Why (and How) Gallery and Museum Collections Management Went Digital

Collections management may be “the unsexy side of the art world,” but it's attractive enough to have caught the attention of private equity companies.

Two people stand in front of a large painting of a blue car in a bright gallery space
New cloud-based software systems are making it easier to integrate gallery or museum operations, collections management and other processes. Toa Heftiba

Before she opened her gallery in 1999, art dealer Debra Force worked at New York’s Hirschl & Adler, relying on paper file cards that listed information on individual works in the gallery’s inventory and what clients had bought over the years. The principal source of concern was if a card became too smudged to read or if a client looked over her shoulder to see what was written on it. These days, she depends on ArtSystems, a collections management database program that organizes information on inventory—title, name of artist, medium, dimensions, condition, sales price history and appraised value, provenance, location (in the gallery, on loan, in storage), photographic images and inventory number—and clients, and her largest worry now is a power outage or system failure. “If the system goes down, I can’t do anything,” she said.

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It isn’t just Force. A rapidly growing number of commercial art galleries and museums, as well as large-scale collectors and even some artists, use database programs of this type to help them keep track of art and artifacts—often, via an app.

Galleries, museums, art collectors and artists all have different needs, but according to Justin Anthony, co-founder of Artwork Archive, another artwork collections database program in a growing field, the greatest desire is giving “organization to chaos,” the “chaos” being the flood of disparate information about all the objects. That organization comes in handy for collectors, for instance, when there is “a life event like a move, a death in the family, a natural disaster or nearing or reaching retirement age. That last factor has been a major driver over the last few years and one we see continuing as thousands of Baby Boomers are reaching retirement and thinking about their legacy and estate planning.”

Let’s say I am an art collector, and I am preparing my will, downsizing or rewriting my insurance policy. Where are my Goya prints… in my summer house on the Cape or in storage? When was the last time my Harry Bertoia sculpture was appraised? What did I pay for that Warhol? The larger the collection, the more there is to keep track of.

Private equity in collections management

There are numerous companies in this space marketing database management products to every segment of the art world. Among the largest are ArtSystems, Artwork Archive, Collector Systems, Gallery Systems, Art and Artifact Services and Artlogic. Justin Anthony referred to databases through which art collectors can manage their holdings as “the unsexy side of the art world,” but it is attractive enough to have caught the attention of some private equity companies who have been acquiring their way into the field. Boston-based Cove Hill Partners, for instance, acquired Artlogic in 2021 and, more recently, galleryManager (a web-based system that tracks inventory, transactions and contacts for galleries), exhibit-E (an art world website designer) and ArtBase (a database and inventory program), while the Volaris Group, which describes itself as “a buy-and-hold acquirer of software businesses” based in Toronto, Canada and is owned by Constellation Software, Inc., acquired ArtSystems and Gallery Systems. Inquiries also have been received by Artwork Archive “from private equity firms and other investors in this space,” Anthony said.

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A spokesperson for Volaris Group told Observer that the firm is “absolutely interested in building out our portfolio of arts and culture companies. Volaris Group has a strong legacy of successful acquisitions of software platforms serving the arts and culture sector.”

The agglomeration of different but related companies is a big plus for Artlogic’s 5,000 current clients, 77 percent of which are art galleries, according to Joe Elliott, president and chief commercial officer, at Artlogic, as they allow clients to “run all of their inventory and contacts, accounting and invoicing, as well as sales tools, customer relationship management tools, marketing tools” on one platform. “We’re providing business management, marketing and sales to individual art galleries, that they use to then run their businesses.”

At the beginning of his career, Elliott worked in a few New York City art galleries where he first experienced the problem of tracking information about sales and artworks in inventory. At one gallery he described as “blue chip,” there was the basic database management program Filemaker Pro, “a website managed and built by a different company,” and an art fair sales app. “They had all of these non-integrated systems. And ultimately then what this meant is their team members, myself included at the time, were manually entering the same data time and time again to different systems and then having to continually update and try to map that data across those different systems.”

The problem Artlogic solves for galleries, he claimed, is the integration of gallery operations and sales processes “so that you’re not having to do all of that repetitive data entry.”

One satisfied customer, San Francisco gallerist and president of the board of directors of the Art Dealers Association of America Anthony Meier, told Observer that “Artlogic is an essential hub that handles everything from inventory management to invoicing and payments to contact management. It also has built-in marketing software that allows us to easily create and send bespoke artwork offers to clients via viewing room links as well as targeted email campaigns designed and sent through the platform.”

These competing collection management databases differ in several ways, including how easy they are to use, the cost and how they benefit the companies’ target audiences. While Artlogic focuses primarily on the needs of galleries, Artwork Archive’s audience is mostly individual artists and collectors, and Collector Systems’s clients are divided equally between private collectors, institutions and corporations. (“My sweet spot is the ultra-high net worth collector,” said Eric Kahan, president of Collector Systems.) The range of cost of these collection database programs varies widely, from $29 per month (Artwork Archive) to $85 per month (Collector Systems) to $115-135 per month (Artlogic).

Security in the age of digitized museum and gallery records

These are all cloud-based systems (applications administered from multiple servers in a variety of locations, as opposed to pre-cloud software on one physical server in one location), and the security of the museum, gallery or art collector data is a point of emphasis at a number of the companies. “Ours is the only software out there that has an audited framework,” Kahan said, referring to industry standards of testing the security and management of stored data. Many of his ultra-high net worth individual clients “have security people who evaluate Collector Systems. Their insurance companies require it.”

Their worries are realistic, especially after the ransomware attack last December that targetted Gallery System’s software, which affected many of its more than 800 clients, including 260 museums, among which are the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Pennsylvania and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas.

And not everyone is sold on these collection management database programs. William G. Fleischer, principal at the New York City insurance brokerage firm Bernard Fleischer & Sons, said he’s “not sure of the real added value of buying these services,” though others swear by them. Catherine Lucas, an attorney with the New York law firm Grossman LLP, stated that collection management database tools are valuable for several reasons, including “in the event that a dispute or litigation arises regarding an artwork, database records can help establish basic elements of claims and defenses, including ownership and provenance.”

Maura Kehoe Collins, an art advisor in New York City and Houston who uses Collector Systems, noted that “myriad data” is involved in keeping track of artworks in a collection. This includes when and where an object was purchased, the price, the tax paid and to what entity it was paid, the current condition and conservation history, medium and size (of the paper or canvas, as well as the frame, which is useful to know when ordering a crate), the provenance, level of insurance, appraisal(s), photographic images (JPEGs or TIF/TIFF files), exhibition and publication histories—she “could go on and on.” The more information there is about an object, “the easier it is to sell when compared to less well-documented pieces” and—perhaps most importantly for some—for larger amounts of money.

Why (and How) Gallery and Museum Collections Management Went Digital