Believe the Hype! How PR Took the Art World

“That was covered on Perez Hilton,” PR agent Michelle Finocchi announced proudly to The Observer. She wasn’t talking about a

Owen Wilson and Val Kilmer at the party at Soho Beach House during Art Basel Miami Beach, 2011. (Courtesy Nadine Johnson, Inc.)

“That was covered on Perez Hilton,” PR agent Michelle Finocchi announced proudly to The Observer. She wasn’t talking about a Kim Kardashian marriage breakup or wardrobe mishap but was instead referring to an artwork, Lindsay Lohan, a short film by artist Richard Phillips, which debuted last June on the Gagosian Gallery YouTube channel and at the Venice Biennale, before getting picked up by the tabloids—all part of Ms. Finocchi’s plan.

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We’d called Ms. Finocchi to ask her about PR’s incursion into the art world. Yes, PR. Before going further, let’s get the bite-the-hand-that-feeds-us stuff out of the way: this is an article about publicists and the art world. Now more than ever, PR controls access (or at least tries to) in the art world—when journalists know things, how we know things, whether or not we get to know things in the first place. We wanted to take a look at how that became the case; in what follows we’re not biting the hand that feeds us. We’re just, you know, examining it.

PR is an old industry, but it’s a relatively new phenomenon in the art world. In the mid-1990s, art PR was almost nonexistent, save for large general practice firms like Ruder Finn (which had arts divisions that handled mostly institutional clients like museums) and some burgeoning agencies like Fitz & Co. For commercial galleries, which had just lurched their way through a recession, hiring a PR firm was considered an extravagance, and maybe even a little gauche; the received wisdom was that if a gallery had good artists and exhibitions, the press would come clamoring.

>> Believe the Hype! A Guide to 21 Art World Publicists

“I have a funny anecdote,” said Sara Fitzmaurice, founder of Fitz & Co, an agency that now has 15 New York-based staff and a newly opened Los Angeles office and serves as the U.S. office for Art Basel Miami Beach. “About 12 years ago, I was invited to pitch a very senior lady gallerist. It was a very prestigious account.” The pitch went well, but the gallerist had a stipulation. “I don’t want anyone to know you’re working with us,” Ms. Fitzmaurice remembers being told.

Museums have a long tradition of working with PR as a matter of strategy and branding. For galleries and fairs, even as recently as the early 2000s, it was relatively rare. But then came expansion. The number of galleries in Manhattan quintupled, from around 100 to today’s 500 or so. The number of art fairs in the world more than doubled. A gallery needed not only to be the best but to set itself apart. Enter the PR professionals. These days, Ms. Fitzmaurice gets inquiries daily from people who want her to represent them, as opposed to the half-dozen who would trickle in monthly in the old days. And they are hardly shy about it.

Even firms that have exclusively worked with museums and other nonprofits are now getting calls from the commercial side. “Six months ago, we would get one to two calls a month from galleries, artists and website entrepreneurs,” said David Resnicow, of Resnicow Schroeder, whose clients include the Israel Museum and the Menil Collection. “Now we get that many a week.” He’s considering taking on his first major commercial art enterprise.

“It’s a completely different world,” said Ms. Fitzmaurice. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the art world who would say they didn’t need PR.” And there are plenty of them out there to do the job. To name only a few of the most prominent of the publicists in New York who work with the arts and specifically with clients from the commercial world there’s Fitz & Co (Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Sean Kelly Gallery, Gagosian Gallery), Susan Grant Lewin (Jack Tilton Gallery), Nadine Johnson (Gagosian Gallery, Marlborough Galleries), Blue Medium (Sperone Westwater), Bettina Prentice (Haunch of Venison, Bortolami) and Andrea Schwan (Hauser & Wirth). It can cost a gallery up to between $5,000 and $10,000 per month to put a PR firm on retainer. Monthly, that’s around how much it costs to place an ad or two in an art magazine; yearly, it adds up to the cost of participating in a handful of art fairs.

Of course, the art world has never lacked for publicity stunts. The high-flying ’80s had its share, but it was DIY. At her 1982 exhibition of Julian Schnabel, a collaboration with Leo Castelli, Mary Boone, then “The Queen of the Art Scene,” as New York Magazine dubbed her, presold the work, then affixed next to each painting wall labels carrying the bold-faced names of the works’ new owners—shipping heir Phillip Niarchos, Swedish financier Fredrik Roos and Cologne candy manufacturer Peter Ludwig among them. “The tactic made the few works still up for grabs twinkle with desirability,” Anthony Haden Guest wrote in New York at the time.

These days, during art fairs, PR agents send out press releases that give reporters a heads up on what artworks galleries have sold—and for how much they sold them. As recently as the early 2000s, dealers were reluctant to give out that kind of information. But they’ve since buckled to a new kind of demand from the press. “We created the tools and the tools recreated us,” said Andrea Schwan, who launched her own business in 1996 after 10 years as senior vice president at the arts PR firm The Kreisberg Group. “Speed is not necessarily the friend of art.”

Believe the Hype! How PR Took the Art World