The Difference Between Art Dealers, Art Galleries, and Art Consultants

Definitions, comparisons, and factors to consider when deciding where to buy.
Part of our Art Buyers’ Questions, Answered series.

The Difference Between Art Dealers, Art Galleries, and Art Consultants featured image

Intro

When approaching art buying, a quick Google search will tell you that there are hundreds of options available: online galleries galore; physical galleries across your city; private art dealers; fine art auction houses; art advisory services. Each plays a unique role in the art market, but the similarity and overlap of their names and the services they provide can be confusing—even to those who regularly navigate the art world.

In this article, our goal is to demystify and provide context around the roles that each of these art market players provides, so you know who to call next time you’re buying art.

Terms to Know Before We Start

Primary Market

The term “primary market” refers to the very first sale of an artwork to a buyer. If the artwork is being sold on the primary market, it has had no previous owner besides the artist.

Secondary Market

The term “secondary market” refers to all subsequent sales of an artwork after initial sale on the primary market. If the artwork is being sold on the secondary market, it has had at least one previous owner. The record of ownership or artworks, often used as a guide to the authenticity or prestige of the artwork, is called provenance.

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Artwork by Elena Myasnikova

Art Dealers

What Distinguishes an Art Dealer from the Rest?

We start with the art dealer because it is perhaps the simplest and broadest role that exists in the art market. As the name suggests, art dealers are people who… deal in art. They facilitate artwork transactions – either by brokering art sales on behalf of others, or buying art and re-selling it. This term thus applies to commercial art galleries (art galleries that sell art), online galleries (like us!), and also to private dealers.

Despite this broad categorization, the role of the private dealer most traditionally encompasses what we think of as the art dealer. Art Galleries, Auction Houses, and Art Consultants tend to have functions in addition to dealing in art, which we’ll cover in later sections. So for the rest of this section, we’ll consider the “art dealer” to be the private art dealer.

Private art dealers tend to operate independently, and work in both the primary and secondary markets. In the primary market, they rely on their intimate knowledge of, and relationships with, artists and galleries to find the perfect pieces for clients. In the secondary market, they tend to buy art and build up their own private collections, from which they sell pieces to clients. Another function dealers fulfill in the secondary market (particularly with highly coveted art) is to have extensive knowledge of which collectors own what pieces, and facilitate deals between collectors and other dealers.

Given the job description above, private art dealers tend to be experienced and knowledgeable in the art business, relying on market knowledge and an extensive network. They often have many years’ experience or have worked / are working in other art market roles, such as with art galleries, or as art consultants. Accordingly, private art dealers tend to operate in the upper echelon of the art world, with artists who are already established and coveted, and whose prices justify the highly personalized work they do.

 

Who Should Work with Private Art Dealers?

  • Buyers with the means to purchase investment-grade artworks on the primary or secondary market, and have a reasonable sense of what they’re looking for.
  • Sellers with a collection of works by coveted, established artists.
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Artwork by Alizeh Chaudhry

Art Galleries

What Distinguishes an Art Gallery from the Rest?

Art galleries are split into two main segments: commercial and institutional.

Commercial Art Galleries
Commercial art galleries sell art only in the primary market. In addition to dealing in (selling) art, they have the crucial task of nurturing artists in the development of their public profile, and thus increasing awareness of, and the potential market for, their work. The art gallery could generally be seen as the closest collaborator to the artist compared to all the other roles, as the others tend to be more focused on the buyer / seller and transactions of art—but that’s not always true. Art galleries range from exclusively focused on the art and the artist, to exclusively focused on sales. Both extremes have had success in building markets for their artists. Most commercial galleries live somewhere in the middle.

There are several means through which art galleries raise the profile of the artists they work with:

  • Exhibition. Galleries present artists’ work in a curated environment which complements the artwork and its thematic elements, and attracts an audience who connect with the gallery’s brand and past exhibitions.
  • Prestige. Certain galleries with brand prestige immediately impart this on artists they choose to work with, by association.
  • Marketing & Outreach. Self-explanatory!
  • Documentation. Similar to updating a CV with each career step, when artists have exhibitions and take on projects, they should be documented as part of their portfolio. Documentation includes visual mediums (photos, videos) along with written formats. Running an art gallery and documentation go hand-in-hand, as it is critical to have a “paper trail” which creates a sense of reliability both for artists and buyers.
  • Guidance / Mentorship. With a broader understanding of the art market than most individual artists, art galleries can provide career guidance to the artists they work with. This might include critiquing artists’ work, helping them choose projects and shows, pricing, and much more.
  • Professionalism. Some artists struggle with, or are disinterested in, handling invoicing, documentation, and client communication. Art galleries can act as a professional layer between artists and the public, allowing artists to focus on their work and clients to have a reliable experience when considering an art purchase.

