Stefan Simchowitz Interview: If You Can’t Join Them, Beat Them

Photo courtesy of Stefan Simchowitz.
 

By NINA MDIVANI, January 2021

Stefan Simchowitz, a divisive figure in the art business, is about to open his new gallery space in LA next month. I spoke with Simchowitz about his new gallery, his views on the art market, collectors, and new digital environments we are all inhabiting.

NINA MDIVANI: The upcoming opening of your new gallery seems like a good place to start our conversation. Why are you opening it? And how it will be different from other galleries, since you seem to go against the grain of traditional art world establishments?

STEFAN SIMCHOWITZ: I have financed and managed many artists' production over the years. I have supported artists across a vast geographic range, and have facilitated the gallery representation for many of them. For example, Petra Cortright is represented by Societe and 1301PE, Shaina McCoy is represented by Francois Ghebaly and Stems, Serge Attukwei Clottey is represented by Gallery 1957, Zachary Armstrong by Tilton Gallery and Mark Horowitz has been showing with EverGold Projects and L21. The list goes on. LA has fewer galleries relative to the artists we are showing. I have all the infrastructure; I have built the engine of the car basically. We will largely show the work of artists we finance in a much deeper relationship than just consigning material for shows.  The gallery will be different in that its main function is an extension of our service to finance and manage artists. To clarify a point, not necessarily the developed well-known artists that we have worked with, but a more emerging group of contemporary artists who need opportunities for exhibition. Exhibitions have and always will be critical and relying on an establishment that is highly critical of me. It has been an uphill battle, so I figured let's do it ourselves.  I have also struggled to get reliable payments broadly from gallery partners over the years and have had far too many experiences where monies are not paid and work is sometimes difficult to recover.

Photo courtesy of Stefan Simchowitz.

NM: Why now, next month?

SS: It's always a good time to start a new venture when you really should not. This has proven true in the past. The Pandemic will pass and this year I turned 50 in the middle of the pandemic and I figured it was a good birthday present for everyone. Leo Castelli opened when he turned 50 so I figured that was a good role model to follow. We are opening on February 20th with a wonderful Mexican artist Kenneth Taylor whose art school was the studio of Mary Weatherford, where he and several terrific artists learned from one of the masters. You should open in the worst of times and hope for the best.

NM: You want your new gallery to run somewhat as a “house to manage and help artists.” Are you going to follow the traditional model of having curators, thematic exhibitions, one month per artist shows?

SS: There is nothing fully traditional about anything I do. I want to focus on solo exhibitions. I’m not aiming to create catch all group shows or thematic shows per se.  It will be a space for artists to present bodies of work. I think it will be singular in that sense. It is not a gaudy space, 1350 sq feet in West Hollywood. Everything will be pristine, elegant, small, and understated - basically the opposite of my personality. Sufficient to the purpose of giving artists an opportunity to have beautiful and manageable exhibitions. I think a lot of the galleries which one goes to now are big, lacking intimacy, you are confronted by the space, not the work. Also, I want to make it convenient to visit for collectors, so I rented in an area near Blue Bottle and the best Acai Berry Bowl in town. It is an attractive place to go to, user-friendly and welcoming. 

NM: Do you plan to participate in the art fair system when it will be back?

SS: First of all, I doubt that the system would accept me. I have a hard time imagining that I could fly to Art Basel with that board accepting me. It is not something I am against, but it is not a goal. As some people say, ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ But, in my sense of it goes, if you can’t join them, beat them. For me, it has been sort of a long cat and mouse game. People are critical of me; curators are critical of me and they sometimes penalize artists who work with me.  Although I have done so much, many don’t understand or respect my methods. And I am tired of hiding behind the curtain. I think making it easier for people to see the magnitude of support we give artists in the form of exhibitions will help direct the narrative in a more positive way. 

Photo courtesy of Stefan Simchowitz.

NM: You don’t need to be accept by the art establishment as you mentioned elsewhere, you have your own base of collectors.

SS: There is no such thing as a base of collectors. Plenty of people buy art online by direct messaging artists on Instagram. I think that looking at art collectors, even as they were just ten years ago, is already a very dated way of looking at things. The art world is no longer an art world - it is an industry. People are looking at different places to buy art and I do not feel that I have ownership over anything or everything. We need people who buy art, in whichever direction they come.

