By Phebe Wahl By Phebe Wahl | July 22, 2021 | Lifestyle
Crack open a bottle of wine and slide into his DMs—Hamptonite and Artsy CEO Mike Steib is on a mission to help grow your collection and expand the all-too-often exclusive art world by arming buyers with better information and access.
Julie Mehretu, “Dissident Score” (2019- 2021, ink and acrylic on canvas), sold for $6.5 million on Artsy, setting a new record for the artist at auction
How did you end up at Artsy and making the transition to the art world? Over the course of my career, I’ve worked in media and technology. I was a consultant early on and spent the most formative years at Google prior to going off to be the CEO of a company called XO Group. One of the consistent themes throughout my career is that I’ve worked really hard to use technology to connect more people and make it easier for people to discover or do something that they’ll really love. When I was at Google, we were trying to open up television advertising to small businesses. It’s really hard for a small business to advertise on TV today. We built a marketplace where you could get creative made for an ad right through your computer for a few hundred dollars. It was a way to help level the playing field between large companies and smaller businesses. [At XO Group] we had an industry where 80% of people had to do the work of planning the wedding themselves. Only 20% of brides or grooms in America could afford a wedding planner. So we invested years and tons and tons of resources into building what was essentially a personal wedding planner, in your pocket in an app 100% for free. And we took all of this expertise, and all of these connections, to vendors that were the exclusive purview of wedding planners. We democratized it and gave it to everyone. We sold the company in 2018 for just under a billion dollars, and it was a nice combination of all the team’s hard work. I was looking for something like that to do next— something where there’s an industry that can be made better for everyone sort of on all sides by technology. [Artsy founder Carter Cleveland] is a buddy of mine. Artsy was looking for succession in the new CEO.
Sojourner Truth Parsons, “Mother of Citrus” (2017), In the collection of Mike Steib, offered on Artsy through galleries Various Small Fires and Downs & Ross
The art world is totally different from any other world I’ve worked in—but there are some consistent themes. The vast majority of people who can afford to buy art for their homes, close to 99.9% of the people who can afford to buy art for their homes, do not buy art for their homes from in-demand artists shown at galleries. And the reason is that the art world feels intimidating to a lot of people— or unapproachable. I’m sure you’ve had the experience: You walk into a gallery or an art fair and you just are not quite sure where to start. The enthusiasm and the confidence that people bring to buying fashion, jewelry, watches, luxury automobiles—every one of those is a trillion-dollar industry. The art world is a small fraction of the size, because we don’t have the same level of confidence, insight and support when we enter the art world for the first time. So I see this as a massive opportunity. I came to Artsy because I firmly believe that we can increase the size of the art market by 10 to 20 times. We can do that by giving insight into the work of every in-demand artist—and all of the signals of value and career trajectory. Prior to the work that we’ve done at Artsy, that data was either behind a paywall or the exclusive domain of people on the inside. We saw this opportunity to make all of that available so that anyone could enjoy purchasing art with confidence. I love art. I want everyone to be able to buy art with the same level of confidence that they buy other things. And I want to work with this incredible team and help to expand the art market so more galleries flourish, more artists can make a living and more people can bring the beauty of art into their homes.
What do you like to collect personally in terms of art? I loved art and had a passion for art but was not a collector of art for all the reasons I just articulated. We bought a few pieces, but we weren’t passionate art collectors. Today, I’ve not only brought my love of art into this job, but I now have all of the tools at my disposal to become a real art collector. My wife and I collect art now across two axes. One is artists whose work really speaks to us and whose careers we want to support. We want to buy artists who are still working—some of them artists who are early in their careers—and we want to be a patron of their work and support them so that they can create their art and speak in their voice and be heard. It really starts with that emotional connection with the work and with the artist. What I love about Artsy is that it is the best place to go and learn about all these artists. We have their bios, the galleries that represent them, the solo shows they’ve done, the group shows they’ve done, museums that have bought them. You can see all their artwork in one place. And when you don’t know where to start… you go down this journey of using the Artsy app and you come out the other side with all this art you love—and all these artists you know all about. So that was the first thing: finding and discovering those artists whose work and whose story really connects, and who are still growing in their careers so that we can be a part of supporting their journey. The second part is—through my work at Artsy—I have access to basically all the data on the art world. And while you should buy the art that you love, if there are two works of art that you love, and one of them is going to appreciate in value, I prefer that one. I think everyone does. And what I was able to learn, sort of through my work at Artsy— and [that] we’re now building into our product and making available to everyone—are those signals of value and future value. Only 10% of artists are represented by galleries. And only 10% of those artists have any level of critical acclaim. And only about 3% of those artists have a secondary market. And of those who have a secondary market, only a certain percentage have a secondary market that’s liquid and appears to be moving in the right direction. If you’re coming from the outside, you don’t know any of that. You don’t know if this artist has gallery representation, if it’s a blue-chip gallery, if that’s an emerging gallery, if the artist has a secondary market. We tell you all of that right up front, so that when you’re considering art, you also have access to all those signals. This is basic stuff you’d want to know before making a big purchase.
How have you incorporated art into your own home? My wife and I have been out here in the Hamptons for a little over 15 years. We bought our first house on Buell Lane about 12 years ago. I’m pretty sure our neighbors referred to it as the teardown, and we lived there for years. And then after I sold my last company, we had the time and the opportunity to get the house that we’d always wanted to have in the Hamptons, so on the same lot and in keeping with a lot of the tradition of what a house out here in the Hamptons looks like, we built from scratch. As you can imagine, we’ve left a lot of room for art to be a big part. There’s a joke: You know you’re an art collector when you’re indifferent to how much wall space you have. You just keep buying things that you love, and you’ll find that there’s plenty of room for them. You’ll find that if you buy a work of art that you love, it absolutely changes your home and changes your life. Think about how many of us are now at home, working in the cloud and putting a piece of art up. We saw 50% of our sales during COVID from people who had not bought and were not with us before.
