Most Art Gallery Assistants Earn Far Less Than a Living Wage, According to Our Exclusive Dealer Salary Survey

Artnet News surveyed over 300 gallerists about what it takes to make a living in the art world.

Chelsea's gallery district. Photo via Flickr.

Many members of the commercial art world have used the pandemic as a clarion call to their employers, demanding an overhaul of the pressure-cooker environments that have proliferated in the industry over the past two decades. But few gallerists have been willing to discuss the financials involved in becoming a gallerist.

Last month, Artnet News surveyed more than 300 art dealers about the economics of their operations: details on their salary ranges, responsibilities, demographics, and personal stories. What emerged from this data, which we collected anonymously, was a portrait of an industry beset with income inequality.

More than 100 respondents to the survey identified as gallery directors, the majority of whom were making more than $100,000, with a few top earners reaching toward the millions. By comparison, those who identified as gallery assistants hit a ceiling of $35,000—about 30 percent less than what researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology define as a living wage in New York State. Over a 40-hour week, the sum comes in under $17 an hour. 

People look at artworks during the preview of the 22nd edition of the Art Paris art fair at the Grand Palais in Paris, on September 9, 2020. Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images.

The preview of the 22nd edition of the Art Paris at the Grand Palais on September 9, 2020. Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images.

“I would never work at a gallery ever again,” said one source who has held various roles including gallery intern, assistant, registrar, manager, and owner over the course of eight years.

This person said that while owning their own gallery meant “no limit” to the amount of hours they worked, being employed at other galleries was hardly preferable, since it typically involved putting in over 40 hours per week without benefits like health insurance, paid overtime, or bonuses.

Such accounts are representative of responses to our survey, which came from 28 countries. Only a minority of gallerists said that their employer provided overtime pay (13 percent) or  bonus (30 percent). Benefits like maternity leave (37 percent) and family leave (26 percent) were also rare. 

And as smaller galleries get squeezed by oversize competitors like Gagosian, David Zwirner, and Pace, dealers find themselves pouring more money directly into their businesses.

“Small galleries don’t really have budgets to hire full-time employees because we, as the gallery owners, are often unpaid ourselves for years and years,” said Allegra LaViola, owner and director of New York gallery Sargent’s Daughters. “Everything we make just goes straight back into the gallery, so it’s kind of impossible to hire people at the level we would want to, until we get a little bigger.”

During the economic doldrums of the pandemic, some gallerists reported relying on credit card debt and cost-cutting measures to get through the market’s dip. Alongside widespread layoffs and furloughs, more than a fifth of survey respondents said that they received pay cuts of 20 percent or more.

Over the past year, some arts workers have flocked to social media accounts like @cancelartgalleries to publish anonymous allegations of racism and sexism, demonstrating how a lack of diversity in the commercial art world may be impacting the workplace. In their wake, large dealerships such as David Zwirner and Pace have promised substantive changes to diversity protocols and the retention of employees of color.

Scott Reeder, Unfair, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago.

Scott Reeder, Unfair, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago.

Our numbers indicate that there is quite a long way to go. Of the 288 respondents who identified their race in our survey, 85 percent identified as white. That ratio increased when looking at executive-level employees, of which nearly 93 percent identified as white. (This data correlates to what we hear from professional organizations in the industry. For example, the Art Dealers Association of America has nearly 180 members; only three are Black-owned galleries.)

Data from the survey also signified a wage gap between men and women in executive positions. The average salary for executives who identified as female was just shy of $80,000, while men reported pay that was 30 percent higher, at $110,000. There was not enough information to sufficiently analyze the disparity in salaries between white and nonwhite dealers.

Despite these bracing figures, some dealers are coming out of the pandemic optimistic. Los Angeles gallery owner David De Boer thinks gallerists may feel emboldened to allocate resources differently after a year spent saving money on art fairs and travel.

Working anywhere between 40 and 80 hours a week, De Boer said he tries to reinvest 100 percent of his proceeds back into the gallery, relying on advisory work for additional income. He has one director on staff who he has promoted to equity partner; the director receives an agreed-upon percentage of gallery profits that will increase as the business grows.

“I want him to be 100 percent invested in what we’re doing,” De Boer said. “I think that’s a better way for galleries to operate.”

For a deeper dive into our salary survey, see the full story on Artnet News Pro. Your membership fees help support our journalism. If you aren’t yet a member, you can subscribe here.

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