Read as Shawn Vinson talks about his career as an Art Dealer.  You can find Shawn at www.vinsonart.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?

I’m a contemporary art dealer and consultant, and an agent for a select group of British artists.

I also moonlight as a photographer.

How would you describe what you do?

I sell original paintings, works on paper and photographs by a small roster of artists, and broker sales of ‘blue-chip’ Modern and Pop art by Warhol, Escher, etc… I also provide custom-framed artwork for healthcare facilities, offices and hotels. I help my clients select art that suits their style, taste and budget.

What does your work entail?

My work requires more time in front of a computer than it used to: email, website updates. social media, art research, Photoshop, accounting, inventory…  When I’m not ‘pointing and clicking’, I visit clients and artists, talk on the phone, go to the frame shop, make deliveries, install artwork, plan exhibits and events, visit galleries, photograph artwork, and shoot photos for clients.

Technology has changed the game entirely. I was selling art before mobile phones, digital cameras and the internet. I’d drive to various cities, find a hotel offering free local calls, and cold-call galleries and interior designers from the yellow pages to set appointments to show them artwork. I even designed big art portfolios which I branded as ‘Jerico Cases’ and sold to other reps and artists. Now I can show my inventory online and meet with clients when necessary.

What’s a typical work week like?

I don’t recall what a typical work week is like,  but my week usually involves some variety of what I just described. I’m usually in front of the computer or behind the wheel of a car or cargo van. Working on events such as pop-up exhibitions, gallery openings and art fairs always brings a welcome change of pace.

How did you get started? 

When I was 21, I sold real estate during the day and did PR on nights/weekends for a world kickboxing champion’s karate school in Florida. There, I met an art wholesaler, importer and distributor, who was taking classes with his kids. It just so happened that he needed someone to deliver a truckload of artwork to Naples the next day. Real estate was boring and the ‘art world’ sounded very appealing, so I took the job.

I worked my way through the ranks, covered for other employees when they took vacations, and learned how to do shipping/receiving, accounts payable/receivable, order processing,  and purchasing. I became the owner’s assistant, then a sales rep, traveling six weeks at a time. I moved to Atlanta in 1993 to better serve my territory, and a year later I was able to start my own business with a lovely English artist as my partner. We focused on Contemporary British Art, and our partnership is still going strong.

What do you like about what you do?

I love the artists I represent, and it’s a privilege to call them my friends. I enjoy promoting and selling for them  – it’s the next best thing to being a professional artist. I like to curate exhibitions, and I’m proud of what we achieved as Vinson Gallery in Decatur, GA from 1998-2008. We had the first contemporary gallery in our little town near Atlanta, and folks still tell me how much they miss it. Lately I’ve been producing pop-up shows and working with other art and design professionals.

What do you dislike?

Paperwork! A friend and colleague once remarked how extraordinary it is that we have so much paperwork to do in such a (seemingly) simple business as selling art. Art snobs and posers also annoy me.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I earn commissions on sales, and fees for installations and deliveries. I occasionally do contract photography for marketing agencies and real estate firms. I also shoot promo photos for musicians and bands (although they usually compensate me with free beer).

How much money do Art Dealers make?

As you’d expect, it depends on the type of art and the volume of sales. It’s generally commission based, and tends to range anywhere from 5% to 50%. The majority of our sales are in the $200 to $4000 range, and commissions are usually between 10% and 40%. The percentage tends to be lower for high-end, ‘name-brand’ artists. My income is solely based on my sales. It’s not for the faint of heart.

It’s difficult to say what an average income for an art dealer is. Some dealers specialize in major, blue-chip works which can fetch anywhere from mid five-figure prices up to millions of dollars. On the other end of the scale, a dealer showing regional artists may deal in prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand per picture. The former might only average 5%-10% per sale, while the latter could bring in 20%-40%. As with any sales, it’s important to set goals which will give you a broad idea of how much you might earn. When dealing with the higher end of the price range, it’s not uncommon to go for weeks without a sale before hitting a big one. From a purely financial perspective, it’s quite similar to being a real estate agent I suppose, just more interesting.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

My commissions ranged from 5% to 20% as a rep 20 years ago. I think I earned around $30k a year at first. We had a great run in the mid-90s, but most dealers I know have struggled through the past four years. Seems to be picking up again though, thankfully!

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

I found that my experience in retail, and the sales training I got in real estate were useful. I learned all about the artists, techniques, processes and mediums on the job, which really interested me. I’m lucky to have a partner with more art history knowledge in her little finger than most art school professors. She’s introduced me to some great international artists. I enjoy reading art books and magazines, and visiting museums and galleries. You have to have good people skills and know what you are selling, in my view.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Every day, I wake up virtually ‘unemployed’. If I don’t sell a picture, I don’t get paid. During the past four years, it’s been especially challenging. Fine art sales have dropped, but I’ve managed to stay afloat doing art consulting for healthcare and corporate clients. In 2008, we started renting artwork to film and television productions, which are booming here in Georgia thanks to tax incentives for that industry.

What is most rewarding?

My friendships and relationships with my artists and clients make it all worthwhile. Big sales don’t hurt either! I love to travel to places like New York, London and Amsterdam for art fairs and studio visits.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Work for a dealer or gallery first, so you can learn the ropes and earn a wage.  If you decide to go out independently, be sure you have enough money set aside to cover your bills for a year. You’ll need to find some exceptional artists and art sources, and build relationships with them. And you’d better ask yourself if you’re cut out for sales. It takes a strong personality and thick skin.

How much time off do you get/take?

I take time off for typical holidays. I can’t remember when I took a proper two-week vacation. Most often, I combine work with pleasure when I travel. The last time we went to England, for instance, I spent about 20% of my time visiting artists and galleries.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

Just because we look like a million bucks, doesn’t mean we have that kind of dough. The art business seems dominated by galleries and dealers who already have plenty of money from the start. I’d love to have that luxury! Also, not all art dealers are snobs.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

To place certain artists, such as Ruth Franklin and Chris Pig, into museum collections, and publish books of their work. To get my own photographs published in a book and exhibit in more galleries and art fairs.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

To quote British rapper Jamie T: “It’s the hardest way to make an easy living”.