ART WORLD Q & A: Edition 11

12/20/2017

For this edition of Art World Q & A, Adam Yokell, Founder and CEO of Foundwork, a new artist platform for the contemporary art community, shares his insight on the current art climate and how galleries and collectors are shifting their approach to buying art.

About Adam Yokell

Adam Yokell is the Founder and CEO of Foundwork, a new artist platform for the contemporary art community connecting artists with curators, gallerists, and other prospective collaborators. Before Foundwork, Adam was the owner and director of Hometown, a Brooklyn-based gallery where he exhibited and collaborated with emerging artists from the US and abroad. Adam is also a lawyer by training and previously served for several years as Counsel to the online platform Artsy where he managed legal affairs and provided operational and strategic counsel across the company. Adam is a member of industry groups and organizations including the SculptureCenter Ambassadors, the Independent Curators International (ICI) Independents, and the Art Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association, where he is a member of the Subcommittee on Artists’ Rights.

Foundwork is located at www.foundwork.art.

1. How has the art market changed over the last 20 years?

At least at the more emerging level (which is what I’m more familiar with firsthand), there are considerably more galleries out there now than there were in the late nineties, especially in big industry cities like New York or London. Collectors are also better informed in recent years up and down the market (or at least they have more access to information), so generally speaking there may also be less deference to the dealer when it comes to assessing demand or setting the price of an artist’s work.

While these changes may amount to a more competitive landscape for dealers, the overall size of the collecting population has also grown significantly during this same period—caused in important part by the internet creating unprecedented access for new collectors who might have been shy or reluctant to enter a gallery or auction house before but who can now be introduced to galleries or participate in auctions more conveniently online. This growth in the collecting population is also due to focused efforts by dealers to reach new segments of the population (for example, collectors working in the tech industry), as well as to what appears to be a generally increasing mainstream interest in the art world, although that’s harder to quantify. This increase in overall demand helps to meet the larger supply out there in the market, at least in theory.

Another important if obvious development is that the market has become much more globalized, art fairs and the internet being two big contributing factors. Even at the emerging level, dealers frequently work with collector clients in other cities or countries—and more collectors are looking and purchasing work from galleries outside of the collector’s hometown. It’s encouraging to see this long distance contact between dealers and collectors, as reaching a wider collector base is probably necessary for the smaller and mid-sized galleries to sustain themselves and grow in a crowded market—and the health of smaller galleries is critical, as they are the ones who normally collaborate with emerging artists to provide those early shows that can bring an artist’s work into the public discussion.

Some artists have also been taking matters more into their own hands commercially, starting their own galleries and acting as dealers in their own right. While I can’t think offhand of any artist-run galleries that have turned into major businesses (although some may exist), artist-run spaces certainly help emerging artists to gain visibility which can lead to future opportunities, for instance, opportunities to work with larger galleries. There are also some innovative artist or curator run exhibitions out there functioning as quasi art fairs—Spring/Break Art Show in New York and Satellite Art Show in Miami are two that immediately come to mind—that provide significant visibility for artists who may not have gallery representation, and that support projects which are bolder or more experimental than the work you might see at the larger commercial fairs. Satellite was hands down the most rewarding art experience I had during the recent Miami art fair week—granted I wasn’t down there to buy or sell six figure paintings.

2. Who are the contemporary artists that will stand the test of time and why?

Impossible to say. But historically—and this is obvious but I think worth mentioning—the artists who’ve stood the test of time were all extremely dedicated to their practice as a lifelong pursuit. Some great artists may start creating later in life, and some may even claim (with varying degrees of irony) to have retired, but the artists who are remembered after their time have usually practiced more or less continuously throughout their lives, whether from a sense of compulsion, discipline, or some combination of the two.

3. What is the difference between market and value in the art world?

Market is about how readily and at what price something can be bought or sold. Value is a broader idea that goes beyond the market and includes the critical, cultural, and conceptual meaning of a work or an artist’s practice. If value is defined more as cultural significance, then of course it isn’t limited to tradeable artwork and can be used equally to describe an exhibition, a performance, a piece of critical writing, etc. Value—or the perception of value—is often a primary factor determining an artist’s market. That said, as you know, there are other influences in the market so value isn’t always the main concern.

