magazine | Jun 29, 2023 |
Does your next project need an art consultant? Here’s what to know

Ever see a project with showstopping art and wish your clients were collectors, too? They can be—especially if you know when to call in the pros.

Behind every great designer is a great network. Whether it’s a carpenter who turns out stunning millwork or an antiques dealer who always has the perfect piece, knowing who to turn to is crucial. Art advisers, with their ability to navigate the complexities of the art market, fit right into that fold.

“In our business, becoming a true expert in every facet is difficult,” says Richmond, Virginia–based designer Janie Molster. “I can’t be an expert on everything, but I can find an expert to teach me and my client, and that’s where an art consultant has so much value. I can essentially subcontract out the art, and my team and I can focus our energies on the rest of the interiors.”

Not every project needs an art consultant. You might land a client who already has a spectacular collection, while other clients may prefer a turnkey approach, delegating art selection to their designer. “I’ve found that clients either have a strong interest in art or they just let it go,” says New York–based designer Rodney Lawrence. “It’s not unusual for them to turn that element over to the designer, but I always let them know that an art adviser is an option.”

Some designers have their own specific criteria for calling in a consultant. Philip Gorrivan, for example, brings in an art adviser only if a client is looking to spend more than $100,000 on artwork; otherwise, his New York–based team will handle the sourcing and selection in-house. 

For the clients who are looking to up their art game, having an expert to help maneuver through the world of galleries, auctions, fairs and artist relations can be an invaluable resource. For Michelle Gerson, an adviser also brings peace of mind. The New York designer encourages her clients to view their art as an investment, purchasing pieces that will retain or gain in value; working with a consultant not only streamlines the acquisition process, but helps set her clients on a path to successful collecting. “By bringing in an adviser, I’m able to offer my clients something more than just my opinion on whether a work is pretty or not,” she says. While Gerson will voice her thoughts on how a piece fits into the interior, an art adviser can add more context to such a monumental decision. “I’m not an art history scholar—I don’t know the ins and outs of the art world like I do interior design. If the client works with an adviser, it adds more validity to an art purchase.” 

Gerson also acknowledges what a high-stakes endeavor art selection can be. “We all know that scenario, when you go into a beautiful apartment but the art is just wrong,” she says. “When the art doesn’t look right, it can ruin the whole thing. I’d rather somebody have a beautiful space with no art on the walls yet, and have them say, ‘We’re in the process of picking out art,’ or ‘We’re saving up for our art,’ than to have the wrong things hanging. 

Working with a consultant can open a lot of doors. Many artists won’t work directly with designers or their clients and prefer to go through a gallery or an adviser. Even for those who will work without a representative, it’s often easier in the long run to have an intermediary. Molster ran into this problem recently, after reaching out to an artist to commission a painting. “All of a sudden they just stopped communicating with my team,” she says. “I found a gallerist and adviser who the artist worked with, and kicked myself for not going through them from the beginning. She let me know that the artist was going through personal issues and wasn’t in a position to take on the work, but she suggested five great alternatives.” 

Left: Art adviser Gregg Irby worked with designer Jamie Kirkman to select an ethereal piece by Thomasa Seymour to make an impression in this home’s entryway Heidi Harris | Right: In a living room designed by Janie Molster, an acid green sofa pulls in hints of green from this striking painting by Karen Blair, an artist she collaborates with frequently Gordon Gregory

While art might be one of the final elements of a project to be installed, it’s best to bring in an art consultant early on, as hunting down or commissioning the perfect piece can be a lengthy process. “It’s a conversation that we like to start essentially after the first presentation of furniture because it is so integral in the design of the house,” says Scott Sanders, a designer with offices in New York and Palm Beach, Florida. Despite the intimate nature of outfitting a client’s most private spaces, Sanders has found that the process of making art selections is often the most personal. “There’s something about furniture and fabrics—they like something or they don’t,” he says. “You show them a piece of art and it’s so subjective. That piece of the puzzle alone takes a long time to figure out—sometimes people don’t even know what kind of art they like. It’s really about starting the conversation with the client, and then you can bring in an expert.”

Gorrivan also tries to nudge clients into thinking about art early in the process. “I recently had clients who didn’t have any art and, when we first started working together, they told me they’d like to start collecting,” he says. “I asked them to let me know what some of their favorite paintings were. They said, ‘We like Starry Night,’ which told me a lot. I was able to tell the art consultant that they like impressionism, and then she was able to suggest a fabulous artist, Ena Swansea, whose work is evocative of that style.” A good art adviser can act almost as a translator, converting the broad strokes of a client’s taste into a specific piece.

Does your next project need an art consultant? Here’s what to know
Works by artists Rita Ackerman and William Kentridge fit seamlessly within this multifunctional room by Rodney Lawrence, who intentionally selected art later in the design process to meld with the interiorsMarili Forastiere

While unique points of reference, like a love of Van Gogh, are a great tool for an art consultant, filling out contextual details about an interior makes their job all the easier. Liz Beaman Delman of Above the Sofa, a bicoastal interior design–focused art consultancy, likes to receive a mood board and even elevations for an interior. “If something isn’t going to fit on the wall, there’s no point in getting a client excited about it,” she says.

Some advisers find it helpful to get more involved—in many ways, the nuances of getting to know a client as an art consultant can mirror a designer’s process, whether it’s uncovering the client’s tastes and preferences or simply understanding their objectives. “I want to know the client’s end goal,” says Jessica Arb Danial, an art adviser based in New York. “Is this going to be a kid’s room? Is it going to be multifunctional? Is this a place where they’re going to entertain? Who is going to be under that roof the most often so that I can develop what they will want to see living on the walls every day?”

