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Turning Geeks into Collectors

Lauren Murrow | April 26, 2016 | Story News and Features Features National

“If you have $100 million, you can buy any damn thing you want.” Jeff Dauber, 50, is a former Apple executive who now advises startups for a living. Needless to say, he knows what it means to have means. Over the past 25 years, Dauber has been amassing a large-scale collection of challenging contemporary art—a pastime that makes him an anomaly among his big-moneyed tech brethren. “In Silicon Valley, they buy vacation homes, they buy supercars, they buy amazing stereo equipment,” he says. “They’re not buying art.”

Ever since the second tech boom began adding commas to paychecks up and down 101, the art world has been courting the tech crowd in the manner of a teenage boy: sweatily, with a heightened sense of propriety and a palpable fear of rejection. “From what I hear from my colleagues—galleries, private art dealers, and art advisers—everyone keeps trying to chase the tech giants,” says Heather Marx, an East Bay art adviser. “I hear ‘We need to harness this wealth,’ ‘We need to channel this interest,’ and, finally, ‘Why aren’t they buying?’”

The feeble answer is that they just don’t have time, that they’re too busy breeding unicorns to become educated art patrons. The more realistic answer, however—at least according to those with a foot in both tech and art fields—is that they haven’t been effectively wooed. “The problem is not that tech doesn’t know the art is here; it’s that they haven’t been made to care,” says Dauber. He claims to have converted just three of his colleagues into collectors over the past two decades.

Historically, part of the problem has been a misguided perception on the part of artists and gallerists of what sort of art people in tech want. For years, the common assumption was that tech collectors coveted tech art, such as high-concept video or multimedia works. (“Tech art—now that sounds like a bad investment,” deadpans Artis Ventures cofounder Stuart Peterson, a nine-year SFMOMA board member also known for his museum-worthy contemporary art collection.) “People in tech are like, ‘I get it, I’m in tech,’” says Brit Morin, founder of the creative commerce company Brit + Co and the wife of early Facebook executive Dave Morin. “‘My whole home is connected. I have eight wearables. I don’t need my art to have a screen.’” In fact, her DIY brand was built on the opposite conclusion: that the perpetually connected seek out art as a way to disconnect.

Slowly but surely, gallerists are realizing that techies are just like any other art buyers, albeit more possessive of their time and more anxious about the lack of hard data in a world of intangibles. “My tech clients approach art through immediacy, what they understand,” says Jessica Silverman, who owns an eponymous gallery in the Tenderloin. For many of them, this may mean a starter collection of photographs, a medium Silverman believes can be more approachable than painting or sculpture. It’s a hypothesis supported by Morin: So enamored is she with photography that she and her husband named their firstborn Ansel. (“Matisse” and “Warhol” are in the running for the Morins’ second child, due this spring.)

Running counter to the techies-want-tech assumption, many budding collectors from the world of tech value a sense of craft and process—“being able to connect with the hand of the artist, to see the brushstroke,” notes Jody Knowlton of Artsource Consulting—as well as a sense of repetition and pattern, says Marx. Nearly universally, though, gallerists and art consultants say, the tech sector gravitates toward contemporary art. That makes sense, says art adviser Sabrina Buell of Zlot Buell + Associates, who reportedly counts Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger and Google CEO Larry Page among her clients. “These people are defining the contemporary ideas that some of these artists are responding to in the first place.”

The problem
, then, isn’t that would-be collectors don’t know what they like; it’s that nobody’s leading them to it. And it’s true that in the midst of overseeing million-dollar businesses, securing funding, and amassing growing staffs, they don’t have the time or inclination to find it themselves. Enter the middlemen: art advisers who are paid a percentage of every purchase in return for steering clients toward so-called legitimate art.

Many Bay Area advisers, including Buell, Marx, and Courtney Strimple Colman of Colman Art Advisory, transitioned from curatorial gallery positions into art-advising roles, jumping ship at faltering brick-and-mortars for independent careers as art whisperers. Though the business model varies, most advisers either are on retainer or bill a client by the hour, collecting a 10-to-20 percent commission when a work is purchased. For gallerists seeking that elusive connection to flush techies, advisers provide a crucial service. “I went to a dinner party not too long ago hosted by one of the early employees of Facebook who has an interest in collecting,” says Peterson. “There were seven or eight art consultants there. This is how it is now.”

Beyond simply making introductions to gallerists, an art adviser serves as a guide for newbies navigating the complexities of the art world. Many buyers even hire advisers to gallery-hop on their behalf. “Part of it is talking to the right people who can guide you in doing things with the work that are quote-unquote appropriate,” says Silverman, whose gallery works with a handful of local advisories, Zlot Buell among them. “Things like donating it, writing it off, or offering it to the person you bought it from before sending it to auction.”

