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The Keepers of the Gate: Containing the Soul of Art Buying


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BY Lewis Van Arnam April 30, 2010 · Published by Resource Magazine

In the world of advertising photography, art buyers act as both welcoming presence and impenetrable barrier. Lewis Van Arnam sheds light on the complex role of this central figure in the ad-creation process.

This article has been contributed from the Spring 2009 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.

Somewhere, right now, a phone vibrates and blurts a snippet of David Byrne: "And you may ask yourself . . . How did I get here?"

Hello dear.

Hi Mom. Guess what? I've decided to become an art buyer! . . . Hello? Mom?

Oops . . . awkward silence . . . not good. Looks like this mom could use some help. Fortunately, I think I can shed a little light on this docudrama. You see, what this mom doesn't know is that art buying is part of the unique and extraordinary business of advertising photography production. I can attest to these accolades because, as a photographer's agent, I'm part of it too. Today's art buyers, service buyers and art producers (or whatever title happens to apply) are an essential component of the elaborate photo-execution process. In the frenzied advertising world, where normal business expectations of predictability and reputation are taboo, one concept remains indisputable: the soul is in the details. And the details, in this case, define the eminence of the art buyer.

Oh, honey, can you afford that?

Okay, I can see this is going to be an adventure. Listen up, mom! There's an intersection in advertising where the conceptual abstractions of the creative team must begin the ascent to actualization, and it's a very busy place. Creating image-based advertising campaigns is a rigorous process. Following multiple levels of approval and intense analysis, projects are channeled to the art buyers who adopt the creative vision and take control of legal technicalities, contract analysis, bidding, cost consultations, budget control, copyright issues, talent indexing, multicultural awareness, shoot management, post-production and, to top it off, considerable internal politics.

And that describes an isolated account! In fact, art buyers consistently juggle numerous projects, all in different stages of development. Their vast knowledge and connections are invaluable to both the creative and account teams of the agency. And the stakes are high. Big budgets and complex requirements bring pressure to the equation.

The buyers continually update their resource pool and keep a close watch on the pulse of the industry. From photography choice to final presentation, the art buyer's contributions are integral to the success of every project.

Is it dangerous? Are there bad people?

Wow. Danger? Of course not. But, pressure? Definitely. Bad people? Well, not really. But, intense people? Absolutely. You see, there's an element called "talent selection" (this is my favorite part!); though the buyers are not responsible for final decisions on creative assignments, their edited recommendations lead the creative team, and client, to a viable choice. This process, and all it entails, is a dominant part of their job and could easily become overwhelming, if it were allowed to. With consuming intensity the art buyers are inundated with promotional hype from the freelance world of photographers, photo reps, model agencies, talent agencies, and a sea of service providers, including the most recent arrival, the digital retoucher. The art buyer holds the key to a way in, and in is the goal of this huge talent pool that hovers nearby. The fervor of this promo-blitz is truly remarkable and the rewards of success great enough to fuel it to a relentless pitch.

Art buyers accept the encroachment of the freelance world as both a blessing and a curse. They know that the interdependancy of the corporate and freelance worlds is undeniable. Ultimately, it's their true passion for creativity and artistry that softens the promotional din. As it was aptly put by one of my art buyer friends, "We all need each other." Elegant as this statement is, there's an expanded view. An entire sub-industry is built on the development of identity awareness, and its full attention is squarely on the art buyer. The objective is how to be noticed, remembered, and, most importantly, considered. As the "keeper of the gate," art buyers must act as both the welcoming presence and the impenetrable barrier. In this simple concept lies the genesis of an incredible expenditure of time, money, and energy from the freelance contingency. Art buyers are very aware of the power their influence brings and are careful to remain objective and impartial. 

When it comes to promotion, art buyers caution us to keep expectations realistic. One simple directive is: "Do your homework." It's not that hard in today's techno-environment. The broad-stroke approach creates an unfortunate atmosphere in which art buyers become stressed by sheer volume, and subsequently everyone's efforts suffer. A buyer friend recounted a story of a photographer's appointment that was soooo far off that she became suspicious of being punk'd. Hilarious! . . . and tragic. Fortunately, art buyers maintain a healthy attitude, tempered with patience, understanding, and a sense of humor. As one astute buyer pointed out, "The good work rises to the top." So true, but the quesiton remains . . . How?

Art buyers all have individual preferences regarding promotional styles, and although this question of "how" has no absolute answer, some favorable conditons stand out. First and foremost is the validation that accompanies published work. Editorial, ad campaigns, and even gallery shows are huge credability factors in establishing a confidence zone. But less tangible criteria such as artistic vision, or a powerful recommendation from a respected peer, can also enter the equation. And don't overlook the efforts of the photo reps! The traditional portfolio presentation, whether tactile or digital, is a strong communicator. The following lists characterizes some promotional tactics, rated by art buyers.