Once an art adviser enters the design process, the experience can unfold in several ways. In some cases, the adviser will present options to the designer, who will select a few pieces to show a client. In other instances, art-obsessed clients may end up wanting to hit art fairs and galleries with both their art adviser and designer in tow. “A designer’s role in the process is completely up to them,” says Gregg Irby, an art adviser and gallerist with eponymous galleries in Atlanta, Charlotte and Jacksonville, Florida. “We want them to think of us as one of their team members. We want to make sure that the designer is protected at all times. If their client comes to us directly, we loop them back in so that they are compensated for their work. They’re the one running the show.”

Lawrence has found that the best results come about when art advisers work directly with his clients: “They have to work together to develop a relationship and an understanding in order to land on the right things.”

Left: A pair of Andy Warhol prints make a statement in a playful room by Scott Sanders. “My intention is to always find artworks that have a conversation with their surroundings,” he says Nick Johnson | Right: Philip Gorrivan says that laying out the art in this formerly ordinary entryway was like assembling a puzzle. “It’s a mixed collection ranging from a Mapplethorpe to artwork done by the client’s children, and we styled it this way to make a dramatic first impression that also tells a story about the homeowner” Joshua McHugh

An art-obsessed client is a good thing. But there’s no getting around it: Art is often expensive, and there’s always a danger of the sculpture budget infringing on the furniture budget. For that reason, many designers who work in tandem with advisers try to get clients to isolate art in its own spending category. That way, if they fall in love with a painting that’s tens of thousands of dollars over budget, it won’t prevent them from buying a sofa to hang it over. Even if you’ve earmarked separate budgets, both designers and advisers say that education can unlock additional funds for the project, and that clients are often willing to pay more once they gain even a nominal understanding of the art world. “Almost without fail, as the comfort level grows, people tend to up their budgets,” says Beaman Delman. “Art is such an opaque and intimidating world. I think people are hesitant to jump in, but once they do, they can become total addicts.” 

Of course, there is also the cost of the art consultant themselves. Much like designers, each adviser has their own way of charging—and even then, the financial model can vary from client to client. Beaman Delman, for example, charges either a general fee or a commission, depending on the client’s preference and how the designer on the project has structured their fees. When she started her business, she envisioned working exclusively with interior designers, charging a project-based fee that the designer would pass on to the client just like with any other subcontractor. But she quickly found that designers were much more comfortable connecting her with the clients directly and letting them sort out the financial particulars. “That’s led me to just keep reinventing the wheel and figuring out what works best for each client,” she says. Some of her peers charge a sliding-scale commission based on the price of the work. (One consultant charges a project fee, as well as a 20 percent commission for work under $50,000 or a 10 percent commission for anything over that threshold.) Because Irby is both an adviser and a gallerist, she offers her sourcing services to designers free of charge and makes a margin on the works sold through her representation of artists. She’s found that the best approach when working with designers is to remain flexible: “Their pricing is so different, so it really depends on how they want to do it. If their client comes in and pays us, we send the commission to them.” 

Despite Beaman Delman’s initial reservations, she’s realized that working directly with the client has its perks. Clients who get the itch to start a collection are likely to keep buying and selling art, and often work with their consultant for years after the project has wrapped. Arb Danial has cultivated similar relationships and works on retainer for clients looking to continue collecting if they are spending more than half a million dollars a year. She often travels to meet those clients at art fairs, or to do gallery tours in other cities. “It keeps their education going and gets them involved in the process,” she says. “That’s a big part of my role, to help people become better educated on what they’re spending their money on.”

Left: A piece by Hunt Slonem hangs over the fireplace in this feminine sitting room by Michelle Gerson Brittany Ambridge | Right: Art adviser Liz Beaman Delman worked with designer Meredith Ellis to source art for this bedroom in the 2021 Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse in Dallas Nathan Schroeder

While most consultants are generalists and can help a client with any artistic medium, if your client has a specific type of art in mind, it might be best to seek out a specialist. “An art adviser is sort of a jack-of-all-trades, as opposed to a gallerist who is really in depth with a select group of artists,” says Beaman Delman. “But depending on the collecting category, that could change how focused you need to be on finding the right person to help you.” Old Master paintings for example, are a very niche market. But if you’re looking for, say, a contemporary landscape, you don’t need to seek out a specialist.

Designers who work with art advisers might have several who they work with regularly, or a more exclusive relationship with one person. Gerson, for example, works only with Doreen Remen at the New York consultancy Culture Corps. “She’s respectful of the design element and doesn’t suggest anything to the client without showing me first,” says Gerson. “She’s also really taken the time to teach me about the art world. She’ll take me to fairs and galleries even if we don’t have a client looking for works at the time, and she’ll work with my clients at any level—if they want to spend $5,000 or a couple of million dollars, she treats them the same way, which I think is rare and cool.”

Gorrivan is similar—when he’s bringing in the pro, he typically works with Irena Hochman, but he will partner with others if the client has an existing relationship. “As long as you’ve had a good experience working with someone, I think it’s beneficial to keep building that relationship,” he says.

And it’s important to remember that it’s not just relationships with the advisers that are being forged, but the client’s relationship to their new artwork as well. “We tell clients, ‘Listen, we love your house. It’s beautiful. But you can take a painting with you. The wallpaper, not so much,’” says Molster. “Artwork, particularly artwork that you love, can stay with a person forever.”

Homepage image: Designer Michelle Gerson knew that she wanted artist Nir Hod’s colorful large-scale works to be the focal point of this living room, so she chose neutral furnishings to complement the pieces | Brittany Ambridge

This article originally appeared in Spring 2023 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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