Working in the art trade might not be such a bad career move after all, particularly in the US, according to the findings of the first Art Market Salary Report, released in April and compiled by the specialist recruitment agency Sophie Macpherson Ltd (SML). “The art world can still be difficult to navigate structurally. Historically, it has been considered an industry with low pay,” says Rosie Allan, the managing director of SML. “Things do seem to have improved.”
The report focuses on the commercial sector where, predictably, the highest salaries are earned at the top international auction houses and contemporary art galleries. Senior auction-house specialists are paid a base salary of up to £130,000 in the UK and $350,000 in the US, while a senior sales director at a major gallery in the UK could earn as much as £250,000, or $425,000 in the US, excluding bonuses and commissions, according to the report.
The findings reveal that staff in the US are paid significantly more than their UK counterparts at all levels. Starter salaries for gallery assistants, for example, are pitched at £23,000 in the UK, while they start at $40,000 in the US, according to SML.
The SML report gives a corporate-style overview of salaried employment in the Anglo-American art world. But unlike the recently released Structurally F-cked inquiry into artists’ pay and conditions, the report does not investigate how pay levels impact on individuals’ ability to maintain a sustainable professional life, particularly in inflation-blighted cities where most art-world employers are based. How can a starting salary of £23,000 be sustainable in London, where the average rent is now £30,000 a year, according to Rightmove?
In addition, the report contains no data on freelancers or interns. Unpaid internships are a long-notorious blight on the art-world jobscape. Allan points out that UK law now obliges employers to pay interns a minimum wage. But are smaller players still exploiting graduates’ hopes of climbing the art-world ladder? “I’m not au fait with pay at that level,” she says.
Unpaid internships certainly remain a feature of the US commercial gallery scene. Last month, the jobs section of the New York Foundation for the Arts featured internships at the Barro, YveYANG and Van Der Plas galleries in New York. All were unpaid, with college credits—and the name of a gallery on a CV—offered as incentives.
The prestigious places are the worst sometimesAnonymous freelance curator
The salaries of curators, writers, researchers and those in more academic roles, many of whom are employed in both the commercial and public sectors, is also not covered in the SML report. One freelance curator The Art Newspaper spoke to on condition of anonymity earned just over £20,000 last year—£17,500 overseas. Over the past five years, her annual salary has averaged £24,000. Her UK work is 90% in public institutions, with overseas assignments chiefly paid for by art fairs, private museums and foundations. The curator says she was paid just £200 per 1,000 words to write an essay for the National Gallery in London. “The prestigious places are the worst sometimes,” she says.
Speaking of the fees she is paid by public institutions, the British artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman says “barely anything has changed since 1985” when her work began to be commissioned and exhibited. The artist, whose Tate Britain winter commission was a hit with the public in 2020-21, notes how fees are “a constant negotiation”. She adds: “You end up being a producer as well as an artist. The length of time and the amount of labour it takes to create a work, it often doesn’t add up.”
The art world is famously not well structured to accommodate childcare either; early-evening private views, for example, clash with bath and bedtime—“arsenic hour”, as the art critic Hettie Judah calls it. According to a recent survey by the consultancy PwC, Britain’s gender pay gap has widened four times faster than in other developed countries, with childcare costs eating up a third of a UK family’s average income compared with 1% in Germany. Nursery fees in London, for instance, frequently cost at least £100 per day—£26,000 a year for a five-day week, not including evening care.
As the SML salary report notes, for senior level jobs in particular, bonuses and benefits packages have had to become more competitive, especially when trying to attract staff across from other industries. “As the cost-of-living increases, we are seeing candidates place more importance on benefits offered beyond a base salary,” says the report.
One such benefit is parental leave and while some businesses have been slow to improve policies, there has been progress among the major auction houses. Sotheby’s has doubled its maternity and adoption pay to six months’ full pay and, since April, employees can pay for childcare through a salary sacrifice arrangement, saving them between 32% and 47% of their fees depending on their tax bracket. Christie’s and Phillips both have a global policy of 16 weeks fully paid maternity/paternity/adoption leave for each employee. At Christie’s this is followed by the employee’s “regional maternity policy”.
Phillips offers “the additional option of a flexible work arrangement for the first two months following return from leave”, according to a spokesperson, while Christie’s offers a “family-friendly return” to work—a four-day week, for eight weeks, at full pay. Christie’s also offers to pay for ten sessions or days of emergency back-up care for children or elderly dependants. Bonhams, meanwhile, “is currently reviewing its maternity and childcare policy to ensure that it gives full support to members of staff. We aim to increase our paid maternity/adoption policies globally.”
With their large staff and deeper pockets, the biggest auction houses are in the best position to offer attractive parental leave policies and, at least initially, accommodate flexible working. But many smaller businesses cannot afford to be as generous. The reality of returning to a job in the art world, and in particular the frequent travel and out-of-hours work requirements, can still be a shock.
One London gallery director says she spends 100% of her salary on childcare (80% nanny, 20% daycare). “I have to rely heavily on a nanny due to the demands of art fairs, events and openings, so more affordable childcare such as a full-time daycare or a childminder setting aren’t suitable,” she says. The director has just had a second baby and says she, like many others, will now have to work part-time “as I can’t give both the gallery or my kids 100%”.
As Christie’s sees a massive leap in IT-related C02 emissions, a cleaner breed of NFTs offers hope
Shipping art and staff around the world used to be the most obviously problematic source of CO2 emissions at auction houses. Christie’s third annual Environmental Impact Report, released in April, revealed that it has made dramatic progress in reducing emissions in those two areas of its business. But the bad news is that during the same period, IT emissions increased by 50%, making this the company’s biggest CO2 polluter.
“It breaks down into three or four main areas; procurement is the big one,” says David Findlay, Christie’s global operations project director. He refers to the indirect emissions generated by the auction house’s computer software and hardware, as well as the services and suppliers required to maintain them, much of which is outsourced. Findlay points to Christie’s data centres, its e-waste requirements and blockchain activities as the other main areas of concern.
Until last September, when Ethereum launched its more environmentally friendly proof-of-stake protocol, NFTs had been regarded as an environmental worst offender. But Ethereum 2.0 has effected transformative reductions in CO2 when minting digital tokens. “It’s immense. I’m hearing 95% to 99%,” says Findlay, who commends the Gallery Climate Coalition for recommending Ethereum 2.0 to its 800 members, which include Christie’s. Last year, NFT sales at Christie’s increased by 74%, but thanks to Ethereum’s new technology, emissions decreased by 38%, according to the report.
“We’ve made huge gains over the last two to three years. There’s going to be a long tail of incremental reductions in our emissions,” Findlay says. “Every company will face this. We’ve done the big, easy stuff first.”
Ben Gore, Christie’s chief operating officer, writes in the report’s foreword: “We expect technology to be a key enabler for future carbon reductions across our operations.” But it now appears that technology is a big part of the problem, as well as the solution. And the full force of AI has not even kicked in yet.