  • Mailers: Good, if simple. Forget the elaborate presentation. In fact, forget the envelope. It's rare for an assignment to be given based exclusively on a mailer, but I'm told it has happened. A more realistic expectation is increased name/brand recognition.
  • E-mailed link: Good, when accompanied by an image or a small group of images. Categorized by the subject line. When possible, call ahead to give the e-mail a better chance of being viewed.
  • E-mail update: Great! Small synopsis of recent activity with attached images. Include a PDF that can be saved for future reference. (Remember to title the PDF.)
  • Phone call: To "check in" with no agenda other than to remind the art buyer of your existence: Not popular. Viewed as a waste of everyone's time.
  • Source book: Effective, but usually not the first point of attack. Great reference tool for locating phone numbers and website addresses.
  • Trade show: Mixed reviews. Enjoyable, but overwhelming. New York-based buyers don't have to leave their offices to know who's out there. That being said, they welcome an opportunity to break away from their daily routine and to re-connect with buyer friends. Good benefit for the out-of-town buyers.
  • And finally, the Photographer's appointment: Potentially great. There's no doubt that photographers can speak most effectively about their experiences and creative vision, but the advice is to check the rhetoric at the door. The exchange can be extremely valuable when there is a constructive dialogue.

On the flip side, the internal process of talent recommendation can place the art buyer's reputation on the line. It's imperative that the buyers maintain credibility with their creative teams and, in an ironic twist of role reversal, often end up "selling" their choices.

So this is a real job you're talking about?

Hmmm . . . Maybe a little background will help. Art buying is a relatively new component in the modern era of advertising. It emerged in the late 1960s and its growth hinged on one particular event: the passing of the 1976 Copyright Act. The new law confirmed a photographer's automatic copyright protection from the moment of creation. Amazingly, this technicality was totally overlooked by creative departments across the country, which continued to use images without obtaining proper authorization. Within the next few years infringement lawsuits littered the advertising landscape and it became apparent that a dedicated person was needed to address the copyright issues. Subsequently the art buying community quickly ballooned and began its remarkable ascent to the compelling presence it is today.

Although the profession evolved to address business technicalities, art buying is not purely a business position. And though the field is robust with art-trained indidvuals, in some cases legitimate artists and photographers, neither is it purely creative. In the resulting axis lives a special symmetry, formed by spin. The required flex to embrace art, business, and the marketing sciences presents the art buyers with a vortex of challenges, that, to their credit, they enter with an open mind and heart. Since there is no formal training or degree required (although all have degrees in a variety of areas), the points of entry inevitably reveal a circuitous path that echoes, ironically, the freelance side of the industry. Art buying is a unique area in the corporate domain, where nonlinear careers also exist, and this synchronicity does not go unnoticed or underappreciated. In fact, such a tight parallel exists between the functions of art buyers, photo reps, and producers that an interchangability of roles is often observed. During project collaborations these participants have reciprocal exchanges that inadvertently educate each to the other's skill set. The resulting career morphing is a noteworthy phenomenon. At any moment a buyer can be dealing with an ex-buyer who knows the ropes, or conversely, a photo rep might suddenly negotiate with an ex-rep with whom they previously competed. Pros and cons notwithstanding, all the resulting scenarios integrate with surprising ease, consistent with the coveted free-range nature of the industry.

Determination, resourcefulness, ambition, fortitude, and a touch of happenstance are ingredients that lead art buyers into the field. All have a deep appreciation for a process where professional osmosis is the path to success. Art buyers consistently refer to the presence of a mentor in their early development, and the complexion of their knowledge base, and professional demeanor, is directly attributable to the influence of that individual. Each buyer also speaks of their personal network of industry peers, where they both offer and solicit support. Sharing information is an integral component in the buyers' growth process and daily routine. In the personal evolution of each individual, we see a microcosm of art buying's tenacious growth.

And so we come full circle in confirming the unique and extraordinary status of advertising photography production. Here exists a special bond for the insiders who truly understand the quirks of a business that speaks its own language and prides itself on living off the grid. We're a diverse community that celebrates the simple pleasures of accomplishment, however complicated the process. And rising above the myriad of crucial roles, we see a prominent centerpiece with unfaltering dedication and implicit province. Here stands out esteemed subject: the art buyer.

So, let's try this again:

Hi Mom. Guess what, I've decided to become an art buyer!

That's wonderful, dear! Your father and I are so proud!


Special thanks to the following art buyers who generously gave their time and knowledge: Wini Barron, Michelle Chant, Heather Church, Ali Cohen, Ray Di Pietro, Bev Don, Victoria Frazier, Lindsay Hill, Andrea Kaye, Teresa Rad, Karen Rossiter, Amy Salzman, Marisol Vargas, Patty Widyn.

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