An artist’s assistant helps artists execute and accomplish their work in various different ways, both practically and theoretically.
An artist’s assistant is hired to help an artist create his or her art. However, this relatively straightforward-sounding remit can mean a vast range of tasks, from making the artist’s morning wake-up call, to calling on your expert knowledge of Inuit fishing practices in helping to create a particular installation.
Artists’ assistants are fast becoming an integral part of the mainstream art world, as busy international artists employ younger art graduates and skilled workers to execute ideas, contribute knowledge and practical help to projects, and organise their social and professional lives.
Assistants will work with the artist in studios, galleries and occasionally at home or abroad, and their tasks and working conditions will very much depend on the artist whose work they are assisting. Given this factor, hours and conditions can vary widely. You might be working on a building site in Basel, or making afternoon tea in Islington.
Many young artists take advantage of these varying conditions to use a job as an artist’s assistant to supplement their income while they continue to work on their own work during time off. However, it can be hard work: computer literacy, interpersonal skills and a practical aptitude will almost certainly be needed in this varied professional atmosphere.
Because of the wide range of employees who may be sought under the title, ‘artist’s assistant’, it is difficult to establish a typical salary. Many art-school graduates assist artists for free as interns or even as friends in order to make contacts and gain experience, or in exchange for studio space or other materials.
Artist’s assistants can often expect to be paid by the hour: this will usually be at a rate of at least £10 per hour for an unskilled worker employed by a successful artist.
At the high end of the job market, skilled assistants may be commissioned to help execute an artwork or its parts – for instance, bringing skilled equipment and know-how to the construction of a large-scale sculpture. The increasing normality of unusual installations and other media, including film, in the mainstream art-world means that the demand for specialised, skilled workers will almost certainly increase in the coming years.
- Making and fielding phone calls
- Writing and sending emails
- Helping install and dismantle exhibitions
- Everyday assistance with food, travel arrangements and professional/social plans
- Fetching and carrying
- Attending social functions
- Researching projects or ideas
- Practical help in creating artworks
- Miscellaneous – your boss might ask you to buy them a brie baguette, or paint 400 yellow dots onto a canvas, or travel to Manchester watching a piece of glass in order to ensure that it doesn’t break
Artists, of course, do not need qualifications, and nor do their assistants. However, many assistants are themselves graduates of art school.
- Ability to work with people, some of whom could have difficult personalities
- Initiative when trusted with sorting out complicated or flexible situations and arrangements
- Ability to take orders and follow them to the letter when working on artworks
- Willingness to travel and flexibility with time
- Practical abilities, from computer skills to scaffolding, are often a plus
While it need not be true that all artists are difficult and temperamental, any assistant can bear the brunt of their boss’s whims and moods, and working as an artist’s assistant is no exception.
That said, the working conditions of the job are sometimes negotiable and often unorthodox in the most positive way, with unexpected time off and benefits of various kinds, including going to parties, meeting people and getting occasional freebies.
The work can, however, be physically demanding: moving artworks, travelling, working long hours and helping out with building or constructing large-scale works can all take their toll. This is one of the reasons artists tend to employ younger assistants to help them with their work.
The workplace is rarely dangerous, but unusual circumstances can apply – potential assistants should try to obtain as clear a picture as possible of what will be expected of them before they commit to a job.
Experience in the art world, such as making art or working as an assistant, is always beneficial.
Artist’s assistants are usually employed on a personal, ad-hoc basis. However, major galleries and agencies will often recruit on their behalf.
It is unusual for an individual to secure a position as an artist’s assistant without any experience of either the art world or of assisting. However, given the personal nature of the job, it can be perfectly normal for an acquaintance of the artist or of his or her gallerist or agent to be contacted for assistance.
Much assisting work is part-time, so some assistants keep other jobs as well, which is often creative or freelance work.
Artists’ assistants go in many directions. However, a young artist will typically work as an artist’s assistant until she or he has built up a sufficient body of work, portfolio and list of contacts to be sure that they will be able to support themselves as an artist with sales and shows of their own.
Also known as…
- Personal Assistant
- Young Artist
- Make-Up Artist’s Assistant
- Designer’s Assistant
- Photographer’s Assistant
What’s it really like?
Dorothy Feaver, 23, has worked assisting artists for three months.
I used to combine assisting another artist with freelance art writing and editing. I have also worked as an exhibition invigilator, a researcher and an exhibition organiser. Many artist’s assistants who I know are themselves young artists or people who work in creative industries, who assist more established artists in order to finance this work, and sometimes to make connections too.
For me, a typical day at work involves practical assistance in the personal studio of the artist I work with. As well as this, I am there as the point of contact between the artist and the outside world, mainly so he can get on with his job.
I take phone calls, deal with email correspondence, and draft letters and texts for the website. I handle the artist’s diary, arranging with clients the times for their portrait sittings, which often has to be done well in advance. I am also carrying out research for a forthcoming project. Importantly, it’s my job to fix lunch, which we all have together (there is another assistant in the studio at which I am currently working).
As there is an exhibition coming up, in the afternoon I help with the assemblage of the large collage pieces, which require intricate scissor work. I’ll be the person to wrap works and deliver them to the framers or clients, or to the gallery. I also ensure that wine glasses are on standby for the end of the day.
The studio is a friendly environment and offers an insight into an artist’s process, which is a real privilege. The fact that you get to meet many fascinating people is another positive aspect of the job. The mixture of tasks keeps me on my feet and I’m not desk-bound – although there are administrative requirements, this is not an office job.
I am currently paid £12 per hour, and the hours are flexible. While the job provides structure to my week, even while I am in the studio I have plenty of thinking time for my own work. On the other hand, there are negative aspects to the work – I suppose being an artist’s assistant does have a shade of ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’.
I’d advise anyone thinking about trying to find work as an artist’s assistant to get out and about – familiarise yourself with which artists show at which galleries, get on their mailing lists, go to exhibitions and openings, meet people, make friends – because this kind of work usually comes up by word of mouth.
If you are interested in a particular artist the best thing you can do is find out about their work. Also, it is worth enquiring with the galleries, and sending them your CV to them to keep on file, because an artist’s gallery will often be the second to know if they need assistance.
This is a great job to combine with your own practice or other freelance commitments. I want to go on to devote more time to those things in the future – I see my work as an assistant as supporting and supplementing other work elsewhere.
But that isn’t to say that this is a casual job that can be taken lightly – even if it is just a temporary job, I am required to work hard and draw on a number of skills. Furthermore, the insight and practical understanding you gain from assisting an artist would stand you well in almost any job in the art world.