Public Relations is an essential part of any art business, and David Ulrichs knows that better than most. For almost 12 years, he has been in charge of the public image of some of the most important galleries in Europe. Esther Schipper, Lisson Gallery, Galerie Judin and many more have come to him to make sure the great and good of the art world know about their projects, exhibitions and artists. Here, he tells us how PR is the lifeblood of any good gallery.
So first of all, what exactly is art PR?
It’s all about securing the best possible media attention for one's clients. In the art world, PR mostly focuses on adapting and shaping narratives and stories about exhibitions, events, artists or artistic productions to make them worth re-telling. Since the 2000s the number of art PR agencies has grown quickly and each company has its own strengths and focus. I believe in long-term partnerships and prefer a tailor-made approach with each client receiving a bespoke strategy, wherein I also lay out the challenges as well as the aims of each campaign. It’s up to me to be as honest as possible in projecting the possible success of whatever it is that the client is offering. The more solidly I fulfill my projections, the more trust my client puts in me, which fosters long-term collaborations. Obviously, I can only speak for myself and my own approach, which I have adapted through practice, since I never studied communications or marketing or even art history!
How important is PR to an established gallery or artist?
It’s hugely important. A lot of contemporary art has a relatively low production value. The actual profit margins can be extremely high - the price is determined by the name - and name or brand management is at the heart of every PR. Shaping or re-shaping the brand of an established artist or gallery might not be as exciting as creating a different logo every day, or discovering an exciting new art trend every two seconds, but it’s very rewarding to see clients become opinion leaders.
What makes a good art PR?
A good PR is measured in the attention given to projects, not money. Success is to only represent clients and products that you believe in; to have the courage and luxury to choose, the product in which you have faith. It's neither about the number or size of the clients. It’s about having the best product. You choose the clients, don’t let the clients choose you!
How did you get into the PR business, and who do you mainly work with?
By chance. I was a doctoral candidate of philosophy and wrote about art on the side in magazines like Art in America and ArtReview. I was offered a temping job at an art comms agency in Berlin, but realized after about two weeks that secretarial work requires a certain knack for organization that was beyond me. So I was given a small account to manage. I went at my tasks with the skills of a natural-born salesman, since already at an early age I often ended up manning my family’s wooden toyshop in Galway, Ireland. My approach proved successful, and I worked on exhibitions by Mona Hatoum and Douglas Gordon. Both artists almost simultaneously encouraged me to continue in PR.
About 13 years ago, when I moved towards PR, the art world in Berlin was becoming more and more professional and hiring any kind of consultant as a museum or gallery was definitely not the norm. Press releases were still largely being sent out by post - or even fax. It was the advent of communication by email, cellphone and I bought my first Blackberry. Fast response times became more and more important and working 'on the go' was a relatively new concept: both I wholeheartedly embraced. With the energy of an entrepreneur, I started my own shop working with Douglas Gordon and two contemporary art galleries (both of which have since closed). In 2011, I started working with Esther Schipper and my business really took off from there. I still work closely with her and about a dozen other clients from the studio of the artist Xu Zhen in Shanghai to the art fair EXPO Chicago or Zeno X Gallery in Antwerp. On larger projects, I work with other PRs and most of my longstanding clients have dedicated personnel to liaise with me, for which I am very grateful.
What was your journey into art, is it something you loved since you were young or something you came to later?
Since my teenage years, I have been interested in art and I even wanted to attend art school. I had prepared a very elaborate application folder and remember my open-day visit to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin back in the 1990s. All the students had hidden away their artworks for fear of the open day visitors stealing their ideas. The students all looked like members of Oasis and the atmosphere felt a little hostile. But apart from that I also never had the firm belief in my own artistic genius to take the leap of faith necessary to become an artist. At university, I decided to study philosophy and one of the first courses was on aesthetics, taught by a Franciscan monk. I remember lengthy arguments with him about art and beauty - and of course, about the sublime.
How has the pandemic impacted you?
Since I had to significantly reduce my billable hours, it gave me the opportunity to accept projects that I usually would not have had the time and capacity to take on. Covid-19 travel and venue capacity restrictions, actually forced the art world to slow down and re-think its formats. Video conference calls became viable modes of working together in the art world, reducing travel stress. Art fairs went outdoor or online and became more carbon-friendly; vernissages became less crowded - so visitors could actually see the art; and one artist even opened up a temporary nightclub - allowing entry to one person at a time. And there was Clubhouse. But many regular projects, like indoor in-person exhibitions or art fairs were postponed or even cancelled. Welcome, financial aid came from the national and regional governments and thankfully all of my clients continued to be supportive of my work, as best they could. Recently, the situation has improved and more and more the art world is realizing the importance of art being experienced in person.
What would your advice be to someone looking to hire a PR?
The relationship between a client and their PR is determined by honesty and trust, which takes time to build. Sticking with a PR for a longer period, is more rewarding - there is no quick fix. You shouldn’t need to try too hard to convince a PR of your product. If the PR isn’t truly convinced, ask another agency. In the art world, there is very little difference in how PR agencies work, we all have the same tools. And PR is not magic, it’s hard work.
What would your advice be to someone looking to become a PR? What's the path into the industry?
Soft skills, like communication, manners and the ability to empathize are hugely important. And being able to put oneself in a good mood in difficult situations is a huge plus. Obviously, sales skills are required, because you will need to ’sell’ stories to the media; and, if you are in client acquisition, you will need to convince your skill set is what the new client needs to tap into, to be successful. Be informed, communicative and patient. Be good at making connections. Sell the stories, not yourself. I don’t think there is one definitive path into the industry, although starting at an existing art PR agency is definitely one way.
Do you yourself collect any art? Do you have a favourite piece?
I don’t really collect art, but have received a few works from clients. My highlight is a work from Douglas Gordon, which the artist made for me in 2013. My favourite work ever is Barnett Newman's Onement I from 1948. One of my contemporary highlights is a work by Pierre Huyghe entitled C.C. Spider, 2011, which was part of the first exhibition of his that I worked on. I recently moved to a new apartment on the banks of the Spree river in the centre of Berlin, for which I became interested in Danish and German furniture design from the mid-century era along with fitting wall-ceramics; a widespread West-German craft at the time.
What do you think is the future for PR in the art world?
Smaller, flexible PR agencies will do better in the future. They will have a well-curated list of interconnected clients, which offers media the access to an art network larger than the sum of its parts. I think the focus could shift towards a more client-supporting role: functioning as a kind of communications consultant. Small teams of highly-trained specialists will probably be more sought after than a 'big' agency structure with high running-costs.
Interviewed by: Eddy Frankel, author of ARTE Generali