Editor’s Note: Alex Glauber is an art advisor, curator, and educator based in New York. He is the founder of AWG Art Advisory and, as of last month, the president of the Association of Professional Art Advisors.
How do you navigate a profession where the title is offered before the skillset? A career that for many starts with nothing more than a business card and email address. Throughout history, art collectors have relied on counsel when it comes to determining what to spend their money on and how much it should cost. What we now call “art advising” is a profession that does not come with a handbook or certification. There is no one way to conceptualize it as a practice or define it as a service.
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I decided I wanted to be an art advisor when I was 25 and quickly realized that just because I could call myself one didn’t mean I had any business doing so. The fact is, anyone can call themselves an advisor and that, in my mind, was the problem; the lack of barriers to entry was the greatest barrier of all. While knowledge can be learned, wisdom must be gained and there are no shortcuts to experience. As the German poet Heinrich Heine said, “experience is a good school. But the fees are high”.
There are few roles in the art world that collaborate as extensively across its ecosystem as art advising. Over the course of helping our clients conceive, build, and steward their collections, we are essential conduits that help facilitate the broader functionality of the art market. While we first and foremost serve the needs and interests of our clients, we are also communitarians within a cultural economy that we help sustain and grow. We bring efficiency, transparency, and rectitude to one of the largest unregulated industries, a marketplace obfuscated by the fact that transactions are based on a form of value that is socially constructed rather than intrinsic. Such an environment can be easily exploited by bad actors who see opportunity in the blind spots and a job title that requires no accreditation other than the aforementioned email address and business card.
At the outset of my career I sought the advice of as many leading advisors as I could and found that more times than not the common denominator was their membership in the Association of Professional Art Advisors (APAA). Eventually, I, too, became a member and, as of last month, am the organization’s president, a responsibility I do not take lightly.
From time to time, circumstances arise in art advising that occasion a reminder of why the APAA exists. Founded in 1980, the APAA is the only standard-setting organization for the practice of art advisory and is dedicated to promoting standards of connoisseurship, scholarship, and ethical practice in the profession, and to increasing public awareness of the role and responsibilities of reputable art advisors. APAA’s members commit to a code of ethics that was designed to always prioritize the best interests of the client. How we do so is the lodestar that should guide our practices and inform how we aid and navigate the collecting process with transparency and objectivity. It’s the foundation on which we are then able to deploy our art historical and market knowledge to educate our clients and help them transact with confidence.
The irony is that when art advisors do their job well, they all but “disappear.” In its most reductive and elemental state, the collecting process and the commercial art world requires three key constituents. Spoiler alert, art advisors aren’t one of them.
First and foremost, the artist — they are the starting point that seeds all art-world activity, both through the creation of objects and the pursuit of enlightenment. From there, the gallerist presents, contextualizes, and commoditizes the artwork, a somewhat paradoxical process of pricing the priceless and quantifying the intangible. In the words of the famed dealer Leo Castelli, “My responsibility is the myth-making of myth material.” Growing the myth creates symbolic value and belief, the glue that holds the art world together. The third and final cornerstone to the commercial art world is the collector. At the most basic level, their acquisitive behavior helps underwrite cultural production and its dissemination. That is what “buying” does, but collectors do more. They are custodians and apostles that reify the belief. In the words of renowned collector Howard Rachofsky, “What starts as a pastime evolves into a hobby and then it becomes an obsession, and then a disease.”
How then does an art advisor participate and add value within this framework? The ambivalence with which many gallerists, dealers, and auction house specialists view art advisors is owed in part to whether an advisor is considered to have made the transacting process more efficient or convoluted. When an advisor is properly aligned with their client in mission and has garnered trust through transparency, they ameliorate the whole process. They can shepherd a client through an abstruse marketplace with ever increasing optionality to identify, access, acquire, and live with meaningful works of art. If the advisor can adopt their client’s taste and refine it to its most sophisticated and idiosyncratic form, they can develop a collection that is true to its owner and does not bear the “fingerprints” of the advisor. Put another way, each collection should say much more about the collector who owns it than the advisor who helped build it. This is what it means to “disappear”.
In contrast, the practitioners who give the field a bad name favor opacity over transparency and, more times than not, comport themselves as a principal instead of an agent. Rather than endeavoring to mitigate conflicts of interest they focus more on how to conceal them. For instance, many of the masterpieces that anchor the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s collection were acquired by Gardner under the direction of her advisor, Bernard Berenson. Considered the preeminent Renaissance scholar at the turn of the 20th century, Berenson advised Gardner on the acquisition of more than forty masterpieces by the likes of Botticelli, Titian, and Rembrandt for which he charged a 5% advisory fee. Unbeknownst to Gardner, Berenson was also accepting kickbacks from the dealers. Most egregious was his clandestine arrangement with the famed dealer Joseph Duveen for whom Berenson would authenticate Old Master pictures and receive a share of the profits once sold. As many of these works would end up in collections for which Berenson was the advisor, he was “double dipping” to the detriment of his client.
As the art market has grown in scope and scale, rapacious intermediaries no longer need be as scholarly as Berenson; access supersedes intellect. Consider the ongoing case of Yves Bouvier and Dimitry Rybolovev in which Bouvier stands accused of leveraging the proprietary information afforded to him as the owner of a freeport to source and sell thirty-nine artworks to his client Rybolovev, but not before purportedly inflating the prices by nearly $1 billion. This was all purportedly unbeknownst to Rybolovev who believed he was paying his advisor a fixed and transparent fee. Like Berenson, Bouvier structured himself as an agent in the eyes of his client, when, in reality, he was operating as a principal. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior continues to this day as “advisors” posture as being scrupulous while surreptitiously exploiting the faith and trust of their clients.
As the APAA’s next president, I hope to facilitate greater clarity on how we as a field conceptualize our practices and serve the best interests of our clients. The common denominator amongst APAA members is a deep commitment to adding value to the collecting process rather than extracting it for personal gain. What the APAA does not do is require that its members be bound procedurally and nor should it. Collecting is an experiential economy and a deeply personal pursuit so it would stand to reason that there is more than one way to facilitate it. Therefore, rather than attempting to standardize methodology, the APAA should work to elucidate the different theoretical and practical approaches to collecting.
By encouraging greater dialogue amongst APAA members and the advisory field more broadly, we will not only strengthen our own practices to the benefit of our clients and broader ecosystem, but also further define and distinguish what constitutes art advisory best practices.