not saying that galleries should stop trying to get museums to work with their artists, but that there are more efficient and smarter ways of achieving this.

Solution #1 Outsourcing

Working with museums is often considered the “fun part” of working for a commercial gallery, however, maybe it’s time to consider outsourcing the laborious parts of emailing and chasing up. Entering the conversation, once a museum actually reads the proposal and wants to learn more about it.

Solution #2 Timing

It’s often believed that museums are non-changing monoliths, in reality, they do change, and at Vastari we see changes in programming and curatorial opinions happen all the time. They might not have been interested in your artists a year ago but now a year on your artist might be exactly what they are searching.


The theme that runs through the responses is that museums and nonprofits want to work with artists and curators, and would rather not be directly involved with commercial galleries and collectors. Thus commercial galleries and collectors have to adapt and try new approaches, why not try a new approach just now and sign up for Vastari?