I do not have an ideal special collector that I’m trying to attract; I am open to everyone. My ideal is actually someone who pays quickly and then someone who actually pays.  I do not actually care who you are, and I would never ask the question “are you on a board of a museum” or "what is in your collection"? It's none of my business, unless the party wants to share with me. The same with the artists, who I work with. I do not care if they went to school or have an MFA and don't even ask. Most of the artists I work with even do not even have a BA. I respect curators, but I do not care about the hegemony of scholarly perspectives. I am a difficult person to deal with directly, but my job is to create a system that reduces as much friction as possible for people to engage with cultural production.   

Photo courtesy of Stefan Simchowitz.

NM: How did 2020 change your flow of business? How did digitalization affect the way you operate?

SS: I would like to answer this broadly and not in relationship to me. 2020 has been one of the best years for the art business. We saw digitalization and people getting a handle on using online art services. We also saw more convenient product offerings coming online, we saw galleries innovating quickly, people gaining easier access to exhibitions than ever before. We also saw the levelling of the playing field because all these tools are priced to be accessible to wider groups of galleries. These shifts have especially benefited those on the lower end of the market, providing access by equalizing the playing field. There has been this shift in wealth caused by cryptocurrencies and tech last year, and I think these guys are now coming to the market to buy young art. They want to diversify; they want to engage with the social and cultural product. So, I think it has been a great year. Smaller galleries that have strong product offerings are doing well and this is very encouraging. It seems to me like a new dawn in the distribution of art is underway. For us, we had time to focus on infrastructure, putting better systems in place on the inventory and logistics side.

NM: In your 2014 interview you mentioned seeing yourself in relation to the art system as Martin Luther in relation to the Catholic church. Do you still see yourself in that role or there is another analogy you now feel closer to? 

SS: I like radical ways of thinking, even when they are simple, they are of value. If I were living in the 16th century, I would definitely be a Lutheran over a Catholic. I think that while the Catholic church provided an important ritualistic function, I would agree with the Lutheran criticism that the pomposity and circumstance of the Church had come to distract from its sacred experiences. But, this perspective need not demolish another perspective, it just needs to include multiple different perspectives in one unity. And when you have ten points of view versus three, then these three points are less important, relative to each other because there are more voices in the room, there is more complexity, more color, more dynamism. 

So, this is not an obliteration of ritual or scholarship or academia or care, because I am very careful and I do read and I do study, it’s just adding certain layers of complexity so that these dynamics could essentially flow between each other, and maybe become more flexible from each other rather than rigidity within defined structures. 

Photo courtesy of Stefan Simchowitz.


NM: What do you look for in a new artist?

SS: I look for someone who is not happy when they are not in the studio.

I look for an artist who would rather be in a studio then socializing at Art Basel. I look for artists who understand that having the access to capital to produce is the most important thing, one who has ambitions, who is committed, and obsessed about their practice.  

NM: You talk a lot about providing opportunities for emerging artists globally and at the same time are heavily criticized for preying on artists’ financial and emotional insecurities, purchasing at considerably lower prices, making a profit when the market for a particular artist emerges. How would you reconcile these two images of yourself? 

SS: I don’t try to reconcile this. I have lost lots of money buying works now worth less then what I bought it for. People only deem my purchases cheap after the work has gone up in value, which occurs 1 out of 10 times, if I am lucky. Most of the time it often has no financial value whatsoever ever.  I let the critics reconcile this one for themselves. WM

 

Nina Mdivani

Nina Mdivani is Georgiani-born and New York-based independent curator, writer and researcher. Her academic background covers International Relations and Gender Studies from Tbilisi State University, Mount Holyoke College and, most recently, Museum Studies from City University of New York. Nina's book, King is Female, published in October 2018 in Berlin by Wienand Verlag explores the lives of three Georgian women artists and is the first publication to investigate questions of the feminine identity in the context of the Eastern European historical, social, and cultural transformation of the last twenty years. Nina has contributed articles to Arte Fuse, Eastern European Film Bulletin, Indigo Magazine, Art Spiel. As curator and writer Nina is interested in discovering hidden narratives within dominant cultures with focus on minorities and migrations. You can find out more about her work at ninamdivani.com

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