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Believe the Hype! How PR Took the Art World

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.

“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.

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