Advisers recommend books and resources, arrange studio visits with artists, squire clients to art-world parties, and provide access to dealers. They also can help land deals: It’s common for an adviser to secure a discount of 10 percent or more on behalf of a client. Some advisers adopt roles that are as psychological as they are transactional. “A big part of my job is knowing who my clients are, not just where they work,” says Marx. “It’s about getting a sense of what makes them tick on a personal level and an aesthetic level. It’s very intuitive.”

Fundamentally, some say, the prevalence of art advisers in the tech industry rises largely from would-be collectors’ fear: the fear of unwittingly dropping tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on, to put it bluntly, crap art. “People want to live with art, but they don’t want to make a mistake,” says Knowlton. “They hire us because they trust our filter.” Tech clients, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, can lack creative confidence.

But all of those virtues haven’t stopped art advisories from being controversial within the art world; in fact, their merits are hotly contested. Some veteran collectors, Peterson and Dauber among them, scoff at a system they view as unnecessary hand-holding. “If somebody does not pick out their own art, they’re not an art collector,” insists Dauber, who claims he can tell if a collection’s been selected by an adviser—and which one—on sight. “An art consultant would say, ‘Well, you’re missing this piece or that piece,’” says Peterson. “But it’s sort of like your parents telling you you should listen to this or that band.” Morin, who worked with tech-darling interior designer and sometime art consultant Lauren Geremia when she and her husband moved in to their Marin home in 2013, prefers to choose her own art. “I liked it, but it wasn’t me,” she says of Geremia’s selections. “It’s like fashion: You don’t want someone else telling you what to wear.”

The emergence
of advisers also points to another seismic change to the etiquette and hierarchy of the art market: The methods of discovering and selling art are being upended, brushed aside by collectors who value immediacy and transparency above propriety. “It used to be that an artist could make a great body of work, have a gallery show, establish a price point, then get into museums,” says Dauber. “That’s all gone now.” Rather than gallery-hop, tech buyers can surf the Artsy search engine or the art-market website Artnet, says Colman. They’re harnessing social media as a means of seeking out—and even buying—art. (Both Silverman and Colman know of works that have sold on Instagram.) Colman uses Instagram’s direct messaging to correspond with tech clients. “I’ll say, ‘You should take a look at this,’” she says. “It’s a little less aggressive than a text message and quicker than an email.” Deals are made over text. For new collectors, the message is more important than the medium. “I’ve bought art at expensive galleries,” says Morin. “I’ve also bought art on Amazon.”

Even major auction houses are testing the waters online. Last fall, Sotheby’s teamed up with Artsy to launch its first online-only sale of contemporary art. “They’re seeing how far they can come between the collector and the actual work and still get them to buy,” says Silverman. “They’ve found people are happy to buy online, at a certain price point.”

As the tech sector has slowly infiltrated the market, established artist-buyer protocol has loosened as well. For one, these new collectors aren’t shy about financials, says Marx. “There’s not the usual policing of what can be said and what can be asked,” she notes. They’ll research auction records online and inquire after prices; they’ll quiz artists on their methods.

While that forwardness can be refreshing in those with a desire to learn, a naked interest in the business of art can be unnerving to the old guard. Gallerists have noted a rise in those buying art as an investment—flipping art—a practice that has previously been more readily associated with Wall Street sharks and Russian oligarchs than the hoodie set. Colman recalls participating in a panel at Art Silicon Valley last fall about building a collection. “The question we got again and again from audience members was ‘What kind of price increase should I expect to see after five years?’” she says, exasperated. “If that’s what you want to do, you should be investing your money elsewhere.”

There’s a difference between being interested in the long-term relevance of your collection and treating art like a stock. “You hope that you’re buying an artist that will be relevant over time,” says Peterson, “just like you want the companies you invest in to be relevant over time.” The problem with art flipping, say gallerists and dealers, is that it artificially drives up the market, undercutting midrange galleries. Some place blame on auction houses like Christie’s, which started auctioning off blue-chip art by living artists in the past decade. Others point to an increasingly common venture capital mindset: the relentless focus on acquisition and growth. “It’s the last great unregulated market,” says Dauber, “and it’s ruining the art world.”

“You get questions like ‘Well, what were the prices of the artist’s work six months ago, and where are they going?’ It’s a red flag—and kind of a turnoff,” says Silverman. Some well-connected art advisers, like Buell, act as flipper repellers, weeding out those who explicitly trade in art. Others, like Laura Sweeney of LSS Art Advisory in Union Square, embrace the economics of an eternally volatile business. Before founding her art consultancy in 2013, Sweeney managed investment portfolios at J.P. Morgan and Wells Fargo for 15 years. Though she’s aware of the negative associations that art investing has within the industry, “increasingly, art is an alternative investment,” she says. “If a client is asking what the investment potential of a piece is, I can speak with authority.”

It’s an art-market reality: Buyers sell. And while viewing art as a commodity is widely discouraged, it’s difficult for midsize galleries to dismiss this interest or to deny access to what are ultimately paying customers. “Do I call that client and harass them? No,” says Silverman. “But do I make a mental note, maybe, not to sell to them? Yes.”

