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Art Consultant

The next time you walk into a public building or corporate office and admire the artwork, consider who might have put it there.

When it comes to a private home, it's easy to assume the owner selected the art. But who has that responsibility when it comes to a bank or city hall? Independent art consultants have risen to the challenge.

Lisa Austin's eye for art helped her decorate some well-known walls and halls in civic and corporate America. There's the folk art and Amish quilt at the UPS building in Atlanta, an aluminum sculpture at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and a glass tower at Orlando City Hall. Among her other clients are Coca-Cola, Sony Music and Visa International.

Austin is president of Art Sources in Miami Beach, Florida. Art Sources is a firm that advises corporations and public sector agencies on acquiring art for their buildings.

The central focus of the business is to provide expertise on the selection of fine artwork. The full range of services includes help with conservation and maintenance, appraisals, inventory control and public relations.

In some cases, a corporate building may function as a mini art museum because some of the art displayed is unique and of great value. Just take a look at some of the collections owned by banks and large corporations, and you'll see signatures fit for the Louvre.

Austin didn't set out to be an art consultant. "I had a general interest in art as a child. Growing up in New York City allows you to visit some of the best museums in the world on a regular basis, which I did.

"I was very familiar with the Met, and the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, among others, since they were so easy to get to via subway! Any serious academic interest, however, did not begin until I was an adult."

In fact, her first choice as a career was newspaper reporting. She even got her journalism degree. "After leaving college, I decided to look into other occupations before settling into a job with a newspaper," she says.

"Among the very first jobs I took was at a bank in Miami -- Southeast Bank -- which had a very well-known art collection. I was an assistant to the woman who ran the collection. It took very little time before I was hooked."

It wasn't such a big stretch for Austin because of her upbringing. "When you grow up in New York, you find that art and culture are a part of daily life, and you are used to being around it regularly. I think being comfortable with culture allows you to accept the idea that you could make a career of it, that it's not an unusual or offbeat choice for one's life work."

Austin returned to school and studied for her master's degree in art history, while still working at the bank full time. A few years later, she became director of the bank's fine arts department and curator of its collection. "I worked for the bank for 12 years. In 1990, I left to form my own company."

What's a typical day like for her? "It might involve working on presentations to one or more clients -- that is, preparing images of artwork for them to review. It might include handling shipping or installation for a project, making transportation arrangements, talking with art dealers or artists, negotiating prices or specifying framing. Travel is a big part of my life, and I visit clients in other cities on the average of two or three times a month."

Across the U.S., there are numerous entrepreneurs offering art consulting services. But it's still a niche market. Some are small companies, like Austin's. Others employ dozens of experts to help clients spend their art budgets.

And the budgets can be pretty big. Some corporations have more than $250,000 to spend on paintings, sculpture and other fine art pieces.

Like Austin, Jo-Ann McCluskey, owner of Joan of Art Corporate Art Consultants, has had some pretty impressive clients. Among them are the CN Tower, Revlon Canada, and even Harley-Davidson.

McCluskey has been in business for a long time, but has kept her company small. She is the only full-time employee. But she considers herself pretty successful.

It's fun work, McCluskey says. Although she has an office, she meets with clients on their turf, so she gets out a lot. And for people who love to decorate -- but can't afford to keep renovating their own private spaces -- art consulting allows them to let loose with their creativity.

Austin considers her business to be very successful. A second office opened in Atlanta in 1994. There's also an associate in Connecticut to assist clients in the northeastern U.S.

"We have dealt with some of the biggest names in corporate America, and we are a very small company. I like to think our future is going to continue as we have been."

But a business like hers tends to go through its ups and downs, Austin admits. "When the economy is good, art consultants do well. When there is a recession, it's hard to maintain high earnings because art is considered a luxury -- and many companies cut it out of the budget. It's obvious that in a down economy, if people are to be laid off, the art budget is going to be cut."

Charles Rosenberg is a professor of art history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He lists art consulting as a potential option for people who train as art historians.

Rosenberg says that advanced training in art will be helpful. In addition, he suggests that additional languages may be necessary, depending on the nature of the collection. Good research and people skills are also important.

He says art consultants need to interact with a variety of art professionals and to represent a client to them. They must be able to manage various jobs --such as framing, shipping and installation on behalf of a client.

That said, Austin cautions that art consulting is a difficult career to break into.

"You can't open a firm and give advice on art collecting without lots of experience. You need a decade of experience before you are truly able to understand the art market, and the changing values of art over time," she says.

"Art advice is like investment advice -- you are spending other people's money, and you had better be sure it is spent correctly. Opportunities exist, but they are not abundant."

Her advice? "An art history background, without a doubt. Business courses are very helpful. Experience in a gallery is excellent, if the gallery deals with works of very high quality."


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