How do you think the pandemic shifted the art world? Well, with COVID first and foremost, we were really concerned about the sustainability of our business partners, the art galleries and work of their artists. And I remember in March, April, May—it felt like the world was going to end. So we did a couple of things. First, we had a ton of inbound because a lot of galleries that had not been online didn’t know where to start. We’re a platform where the second you sign up, you turn the key, you are a digitally enabled business. And it’s so hard for even bigger companies, but for a small business, a gallery or a local business to have an app and a highly performing website and do SEO, paid marketing, be active in social media, it’s essentially impossible for most business owners, so we fire all that up. We had more inbound interest from our galleries than ever. We just staffed up to make sure that we could accommodate it. The second thing that we did is work to support the community. Over the year of COVID, we did almost $9 million in benefit auctions that supported causes from the Food Bank of New York to the Museum of the African Diaspora as a way for us to use our platform to give back to the community at an important time. We started really leaning into campaigns like the ‘art keeps going’ campaign and a bunch of things to communicate to the 2 million users of Artsy—but also the world more broadly— that this is not a time to forget about art. This is the most important time to be a patron of the arts. And it worked. We grew. We added more new users. We added more new purchasers. And we executed more transactions than ever in the company’s history. As a result, we were able to deliver results for the galleries who were counting on us at the time. At the beginning of COVID, there was a fear that half of the galleries could go out of business. And we’re on the other side of this now, and I would venture that almost none did.
Tariku Shiferaw, “Shaka Zulu (Tyga)” (2019), in the collection of Mike Steib, courtesy of the artist and Addis Fine Art
What advice do you give for people looking to buy art—perhaps for the first time? The first thing I would say is go to Artsy and start exploring the kinds of artists and the kinds of works that you like. In our family, we really enjoy abstract expressionism. We also enjoy artists that have sort of a graphic design element to what they do. You start to find these things. We buy a lot of figurative art, but you start to find things that are cool and that are fun. The next thing is to get to know the artists a bit. We just bought this one artist, Maeve D’Arcy. She’s a relentless warrior for social justice. Everything she posts on Instagram makes me proud to be supporting her work. And we really love the gallery. Another big part of this is to get to know the gallery that sells those artworks. We’ve worked with Kathryn Markel Fine Arts in Bridgehampton a bunch of times. And this was one of her artists. So we had an artist we really liked. And there was a gallery that we really liked. And we had a bottle of wine. That’s sort of the third thing I would say... It was our first lunch for my wife and I out of the house in the later days of COVID. We went to Topping Rose… We had a bottle of wine... And then we went right to Kathryn Markel and looked at the painting. It is the artist that we discovered on Artsy, but ultimately wanted to go in and say hi to Kathryn and see it. I would also advise folks to pay attention to what’s going on in that artist’s career if you’re thinking about art as an asset class. When you’re thinking about art as an asset—every time you buy a handbag, a piece of jewelry, a car—it depreciates the minute you buy it. And it’s mass produced. There’s nothing special about it. When you buy a work of art, you’re buying a unique, branded good from an artist whose career—if you’re doing it right—is blossoming. The signals are there and available to you for free on Artsy. Are you looking for an artist with a secondary market or one earlier on in their career? Are you looking for an artist who’s represented by a blue-chip gallery or an emerging gallery? All of that important insight is also there for you when you make the purchase. A friend of mine is fond of saying, ‘You only regret the art that you don’t buy.’ Each work of art is unique and is in demand. So when you find something you love—and one of the things we’ve worked really hard at Artsy to do is make it so you can buy the artwork, with the click of a button—don’t hesitate. Because it’s not like buying a hybrid SUV; if you don’t get this one, you get another one. If you don’t get this work of art, you will think about it for years. You will regret not having gotten that work of art. Look at the data to get a feel for the artist’s career progression. But then if you like it, don’t hesitate because there’s nothing like having a work of art that you’ve fallen in love with—and the one that gets away. You never forgive yourself.
Henni Alftan, “Reminder” (2017), acquired by Mike Steib from Karma gallery via Artsy
What sort of innovation is up next for Artsy? First and foremost is great supply. Artsy has 1 million works of art by the 100,000 most in-demand artists from top galleries in over 100 countries. And we are constantly getting more great supply. We have a new collection now called the Trove, which is super in-demand artworks, hard to get your hands on, that we’ve worked with our gallery partners to make available on Artsy—and available for instant purchase. We sold a Julie Mehretu piece for $6.5 million two weeks ago to support the Art for Justice Fund. People used to think of Artsy as a place you’d go to spend $1,000, $5,000 or $10,000. We now have the full range. We have had people buy art on Artsy at the click of a button in the hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars now with increasing regularity. So first and foremost, getting great, amazing supply. Second is giving those insights that help the buyer feel really comfortable when she purchases a work of art. The secondary market sales and performance for earlier-career artists are where I like to focus my energy. And finally, I’ll tell you... I’m easy to find online. If anyone wants to buy art and doesn’t know where to start, I tell them to slide into my DMs. We have a team at Artsy that works with collectors who need help getting started, and we will get them taken care of.
Photography by: JULIE MEHERTU PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, © JULIE MEHERTU, PHOTO BY TOM POWEL IMAGING; SOJOURNER TRUTH PARSONS PHOTO COURTESY OF DOWNS & ROSSl; PORTRAIT BY MARK SAGLIOCCO; TARIKU PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND ADDIS FINE ART; HENNI PHOTO COURTESY OF KARMA GALLERY VIA ARTSY