Both physical and online galleries tend to do all of the above with varying levels of prioritization. For example, ArtMatch, as an online rather than physical gallery with a priority on client services, focuses less on exhibition and guidance / mentorship (although we dabble in both), and prioritizes marketing, documentation, and professionalism.

Institutional Art Galleries
When you think of the art museum (MoMA, for example), you are in the territory of the institutional gallery. These fulfill much of the same functions as the commercial gallery, outlined above, but their end goal is not commercial—they do not sell art. They acquire art from artists, private art dealers, and galleries (either on the primary or secondary market), usually with acquisition teams consisting of highly educated and experienced art professionals. They are funded by the public or private benefactors (or both), and once an artwork is acquired into their permanent collection, it becomes a “public good”, or a historical artifact.

It goes without saying that having an artwork acquired by an institution is a significant achievement for an artist and the galleries they represent.

Who Should Work with Art Galleries?

MOST buyers should work with commercial art galleries. We might come off as biased in proclaiming this, but it’s simply the truth. Art galleries service the entire spectrum of art, from emerging artists and entry-level buyers with accessible price points, to the most coveted artists at the highest price points, and everything in between. We always recommend to clients whom are starting out to drop by a few art galleries in their area, and complement this with online gallery research. Physical gallery spaces allow clients to study artworks up-close and get a better feel for their tastes. Online galleries tend to be more commercial in focus, and help buyers get a feel for the many options available and price points. Through this combination, a buyer can develop a stronger definition of what they like, what’s available, and what it’s going to cost.

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Artwork by Gisa Mayer

Art Consultants

What Distinguishes an Art Consultant from the Rest?

Art consultants are perhaps the hardest to pin down. Like consultants in any industry, they tend to have strong subject matter expertise, business and presentation acumen, and the ability to advise on a range of topics within their industry. Art consultants often offer appraisal services and work with collections rather than individual artworks or single transactions, unlike private art dealers. With a high degree of professionalism, they tend to service the corporate world and operate on retainer via lasting relationships with corporate entities who value art and have corporate art collections, such as banks, law offices, and developers.

The two most common forms of art consultation that we see are:

  1. Collections / Acquisitions Management. When a client has (or wants to develop) an art collection, the art consultant gains a deep understanding of their aspirations for the collection (investment, cultural significance, brand alignment, aesthetic), and manages and acquires for it accordingly. Management includes documentation of the existing collection (artwork details, provenance, appraisal value) alongside physical maintenance, such as best practices for caring, showcasing, and storing the art. On the acquisitions side, consultants leverage their deep understanding of the client’s collection and goals to facilitate purchases, often visiting galleries, auction houses, art fairs, and working with private art dealers and directly with artists, to keep their finger on the pulse.
  2. Design / Project Consultants. This role is less focused on the practical management of art collections, and more focused on selecting artworks and presenting the collection such that it elevates the client’s brand and customer experience. These consultants tend to work closely with interior designers, often for hotels, restaurants and bars, condos, and commercial offices. Understanding (and often helping to develop) the aesthetic vision for a client’s space, they source artists whose work could contribute to the vision, often coordinating custom commissions and site-specific installations to meet niche client criteria. They also tend to help with project budgeting & management and finishes regarding outwork presentation, such as framing choice, printing media, lighting, and practical concerns such as delivery and installation.

Who Should Work with Art Consultants?

  • Those with an existing art collection which requires active and dedicated management.
  • Those who have a project with significant art scope, exceeding the qualifications of furnishings provided by an interior designer – e.g. large volumes of work, complex art and design concept development, site-specific installations or commissions.
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Example of a site-specific commission by Lynette Melnyk,
via ArtMatch’s art consultation services.

Auction Houses

Most people know this one, so we’ll keep it brief. Auction houses operate on the secondary market. They typically have dedicated appraisal teams who determine the market value of art pieces that are brought to them by an owner or an estate. If the artwork meets their standards, they will attempt to sell it in an auction format to their existing audience. For buyers, these services tend to be less dedicated than a private art dealer or an art consultant (but more affordable), and rely on a higher level of independence.

Who Should Work with Auction Houses?

  • Sellers who don’t have a high-value collection which warrants a dedicated service, e.g. private art dealer, art consultant.
  • Sellers who need help with appraisal and wish to gain an idea of the market value of their art.
  • Buyers who understand the types of art and artists they are seeking, trust their own judgment, and are comfortable making purchases in an auction environment.
  • Buyers in the browsing stage, as auction houses tend to present a diverse variety of art.
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Artwork by Melanie Cheung

What’s With All the Overlap?

Most people who come to work in the art world did not come for the promise of money. They come out of passion, and quickly learn that it’s a highly competitive space, with limited resources to go around.

To survive in the industry, one is required to learn on the job, adapt to all sorts of client requests, and wear many, many hats. Hence, everyone does a little bit of everything, or at least claims to.

Hopefully this guide helps you clear through the confusion at least a little, so that you know where to start looking next time you’re seeking art!