The Back Room: Counting Galleries’ Money

This week in the Back Room: Dealer salaries, surveyed; Marlborough Gallery, resurrected; U.S. museums, stabilized(?); and much more.

Original image: Craftworkers compare blown-up sections of counterfeit hundred-dollar bills with a sample legitimate bill expanded to 400x actual size. (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: Dealer salaries, surveyed; Marlborough Gallery, resurrected; U.S. museums, stabilized(?); and much more—all in an 8-minute read (2,135 words).



Top of the Market

Gallery Wages: Payable by Reality Check

Installation view of Aicon Art Gallery at Art Dubai 2021. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

Installation view of Aicon Art Gallery at Art Dubai 2021. Courtesy of Art Dubai.

Ever read an art-fair sales report and thought: “OK, but… how much do dealers and their staff actually earn from all these supposed sales?” Well, we now have some answers.

Last month, Artnet News surveyed more than 300 gallerists in 28 countries about take-home pay and other seldom-discussed operational matters—and the results show much of the glitz and glamour of art dealing is sparked by costume jewelry.

Below, I’ve filtered the full report from Zachary Small and Eileen Kinsella into three takeaways backed by a few key data points. If you can’t get to the full report, this will help you fake it for the cameras and the crowds (which is what the gallery biz is usually about anyway, it turns out).


1. It Generally Pays Better to Be a Gallery Director Than a Gallery Owner

Sound illogical? Well, consider these figures…

  • $100,000+: annual salary reported by a majority of the 100+ gallery directors in the sample.
  • A few top earners [reach] toward the millions,” according to Zachary and Eileen.

Now compare those two data points to these two:

  • About $65,000: the median salary for owners, directors, and partners combined. (The median is the number that divides the upper half of the distribution from the lower half.)
  • $10,000: the most frequent salary reported by the trio above. (Respondents listing this amount or less said their income was typically linked to sales commissions.)

Why the disparity? Most dealers, particularly sole proprietors, usually reinvest their profits into the company, “with the bare minimum going toward living expenses.” Many bankroll their operation by loading up credit card debt, paying it down in good times, and then repeating the process.

Geography plays a major role in earnings, too. In New York, the median salary for execs at high-level galleries is $140,000… but that figure plummets nearly 70 percent outside of Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and London. Regional dealers also generally earn a median salary of just $50,000.


2. Many Gallery Staffers Endure Low Wages and Few Benefits, Especially in U.S. Hubs

  • $35,000: maximum annual salary for New York gallery assistants.
  • $45,300: living wage for an adult New Yorker with no children, per MIT.

These east coast stats broadly align with a recent, smaller study of about 170 L.A. arts workers of all types, whose average salary collectively landed south of $37,000—roughly $3,000 below the living wage in Los Angeles County.


Benefits are in short supply for all respondents, even among directors and other high-level gallery personnel. Maternity leave was the most prevalent benefit, with 37 percent of respondents saying their employer provides it. Other benefits were even rarer, including bonuses (offered to 30 percent of respondents), family leave (26 percent), and overtime pay (13 percent).


3. Race and Gender Imbalances Show Up in Staff Demographics and Earnings

  • 85 percent: Proportion of all 288 respondents who identified their race as white.
  • 93 percent: Proportion of executive-level employees identifying as white.

These figures broadly map onto racial demographics elsewhere in the field, such as in the Art Dealers Association of America, which counts only three Black-owned galleries among its 180 members.

While there was not enough data among survey respondents to draw sound conclusions about wage equity among races, a substantial discrepancy emerged between genders.

  • 30 percent: the amount by which gallery execs who identified as men ($110,000) outearned their counterparts identifying as women ($80,000).


The Bottom Line

Contrary to how they are frequently caricatured, the average art dealer is either in the game for love, not money… or really needs to reevaluate. The financial gauntlet is even more merciless for gallery support staff, particularly at the entry level, and especially among personnel who identify as anything other than a white man.

