Art of managing a gallery



RACHEL Ng had always been interested in art, but knew she didn’t have what it takes to become an artist. “I have no talent but I do appreciate and am passionate about art.” 

Realising this, Ng decided instead to take up a Bachelor of Arts Management course offered by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), the only one of its kind in the region.  

ALL IN A DAY'S WORK: From jet-setting across the region to attending exhibition openings and monitoring branch galleries, Ng sees to it that everything runs smoothly at Valentine Willie Fine Arts.

“Coming from a traditional Chinese family, my parents wanted me to do something that was marketable. Doing a course in art management was a compromise,” she says. 

The application process was stringent, only 10 students were accepted into the course and Ng had to attend an aptitude assessment interview.  

Ng says that doing the course at Unimas was a decision she has never regretted. Thanks to the wide syllabus, she had an opportunity to study performing arts, photography, graphic design, stage management, film theory as well as communications, management, law and finance. 

“The degree allows me so many options compared to a degree in graphic design or fine arts. I can go on to do so many things. 

Soon after graduation in 1999, Ng joined Valentine Willie Fine Arts (VWFA) as an art gallery manager. The gallery specialises in visual art, principally painting, but also sculpture, photography and installation art. 

It is a small gallery and Ng has to do a lot on her own. Satisfaction comes from having staged a successful exhibition. But even while one is ongoing, she is busy with the next. 

On average, VWFA changes its exhibitions once every three weeks. Ng says the gallery plans its exhibitions one year ahead. 

“From a manager’s viewpoint, an exhibition is a success if the accounts are balanced, publicity is good and the sales target is met.” On a personal level, Ng is happy when she helps a good artist make his mark.  

What does it take to become a successful art gallery manager?  

PICTURE PERFECT: An art gallery manager seees to it that art work is displayed to maximum advantage so that appreciation is heightened and that ultimately a sale is made.

“You need to be organised and disciplined. No one is born with these qualities, you need to work at it,” says Ng. 

She draws inspiration from gallery founder Valentine Willie, a renowned curator and expert on Asian art. 

Ng is staying put for the moment.  

“I am happy where I am. Every day is a challenge. This is certainly not a mundane job. Malaysian art is still in its infancy and there is much to do.”  


What qualifications do need to enter this profession? 

A degree in arts is useful but not obligatory. However, you must be motivated and want to learn more all the time. In whatever you do, you must be passionate about it and in this profession you must be passionate about the arts. 


What does an gallery manager do? 

Since I run the gallery, my duties are quite similar to most managers – I delegate work and monitor to see that it is done. I also ensure everything goes smoothly when we organise an exhibition, that the caterers are booked, the press releases are done, transportation for delivery of art works is arranged, invitation cards sent out, catalogue prepared etc. 

I also deal with suppliers, clients and artists. This includes determining the pricing of art work and commission payable to the artists. I assist in the framing of art work. 


Describe a typical day at work. 

There is no typical day. Every exhibition has different requirements. We also work with interior decorators and organise the art collections of corporate clients. We assess the value of art works for insurance purposes and source art work for our clients. We prepare proposals to museums and institutions for their collection. 

We also make it a point to attend as many exhibitions and conferences as we can to support other galleries, curators and artists, to be kept abreast of the art scene and to keep a look out for potential artists, meeting up with curators and writers, and expanding our network. 

What kind of personality suits this career? 

You need to be a rational and patient person. In this job, it’s important not to offend anyone. The artist and client are equally important and you have to be very tactful. 

As the manager I also need to talk about the art work with the client, therefore it is important to also talk to the artist and understand thoroughly what the artist is trying to convey in his artwork.This requires a certain level of knowledge and understanding of art. 


What's the best part about your job?  

Meeting different people, travelling. We also make a point to attend important exhibitions and art-related conferences in the region and Europe. 

Many times, the client becomes a friend. I also like the flexibility and freedom the job offers. It allows me to do a lot more and offers me new challenges all the time. 


What's the worst part? 

Ironically travelling and meeting people. Often I have to travel on my own and I need to be adaptable. Socialising is part of my job but it can be tiring – I’ve had to go night after night and this can get you jaded.  

Turning down artists is another thing I hate to do, especially when the artist does have talent but his work is not saleable. 


What is the salary range? 

Remuneration is based on work experience and tenure in the company. When I first started I earned about RM1,600 which was the starting pay for graduates in 1999. Managers can earn up to RM5,000 depending on their knowledge. 


What are the career prospects? 

There are only about 20 art galleries in Malaysia so it's very much a niche market. But once you’ve established yourself, the sky’s the limit. Some gallery managers open their own galleries as you make a lot of contacts in this job. You can also join institutions, galleries and museums overseas. Some become curators. Others go on to organise art events and exhibitions or work specially on art fairs and conferences.  

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