One sign that
the number of tech-world art buyers is beginning to creep up is the corresponding number of art advisers who are hopscotching between San Francisco and New York. “I don’t know that I’d have any Bay Area collectors if I didn’t have my feet on the ground here in San Francisco,” says Colman, who maintains offices in Manhattan and San Francisco. Needless to say, the Bay Area art scene has always played second fiddle to New York’s. From 2007 to 2013, nearly one-third of the solo exhibitions in major U.S. museums showcased artists represented by New York’s so-called Big Five galleries. East Coast dominance has long been a source of frustration for local collectors like Peterson. “For the most part, we know what artists we want to collect, and we know which works we want, but we have to review work in a jpeg over email,” he says. For many buyers, the solution—albeit a flawed and much-maligned one—is art fairs.

Art buying has transformed from a regional pursuit into a global enterprise, spurring a meteoric rise in the number and influence of art fairs. Sweeney attends 10 fairs a year, a number she contends is not uncommon among her peers. The relatively recent success of local fairs like Fog Design + Art, now in its fourth year, and Art Silicon Valley, in its third, comes with an added bonus: drawing the fresh eyes of screen gazers. “I’ve been getting so many calls from dealers in New York and L.A. wanting to do Fog Fair in the hope that tech people will come by,” says Silverman.

From the buyer’s standpoint, the convenience of being able to view 250 galleries from around the world under one roof is undeniable. It’s common for advisers to accompany their clients to art fairs, providing context and gently steering them away from work they find “uneven.” The stature of such fairs has been grudgingly accepted by art insiders. On the one hand, they present the opportunity to assess a vast array of promising art in a short period of time; on the other, the punishing schedule and antiseptic settings have contributed to what is already a difficult environment for midsize galleries (the kind San Francisco has in spades).

“Art fairs are tough on business,” admits Silverman, who just pulled out of Frieze New York and London in May and October, opting instead to stay in San Francisco in the months surrounding SFMOMA’s reopening. “They’re really expensive”—between $10,000 and $30,000 for a booth at Fog Design + Art—“so you don’t want to lose money at them.” Still, it’s increasingly important for advisers to see and be seen at the right fairs. “It’s an imperfect thing, to be sure,” says Tessa Wilcox, one of Knowlton’s partners at Artsource. “But it’s a necessary thing.”

A lingering dissatisfaction with the art-fair economy has led the art establishment to explore other avenues in hopes of appealing to the tech crowd. “All the gallerists are like, ‘We have to figure out how to talk to these tech people,’” says Dauber, “but you have to get them interested in looking at art in the first place. If you’re a 28-year-old tech guy and all you want to do is play video games and buy a nice car, you’re never going to go into a gallery.” But you might be interested in a place like Fused Space, a conceptual art venue situated within product designer Yves BĂ©har’s Fuseproject headquarters that attracts a younger, more tech-focused crowd. Since opening in 2013, Fused Space has been curated by Silverman with an eye toward connecting San Francisco’s incumbent design and tech industries with its emerging-art scene.

Similarly, Minnesota Street Project, the newly opened complex of galleries and artist studios in Dogpatch, aims to attract art newcomers with author talks and artist parties, as well as a forthcoming ground-floor restaurant and bar helmed by chef Daniel Patterson. (Come for brunch, stay for the art.) And this fall, Buell is teaming up with Katie Page—daughter of noted collector Charles Schwab—to chair an SFMOMA interest group called Contemporaries, in which artists, gallerists, and curators will be invited into collectors’ homes for in-depth conversations.

While San Francisco’s art community continues to innovate, a wave of New York galleries have been compelled to plant a flag here. In February, Pace Gallery inaugurated a Menlo Park pop-up gallery with an immersive digital exhibit by the Japanese art collective TeamLab. In April, Pace opened a new 3,000-square-foot permanent gallery in Palo Alto’s Cardinal Hotel, while New York art dealers Anton Kern and Andrew Kreps launched an exhibit within Minnesota Street Project, on view until May 21. This month, Larry Gagosian will unveil a 4,500-square-foot gallery directly across the street from SFMOMA.

Behind the scenes, SFMOMA’s directors are working overtime to capitalize on the buzz, feverishly recruiting tech luminaries as board members and donors. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer joined the board in 2008; Morin’s husband, Dave, was recruited in 2013. “I’m pretty sure he was the youngest person by at least a couple decades,” she jokes. The museum’s new 15,500-square-foot Pritzker Center will nearly triple the size of the previous photography gallery, and is expected to be a draw among the selfie set.

In the meantime, the art establishment is waiting with bated breath to see whether the reopening of SFMOMA—now the largest contemporary art museum in the nation—can ignite the slow-burning affair between art and tech. “We’re hoping the museum will catalyze a new wave of collectors,” says Peterson. Not to be outdone, New York’s Museum of Modern Art is plotting a $400 million expansion, slated for completion in 2019. “It’s a contemporary-art arms race,” says Peterson. And the tech sector’s favor is the ultimate prize.

Originally published in the May issue of
San Francisco

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