Still, in an era where equity and sustainability have rushed to the foreground, this data can be an important building block to a better future for art dealing. It will just require more transparency, more commitment, and more progressive attitudes to prevail.

[Read More]


The Art Detective

The Rekindling of Marlborough Gallery

Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea. Courtesy of Marlborough.

The gallery storefront in New York. Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.

Against all odds, Marlborough Gallery is storming back from the (near) dead. But as any reader of myths, religious texts, or undead romances would expect, it’s not returning from the other side unchanged.

Katya Kazakina’s story on the gallery’s resurgence is full of twists, turns, and wild details (the phrase “10 truckloads of garbage” appears, and not as a metaphor). But I’ll summarize Marlborough’s transformation by focusing on three pivot points.


A Leadership Change

Douglas Walla, a 70-year-old artist-turned-dealer who worked for Marlborough from 1978 to 1985, was named C.E.O. last July—shortly after the board fired president Max Levai and accepted the subsequent resignation of his father, Pierre Levai.

  • The reunion came after Walla ran his own gallery, Kent Fine Art, for the intervening 35 years… then called his old boss upon reading Nate Freeman’s Artnet News exposé on the gallery’s turmoil.
  • Knowledge of inventory was key to Walla’s hire. He estimated Marlborough controls 30,000 artworks—largely because, unlike other galleries, “the distinguishing characteristic of Marlborough is that they always bought a lot.”
  • The gallery is still in a legal brawl with its prior regime. Max Levai lodged a $10 million lawsuit alleging a “coup” against his family; the gallery countersued for $8 million alleging mismanagement, concealment of valuable artworks’ locations, and defamation of the board.


A Real-Estate Consolidation

Marlborough’s West 25th Street gallery is now the hub of the operation—a plan initiated by Max Levai but dramatically altered after his ouster.

  • Levai sold the gallery’s 57th Street location and Brooklyn warehouse, then tried to expand by acquiring Cheim & Read’s old space on West 25th Street.
  • The board later bailed on the Cheim & Read deal, making Chelsea the gallery’s only venue in town.
  • Walla’s first task was to sort through the 57th Street inventory (all shipped to West 25th Street by Levai), and make subtle upgrades to the remaining gallery, including better tech and an actual see-through storefront window.

A Programming Makeover

The cooler, younger set of artists and buyers who gravitated to Marlborough under Levai and former V.P. Pascal Spengemann would no doubt hit the gallery’s revamped roster with a hearty “OK Boomer”—but based on early returns, Walla and his staff are more than fine with that.

  • Artists who exited after Levai’s firing included Andrew KuoJonah FreemanJustin Lowe, and Tony Matelli.
  • Artists signed under the Walla regime include seascape specialist Ran Ortner and Deborah Butterfield, contemporary art’s sculptor laureate of horses.
  • The gallery also recently sold two paintings by the late French-Chinese abstractionist Chu Teh-Chun for a combined total of more than $1 million.

Walla said Marlborough’s exhibition schedule is booked through 2022.

  • A group show of 10 photographers from Yale’s MFA program debuts next week.
  • July brings live performance pieces by Le’Andra LeSeur.
  • Fall will feature two epic Sam Francis canvases (last shown together by Gagosian in 1996), plus sculptures by the late steel sorceress Beverly Pepper.

All told, no one knows the gallery’s next phase better than its C.E.O.:

“I needed some lead time to reformulate the legacy of Marlborough as I had experienced it under my early years… I think the formula is ‘looking forward, looking back.’” —Douglas Walla.


[Read More]


Data Dip

Half as Many U.S. Museums on the Brink or in Limbo

© Artnet News 2021, from data by the American Alliance of Museums.

© Artnet News 2021, from data by the American Alliance of Museums.

In the third survey-based snapshot of its member institutions produced since the March 2020 shutdown, the American Alliance of Museums found that 15 percent of respondents in late April felt they were either at “significant risk of permanent closure” within one year or were unsure. In late October 2020, a distressing 29 percent of respondents fell into one of those two categories.

