Art Business: Working as an Artists Assistant

It is not uncommon for successful artists to have assistants, but there is no uniform job description for them. An artist’s art business involves billing, bookkeeping, photographic documentation, recordkeeping, sales, promotion and marketing, shipping, inventory, website development, grant writing, purchasing office and art supplies, as well as the design and production of items to be sold. In some or all of these realms, assistants may be needed.

Artist Susan Schwalb has been attempting to keep a computer inventory of every work of art she has created as a professional—including title, medium, dimensions, framing, signature, exhibitions, sale information, and current location, as well as an image. “I’m creating my own catalogue raisonné, which may be very useful in planning exhibitions,” she says. Because of her relative lack of computer knowledge, however, Schwalb has chosen to hire assistants to help her with this task. In addition to the computer work, Schwalb’s assistants have helped frame her canvases and crate them for shipping, but she hasn’t had them work on the surfaces of her paintings. Other artists, however, require assistants to have advanced degrees or to demonstrate competence at painting because they work directly on the artists’ canvases.

There are various benefits to working as an artist’s assistant, but for most the chief attraction is the potential entrée to the professional world of art business that it offers younger artists. Schwalb’s assistants learn how to organize a career; others might share in the artistic process; all assistants have the opportunity to meet the people who come into the studio (collectors, critics, curators, dealers, and other artists). And while conversations with visitors rarely result in the exhibition and sale of their work, the assistants do learn something about the business of art.

A sculpture by Alice Aycock.
A sculpture by Alice Aycock.

On the down side, the pay isn’t good and job benefits like healthcare are nonexistent. Assistants don’t receive credit for contributing to the artist’s work, and those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art may find it demeaning to sweep the floor or fetch the mail. A studio assistant’s tenure ranges from a few months to a few years, depending on what the artist needs and how long someone is willing to work in a role in which promotions, raises, and industry recognition are unlikely to occur.

“Tom wants the highest skills for the lowest wage,” says Liz Ensz, who worked for sculptor Tom Sachs for one year (starting at $15 per hour, ending at $17 per hour), creating various components for a lunar module installation based on photographs provided by the artist. Although working for Sachs provided interesting rewards—such as the opportunity to perform as an astronaut in his demonstration of the lunar landing—when Sachs’ artwork was exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery, in Los Angeles, in 2007, Ensz and the other assistants came to the opening but all the applause was for Sachs. Although this can be disheartening for some, Ensz was not offended. “I don’t feel weird about that at all,” she says. “I’m actually grateful for the experience. I learned more in Tom’s studio than I did in art school.”

Even if you don’t mind not getting credit, the studio assistant’s job can prove difficult for an aspiring artist. “It ends up becoming your whole life; it just consumes you,” says Claire Taylor, who worked for sculptor Tara Donovan for nine months, helping with a large project the artist was developing. “It is very hard after eight hours of constant labor in another artist’s studio to come home and push yourself to do your own work.”

There are a variety of ways to find out if an artist needs an assistant. The artist’s principal dealer can be a good source of information, and other artists often know which studios are more likely to hire assistants, perhaps offering a reference or an introduction. Some advertise jobs on the New York Foundation for the Arts website or on Craigslist.com. Artists sometimes contact art schools when they need help, and these institutions may arrange internships and assistantships for current students and alumni. As Katharine Schutta, the assistant dean and director of career development at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, notes, “During an interview it’s important that you know and express excitement about the artist’s work, as well as bring up the skills you have to offer.”

On occasion, a studio assistant learns something that leads to an unexpected career. Carmella Saraceno, for example, discovered her real calling while working with sculptor Alice Aycock. Having heard that Aycock needed a sculpture unloaded from a truck, she spent the day at the artist’s Manhattan studio, directing the process of maneuvering large-scale pieces in and out of the freight elevator. “At the end of the day Alice asked me to work for her,” Saraceno recalls.

The work was varied, to say the least. “I answered the phone, went to the bank, and moved the car before it was towed,” she says. More importantly, she ordered materials, coordinated crews, and figured out how to put together and install the public sculptures for which Aycock provided designs. In 1990 Saraceno started her own business in Chicago, called Methods & Materials, which helps artists, art galleries, corporations, museums, and public-arts agencies assemble, install, deinstall, and relocate large-scale artworks. Her business currently employs nine artists, who are afforded health insurance and 401(k) pension plans. “Now my job is managing a team of experts who figure out solutions for all types of three-dimensional installations,” she says. And she wouldn’t be doing it if she hadn’t been an artist’s assistant.

by Daniel Grant

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