The Art of Organisation: Record-Keeping for Artists and Galleries

Image credit: cyano66 from Getty Images Pro via

Image credit: cyano66 from Getty Images Pro via

Guest Work Agency is your go-to source on art business – we want to provide you with useful insights, resources and tips on the day to day running of an art-oriented business. In this story, Guest Work Agency Projects Associate, Maria Teresa Tavares, looks at the trials and tribulations of artist and gallery inventory systems.

A little over a decade ago, commercial galleries were taking their first steps in the digital world. Although websites at the time were beginning to support better image quality, most did not support mobile use. Social media was still an adventure. A myriad of different platforms appeared every day and no one knew which of them would survive, and which would die. MySpace and Flickr were popular, Tumblr was beginning to gain traction amongst artists, Google+ appeared a bit later, and Instagram hadn’t been born yet. Everything related to studio and gallery management at that time was done mostly offline – and yes, we did use lots of paper.

Today, digital devices play a significant role in how the new generation of collectors and curators are experiencing art. The 2019 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report found out that the online market represented 9% of the industry global sales revenue last year. New buyers make up over half of those transactions, signalling a stark change in collecting behaviour. The impact of this shift can also be felt beyond commercial transactions, as curators nowadays are likely to initially reach out and communicate with artists and galleries through digital channels. Both collectors and curators expect to have quick access to high-resolution pictures and real-time information on an artwork. Meanwhile, studio and gallery staff are feeling the pressure in responding to this fast-paced environment.

At the heart of commercial gallery operations are tasks related to inventory management and archival organisation. Record-keeping practices in such businesses must sustain high standards as they support numerous activities such as marketing, sales, exhibitions, and special projects. Tania Doropoulos, Director at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, shared with us her insights on the advantages of having a sound inventory system in place. "I can immediately offer a collector a high-quality presentation," she said, "it does not matter if I am at the gallery or overseas participating in an art fair.”

Likewise, artists are also grappling with how to improve inventory and archival management processes, without the administrative workload affecting the output of their practices. Emily Floyd, widely known by Australian audiences for her public art projects, shared with us that when she organised her first exhibition twenty years ago, there was hardly any administrative work to be done. "Nowadays,” she added, “the increasing managerial work is taking artists away from their practices.”

This is an industry-wide issue which Guest Work Agency has been researching and for which we are developing more accessible strategies. As we and Emily have observed, not every artist will have adequate space or staffing in their studios to coordinate inventory management.

Ranging from spreadsheets to online databases, the industry now has a wide range of options that can cater from the emerging to the established practitioner. As Tania explains, “record-keeping can be as basic as a word document or a photograph with a note. If this is organised, it can be hugely advantageous.” Commenting on her long experience working in the arts, Tania emphasised how crucial it is for artists to record and maintain documentation of their works. She told us that sometimes young artists do not give enough attention to that and, later in life, they have to undertake huge efforts when putting together a survey exhibition or a catalogue raisonné.

Our research tells us that there is no right or wrong when it comes to archival and inventory management in the art industry. However, what we have also learnt is that for any artist, whether they are emerging or established, and irrespective of whether they are represented by a commercial gallery, not having a functioning organisational system for their output is likely to mean spending unnecessary extra time searching for information, documents or even artworks down the track.

For those who are unsure of the various options available, we’re sharing some insights on the tools being used by artists and galleries today.

Custom-Built Platforms and Inventory Tools

In the long-established art market centres in the US and the UK, the top gallery players tend to develop their own custom-built inventory systems. These tools are robust and ideal for instant communication between gallery branches spread across different countries.

However, the custom-built characteristic of these systems means that troubleshooting and staff training can be particularly costly and time-consuming. To Margherita Belcredi, Co-Director of Contemporary Fine Arts (CFA), Berlin, such powerful systems can sometimes be overwhelming for the gallery staff. In her opinion, the simpler is always the better: “in your day-to-day activities, you will end up using the same features over and over anyways.”

A variation on the entirely custom-built model is the use of leading database tools which allow custom-modification. FileMaker Pro is one of the oldest digital solutions suitable for artists and galleries for creating a custom app. Being entirely configurable, it provides greater flexibility when catering to individual business needs. FileMaker Pro can also be used in support of other tools such as Tessera, a locally-founded database, or ArtBase, which has big names in their client list such as Jeff Koons and Richard Serra.

Inventory Tools Designed for the Art Industry

At the CFA Berlin, Margherita Belcredi uses ARTBUTLER, an online inventory management system that is integrated with the gallery’s website. “It is easy to update and to generate customised reports for the clients,” she observed. Like Margherita, most of ARTBUTLER’s clients are based in Europe. The option to hire a 3D planner for exhibitions and fairs contributes to making it unique. The feature imports images directly from the gallery database and specifies the precise measurements of the work for hanging. However, such additional features come at an extra cost.

One of the most popular online inventory management systems is Artlogic. In 2006, Artlogic pioneered the offering of an online solution developed specifically for the art industry. It wasn't instantly adopted by the market, though. In a 2016 interview published on Artnet, Artlogic founding director Peter Chater, commented that at the time of its launching, “long-established art firms were particularly cautious.” Today, the business has over one thousand gallery, artist and collector clients across six continents. In our own discussions with John Duff, the company’s marketing manager, we learned that one of the most popular product features is the PrivateViews app. The app allows users to create and share tailored presentations of artworks and email collectors directly from iPhones or iPads. Tania Doropoulos, who has used numerous database and catalogue systems believes that online and cloud-based tools such as Artlogic, have become popular with the industry because of its sales focus and its ability to respond to the needs of today’s collectors.

The Disruptors

At Guest Work Agency, we are particularly interested in new digital inventory tools which have taken the pros and cons outlined in the options above and specifically considered the varied nature of contemporary artworks. Art Record is one such new web-based tool that has been gaining significant traction, particularly with artists. Launched last year, Art Record has already earned the heart of clients such as Lisa Oppenheim, Jill Magid and Jon Rafman. Oppenheim considers the tool a "rare find," as it is practical and economical. We have to agree on that assessment: Art Record stands out for offering similar features to its competitors but at a much lower price point, especially as it allows unlimited records and access from multiple devices. In her discussions with us, Madeleine Paré, Art Record founder, said that the idea to develop a new product came from a disappointment with existing solutions. “We are trying to make some of the tasks that can feel overwhelming, or administrative, more engaging and hopefully even pleasurable,” she said. During its development phase, she and David Ertel, the company’s Technical Director, worked closely with artists, which reflects their attitude and concerns. Now with both artist and gallery versions, Art Record is design conscious, robust, and easy to use.

Guest Work Agency is committed to making more accessible the strategies and tools for inventory management, particularly for artists. As part of our own growing practice, we partner with Art Record to offer artists outsourced inventory management services at reduced subscription rates. For more information on our work in this area, contact us.