So is this good news or bad news? Mostly, it’s a textbook example of anchoring bias, the tendency for our feelings about new info to be warped by the first data point we get about a topic.

Case in point: In comparison to 29 percent of AAM respondents actively pondering the reaper’s arrival last fall, “only” 15 percent seems pretty good! In comparison to the (likely) negligible percentage that would have said they might perish pre-shutdown, 15 percent seems pretty bad!

What’s clear, however, is that the situation for U.S. institutions has improved dramatically in six months. Here’s hoping when the next survey comes back to the AAM, we’ve seen an even steeper decline in existential fear.

Click through below for Taylor Dafoe’s full summary (or jump straight to the actual study here).


[Read More]


“It was nasty as a mofo.”

Linda Goode Bryant (whose work appears in Antwaun Sargent’s upcoming “Social Works” exhibition at Gagosian) on landlords and real-estate agents’ reactions when she inquired about renting space to start Just Above Midtown, Manhattan’s first gallery focused on Black artists, in the early ‘70s.


Express Checkout

Leon Black’s (Fictional?) Gallery Dragged Into Court + Four More Market Morsels

In today’s Wet Paint, Nate outlines how Leon Black’s alleged overtures about launching a gallery factor into the sexual assault lawsuit levied against him by former model Guzel Ganieva. (Artnet News Pro)

Also included in the art world’s greatest gossip column…

  • The first five galas returning IRL, starting with the Amfar Gala Cannes on July 16.

  • Larry Gagosian has acquired two Issy Wood paintings and is hot after more.

  • Matthew Wong’s first major solo museum show opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario in August.

  • PPOW will pop up in Provincetown with a David Wojnarowicz show opening June 25.

  • Jayne Drost Johnson will inaugurate a Tribeca branch of her upstate gallery, JDJ Ice House, at 373 Broadway.


Art Basel confirmed to VIPs that its flagship fair is on from September 20 to September 26 for visitors with proof of vax, a recent negative test, or proof of “sufficient antibodies”; capacity will be capped 20 percent lower than normal, with an extra VIP day added to offset the restriction. (The Magic of Twitter)


Sotheby’s plans to establish a showroom in Cologne, and will keep its seat in Germany warm in the interim by hosting online sales of lots sourced from in and around the country. (Artnet News Pro)


Bonhams hired ex-Christie’s specialist Marcello Kwan to lead its Modern and contemporary art unit in Asia; Tang Contemporary Art and Christie’s vet Cindy Lim will come aboard as senior specialist and head of sales in Hong Kong. (ARTnews)


Sunjung Kim will not return as president of South Korea’s Gwangju Biennale Foundation when her contract expires at the end of the month due in part to a clash with the event’s labor union. (Art Asia Pacific)


Artwork of the Week

Jonathan Chapline’s Model Home

Jonathan Chapline, Untitled (2019). Courtesy of Phillips.

Jonathan Chapline, Untitled (2019). Courtesy of Phillips.


Date:                      2019

Seller:                    Private Collection

Price:                     $51,300–76,900 (HK$400,000–600,000) 

Selling At:              Phillips Hong Kong’s 20th Century Art & Design Day Sale                                      in Association With Poly Auction

Sale Date:              Monday, June 7


In May 2020, Chapline’s paintings were selling on the primary market for under $15,000, and his name had never been searched in the Artnet Price Database. But last December, one of his pieces sold for a record $243,861 (HK$1.9 million)—more than four times its high estimate—at Phillips in association with Poly Auction. He was also one of the fastest-rising artists in the Artnet PDB this spring, racking up nearly 50 searches across April and May. Soon we’ll see if Model Home (the larger of two Chapline works up for bidding in this auction) just looks like a scene from a video game, or if bidders will once again compete like they’re playing each other in one.


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.


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