The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue
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The Business of Art is the Business of People

Can the art industry reposition the role of “human” in human resources?

People of the global majority are being invited into predominantly white art spaces like never before. And, at rates like never before, we’re seeing the ways in which many of these institutions are under-supporting employees. Efforts have been made, but “diversity hires” and DEI fatigue shed light on the ways in which stop-gap measures alone can’t upend a system that wasn’t built for everybody. Even if, in our capitalist society, we’re all seen as human resources.

Human Resources (HR) has traditionally been the branch of business dedicated to protecting this resource. But “protection” means different things to different interests, and unfortunately, the protection of people, and the protection of business, have not always historically aligned.

Both within and outside of the art industry, HR has a bad reputation. Talking to HR risks the dubious mantles of tattletale, whistleblower, narc. It’s seen as an enforcer role that exists as a necessary evil: protect the company (and director) at all costs. (There are professional standards that say otherwise, but the bad eggs unfortunately seem to make the biggest splash.)

But within the art industry—particularly in smaller and for-profit organizations—effective HR barely exists, if it exists at all.

In September 2022 Verge conducted an analysis of the websites of all active members of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) located in the major US cities of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. First, we learned that of the 148 commercial gallery websites we reviewed, only 3% had roles listed that were clearly human resources positions:1 Chicago galleries had none, New York galleries had only 2%, and Los Angeles galleries had the most at 14%.2 Second, we learned that only two-thirds of galleries listed and named their employees publicly online.

How can a job-seeker, particularly one breaking into the industry, feel confident entering an organization that hides their staff and/or obscures the people who are charged with caring for their employees? Furthermore, what does this lack of attention on the people driving the business say about the way that our industry values people?

All that said, we believe that amidst the lack is an opportunity to build a different kind of HR structure—one that balances both the employer’s and employee’s needs. We are on the verge of change—entering an era where professionals in people-focused positions recognize that a diverse, multicultural organization is a more successful one and requires more support than in an organization where everyone looks the same.

By 2045, the Brookings Institution projects that people who do not identify as white will make up the majority of the United States population. In other words, the global majority will become the majority in this country. As the tides turn, we need to reconfigure the systems that have historically excluded this section of the population—giving HR professionals a call to action.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) represents over 300,000 members in more than 165 countries. A recent shift within the profession is to reframe the title of HR professionals into roles that encompass People & Culture. This seemingly simple tweak moves the role from one of passive enforcement to active engagement and a support of the employee as an individual. One is traditional, the other is progressive. Furthermore, by necessity, it emphasizes what is necessary for a person to thrive in the workplace—for the business to thrive, too.

And business is a key word here. For too long we’ve tolerated an industry that puts profit over people. We’ve told ourselves, “It’s okay that my workplace is a little mismanaged. We’re all a bunch of former artists, none of us went to business school.” We’ve also tolerated an industry that venerates individuals who behave badly in the name of “good art.” Working in support of another’s vision does not mean the sublimation of our own needs. Everyone in the workplace deserves the chance to thrive. And in galleries and museums, so many people are required to support an artist’s vision and bring it into reality. To do it well, to do it sustainably, the number of people behind the scenes to bring an exhibition to life—it’s remarkable, really.

In this field of art in which we strive and live and experience life, more than any artwork on display in an exhibition, what is actually at stake is the business of people.

Why do we do what we do? That one artwork that moved you, stuck with you for years. The daydreams of a creative soul evolved into being. These sorts of lofty pursuits should never preclude the ability to live well, be paid well, and to work in spaces that accept, support, and nurture us.

In this changing world, we’ve seen that recruiting that ends in placement alone is not a sustainable practice. As such, we envision a multi-layered, long-term approach—HR support, talent development, and workplace readiness—to help set all parties up for success.

If your business is commercially successful but you can’t (or won’t) offer a living wage and competitive benefits to your employees, your business isn’t set up for success. If your exhibitions garner rave reviews but everyone who works there essentially has three jobs and no personal life, your business isn’t set up for success. If your artist roster is diverse but everyone who works to support your artists looks the same, your business isn’t set up for success. If you make buckets of money but your employees from the global majority (or new parents, non-binary, or neurodiverse employees) rarely stay for longer than a year, your business isn’t set up for success. You’re burning money you don’t even realize you had, and you will ultimately fail. Departures cost money. Specifically, according to a 2021 Gallup survey, replacing one role can cost an organization one half to two times an employee’s annual salary. In short, helping employees thrive is a cost-saving measure.

Where we lose ourselves is in the endless slog toward the next, the next, the next. Insistence on speed, product, profit over people. The next exhibition. The next project. The next opening reception. The next art fair. The next sale. But that pace isn’t sustainable.

The COVID-19 pandemic, that brief blip in capitalism, forced a pause in the art industry—allowing a mirror to be held up, reflecting the homogeneity and the structural issues at play. And while we were all reflecting—wondering what might come next—the racial uprising following George Floyd’s murder further drove home the point: the way it was, can be no more.

We can’t say it enough: systemic racism requires systemic change. And sustainable change can’t be accomplished overnight. It took ages to erect the powers that serve a global few. But in our little un-swept, gently spackled corner of the world, where we hope for change that will support the global majority, we see solutions. For starters, we believe everyone should:

  • Educate yourself on how to sustainably run (and work for) a business.
  • Know your legal rights as an employee, and your obligations as an employer.
  • Opt for the health, safety, and well-being of people above all else.
  • Learn your own pressure points and adapt to them.
  • Communicate your preferences and allow for those around you to have preferences, too.
  • Stay ready to learn.

And if you are a white person, listen to the voices of the people who have traditionally held the least power. Read the room.

Yes, we exist within a capitalist system. Yes, money drives everything. But the power of money shouldn’t drive us to live unfulfilling lives. To be clear, we know that the systems in place won’t be fixed with additional bureaucracy, but prioritizing people in the workplace; reframing the value of HR; and connecting to the reality of the changing world are really just preliminary steps to take amidst the broader structural change that is needed in our industry.

  1. Titles that often include HR responsibilities in galleries—such as Managing Director, Director of Operations, or Gallery Manager—were excluded from this data set as there is no clear standard for such roles to include HR.
  2. For the larger, “blue chip” businesses, we know that HR positions do exist, behind the scenes. For smaller and mid-size galleries, it’s also likely that someone serves in a basic HR capacity under a finance or gallery management umbrella (which has its own sets of complications).


Lise K. Ragbir

Lise K. Ragbir is a Co-Founder & Managing Partner of VERGE, an agency for people & culture.

Julia V Hendrickson

Julia V. Hendrickson is a Co-Founder & Managing Partner of VERGE, an agency for people & culture.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues