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my day with stefan simchowitz

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SimcoImage

This is a promo photo, but this exact thing literally happened to me.

I.

A little while ago, I began a new research project on the world of visual arts. I want to know how artists develop their careers in a world where aren’t clear signals of quality and much depends on an artist’s personal network of dealers, curators, collectors, and fellow artists. In the last two years, I’ve interviewed a wide range of people in the arts business and spent time in galleries, artist studios and art fairs.

One of my  goals is to understand collectors and what they do, or don’t do, for artists. I’ve been lucky to get some interviews with the world’s leading collectors, but I was still searching for a few extra interviews to round out the sample. As I was perusing Paddle8, an art sales website, I stumbled upon an auction for ProjectArt, a Los Angeles area non-profit group that supports emerging artists and sponsors art programs for kids.

ProjectArt was auctioning off the chance to spend a “day in the life” with some very well known folks in the art world. For example, you could bid for a day at the Ovitz Family Collection. Could I use this as an opportunity to recruit a few more collectors for my sample? It sounds like a great idea, but the bids were much higher than what my humble academic salary could afford.

But then I noticed that you could bid for a day with art dealer and advisor Stefan Simchowitz. The price was in my budget and I thought he’d be fascinating to speak with. He’s deeply involved in the art world and a bit controversial – writer Jerry Saltz once called him the “Sith Lord” of the art world and he was once called its “Patron Satan.”  I thought I could learn a lot. And honestly, I thought it would be tons of fun.

So I went to the Paddle8 website and clicked “watch work.” This button will generate email updates about the lot. It turns out that no one bid and I  got an email from the website asking if I wanted to make an offer. For those who don’t know the rules of auctions, you can sometimes make an offer if an item is passed. So I sent an offer of a few hundred dollars and it was accepted.

To appreciate the bargain, consider that your lawyer will charge about $300 to $500 per hour. A medical specialist will charge the same price for a fifteen minute visit. A ten minute visit to a hospital emergency room will cost you a mortgage payment. To get an entire day at this price with Simchowitz, one of the most prominent art collectors and dealers in America, was insane.

II.

After I made my donation to ProjectArt, I contacted Simchowitz’ office to arrange the visit. I was already scheduled to visit my in-laws in Northern California, so it would be easy for me drive down to Los Angeles. I rented my car, came down, and showed up a little bit after 10:00 AM on a Saturday morning.

Simchowitz’ lives in a very nice section of the Los Angeles/Hollywood area. Upon arriving, I saw that his posse had gathered. As they sat around and chatted, Simchowitz introduced me to his life partner, son, and friends. Then, he gave me a brief tour of the home and we walked to a nearby property that he owned that functioned as an office and art display space.

He showed me around and asked me how I ended up at his house on a Saturday in July. I told him that I’m big fan of the visual arts and that I’m also a professor who studies the social side of the visual arts. I wanted to learn about his approach to the art business.  He then asked what I’d heard about him. I then told him that I only know what I’ve read in the media. We went back and forth about what exactly the media had said, what he thought about it, and what I thought about it. And clearly, he thought the media got a lot of it wrong.

People got hungry and Simchowitz’ crew moved out to the Blue Bottle. Breakfast was a great example of the “social Simchowitz.” He seems very comfortable with a large entourage of people around him and he constantly reaches out to others. Breakfast included, at least, nine people, ranging from children to business confidants. At breakfast, and throughout most of the day, he was in business mode: making deals, giving business advice, or simply socializing with long time friends and business partners.

Another insightful moment came later in the day. As we were driving to Venice Beach for dinner, Simchowitz decides to pull over to the Tortoise General Store. It’s a gross lie to call it a Japanese home furnishing store. Rather, it’s a temple to contemporary Japanese interior design. Beautiful leather hats for hiking, gorgeous drinking classes, maneki-neko themed napkins for the dinner table. The more time I spent in the shop, the more I fell in love with the Tortoise’  endless supply of beautiful items.

Simchowitz was also deeply, deeply in love. “At heart, I’m an aesthete,” he told me earlier. And it showed. We spent, I think, about an hour at Tortoise trying on clothes, examining furniture, and much more. This resulted in a king’s ransom of Japanese goods in the trunk of his car. But Simchowitz is also a businessman. He eventually discovered one of Tortoise’s staff members was, in the past, in the same business as one of his friends, who also came along for the ride, and they agreed to meet later for dinner.

What’s a day in the life of Stefan Simchowitz like? On this day, at least, a day in the life of Stefan Simchowitz is about a very tight group of family and friends who have fully thrown themselves into the world of art and design. It’s business, but it’s also love, a love of people and the things they make.

It’s also about a guy who’s blunt. He feels the media got him wrong. To me, and on social media, he’ll explain why he now sympathizes with Trump, because he feels Trump is often misrepresented by the news. Not surprisingly, he’s also critical of the political culture of the art world, which often relies on a very tendentious identity politics. This ticks him off. He is also pretty honest about his taste in art and he’ll tell you what he thinks. Let’s just say that I’m a much bigger fan of Rudolf Stingel than he is.

But you didn’t really want to know about Stefan’s shopping habits, did you? You want to know about the art business. Ok, let’s do it.

III.

So here is the fundamental business problem of the emerging art market. Art is often sold based on its reputation, so there are few buyers for younger artists, who rarely have much of a reputation. This lack of buyers will be a huge problem for any business but it’s an even bigger problem in the art business. The reason is that there three big fixed costs: labor (e.g., the artists), management and distribution (e.g., the dealers), and storage and display costs (e.g., the physical gallery space). When demand for young artists drops, which it usually does at some point, you still need to pay these bills and its is not easy to liquidate inventory or cut costs labor costs.

What do emerging art dealers do in this situation? There aren’t many good options. When buyers disappear, you can stop paying artists, which threatens the entire business. Or, you can get rid of your physical gallery space, but that means there is no place to display the work. Or, as many dealers do, you can personally subsidize the business using income from another job, an inheritance, or just cutting all housing costs by literally moving into your gallery space.

Perhaps, you can evolve into a more mature “mid level” gallery where you have artists with more stability who can sell work. That doesn’t address the basic problem. You still have the costs of labor, management, and space, just on a bigger level. If a few buyers drop out, you’re in trouble again. You need to be incredibly good at this business to make it consistently work and to experience growth.

Simchowitz takes a different approach. Like many modern businesses, he sidesteps physical space. He doesn’t have a storefront, he doesn’t curate shows, and he doesn’t do art fairs, which are basically gigantic, and very expensive, pop-up galleries. He recently made a concession to physical space by renting a news stand in Los Angeles and showing work by the artist Lazaros. Still, a minor concession made after a decade of art dealing from his house.

His main strategy is shifting to the “supply side” of things. He tries to get vested in the careers of artists, instead of riding the waves of fickle collectors. He shares much with other private dealers who maintain contacts throughout the art world and stockpile works from “hot artists.” What makes Simchowitz different than many dealers and advisors is that he goes one step further. He uses his own funds to “buy out” young artist and enter the role of a manger. Then, he generates income from a wide range of private sales and auctions.

He represents a model of art business closer to Silicon Valley and the Creative Artists Agency than a typical gallery. In this model, one uses excess funds to act as a venture capitalist, acquiring an interest not in a single canvas or sculpture, but in an artist’s career. Then, one helps the artist get have a stable life and get them to reliably produce work. Sales are made privately, but the artists will also continue to show in traditional art venues. Perhaps the philosophy is that if you can stabilize the artist, the work will follow.

It’s not surprising when Simchowitz makes boasts that sound strange coming from other art dealers. Your typical dealer in Chelsea or the Lower East Side may proudly declare that they placed a work in a “great private collection.” Instead, Simchowitz bragged to me that his artists owned their own homes. Other dealers may talk about getting an artist into the right museum survey show. Simchowitz likes to tell me how he will give a young artist a better camera, or pay for better canvas, or rent a truck to help move canvases across town. He reminds me of other collectors who I have interviewed who became so ingrained in the artist community that they routinely help artists make and ship their work. Just because they respect the artist.

Why is Simchowitz so reviled in some art circles? Don’t others invest in their artists, hoping for the big score? They do, but I sense two differences. First, Simchowitz doesn’t try to play the game of the traditional institutional art world. He’ll invest in the RISD student as much as the high school drop-out. He doesn’t wait for the “right curator” or the “right museum” to show work. Nice if it happens, but he doesn’t wait for it. He also has no problem with the world of private sales and auctions, which strikes fear into many artists.

Second, his “venture capital” approach creates a sort of imbalance that the art world isn’t used to. Normally, emerging artists must spread their work out. They may have a dealer, but they often do lots of group shows, and their work appears in art school shows. If their work appears in a curated show, there are more people involved. In contrast, the venture capital approach to art, in the short term, creates a concentration of work. The artist’s entire work is purchased as is some future work. Since it is not shown in a gallery or in art fairs, it is accessible, in the short term, mainly to Simchowitz’ clients. In other fields, this would be considered a savvy business move, but in the visual arts, it ruffles feathers.

In the end, I don’t consider Simchowitz to be doing something revolutionary. Rather, he’s he’s doing things that are normal in other businesses or that already happen in the art world, but to a lesser extent. The real question is why more people with the funds and business skills don’t do what he does.

IV.

It was a rich day. His buddies regaled me with stories from the glory days. We ate a lot and Stefan even gave his cheeseburger. There was an unusually testy argument about whether “pastrami on rye” included rye bagels. In all, we visited an artist, a gallery, a Japanese design store, and the Marciano art foundation. I saw some deals that worked and some that stalled. We spoke about children and we talked politics and he asked me what life was like as a professor.

It was good and it was generous. Few would open up their homes to a stranger and I’m grateful for our time together. So, the next time Stefan offers himself up for a charity auction, check it out. You might like it.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 8, 2018 at 7:18 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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