4. What role do you think taste plays in the decisions that important collectors make when buying new work?

Taste is of course one of the most important and common factors in collecting decisions up and down the market, whether we’re talking about new or established collectors. That said, the role of taste in the decisions of established collectors naturally depends on the situation and on the collector. Are we talking about someone who likes to acquire as much work as possible by a given artist in order to affect their market? In that case taste probably matters less for any individual work. Maybe a similar dynamic exists with collectors looking to build a comprehensive collection across a range of artists or types of art, where they may be willing to purchase something they don’t personally love in order to acquire an object that fills a representative gap, which is of course a perfectly valid motivation and may help to account for some of the more encyclopedic collections out there. For instance, I recently visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena—which is just an incredible collection spanning Eastern antiquities through post-war Western art—and even though most of the objects are very beautiful, the collection is so diverse that it’s hard to imagine taste playing an equal role in the decisions Mr. Simon made across the different collecting categories.

5. What would you buy with $10k, $100k and $1 million?

10k – Work by my friends.

100k – More work by my friends, and probably some work by other artists towards the start of their exhibiting careers. Collecting emerging art is one of the best—and definitely one of the most direct—ways to support emerging artists.

1m – I wouldn’t spend it all in one place. But if I had to, something by Richard Diebenkorn.

6. What are the advantages/disadvantages of buying at auction versus buying through a commercial gallery?

Not reinventing the wheel here, but if we’re talking about work by living artists, collecting through a gallery usually offers a nice chance to speak with someone who knows the artist personally and can offer some fairly direct insight into their practice. If you go to a gallery opening, you may have a chance to meet the artist. If you go to an auction, you normally won’t see an artist in the room. That said, auction house specialists are of course extremely knowledgeable as well and have plenty of information to share. For my time, it’s an advantage when you can establish a personal link back to the artist.

7. What criteria do you use in judging art?

Am I responding to it physically? How was it made? What are its material or visual qualities? Am I responding to it conceptually or emotionally? Am I enjoying myself when I engage with it? Is it making me uncomfortable? Why or why not? Where does it fit into the artist’s practice as a whole? What meaning does it have in a broader artistic context (i.e. relative to the artist’s peers and other artists who are more or less senior)? What meaning does it have relative to the larger social/political/etc. situation in which it was made? I suppose there’s a fair amount of subjectivity in all of those!

8. How are art fairs shaping contemporary art? What is the primary role of art fairs?

Art fairs make everyone busier. For artists and galleries, fairs are of course an invaluable opportunity to reach new clients and audiences, but there are the related risks and pressure of participating. For gallerists, fairs mean a more intense operating schedule and additional overhead. For artists, fairs can mean additional studio deadlines that force artists to work faster than they might have otherwise.

Apart from the basic commercial aspect of the fairs, it’s been exciting to see more fairs producing supplemental programming, panel discussions, special exhibitions, even charitable prizes or collaborations with institutions—for instance, the recent NADA Acquisition Gift for PAMM where NADA allocates funds from its Miami tickets sales to support an acquisition by Miami’s Perez Art Museum from one of the fair’s exhibitors. Fairs are playing a very prominent role in the contemporary discussion, so it’s encouraging to see some of them showing a sense of reciprocity and also an increased focus on geographical diversity and curation in their selection process and floor plans—as opposed to more of a curatorially agnostic, transactional format (granted, the primary purpose of fairs remains to help connect galleries with collectors, which is of course a critical function in its own right).

9. What are your favorite online venues for buying art?

The only time I’ve ever bought art online was bidding in a benefit auction for the Brooklyn Academy of Music a couple of years back on Paddle8. That said, for those who want to collect work from galleries, Artsy is a very helpful platform that features literally thousands of galleries from all over the world and is a great place to discover work for sale and connect with dealers. Artsy also features a growing auction platform where they host sales by commercial auction houses and also host benefit auctions for non-profits (I worked at Artsy for several years as their legal counsel and it was great to be a part of those projects).

There are also some platforms out there selling limited edition prints in collaboration with artists, which is a nice format that lets you collect work by talented and sometimes fairly well-known artists, just at a more modest price point. Sugarlift, for instance, is a service you can access online that has produced some great collaborative prints with artists, but that also provides collectors with custom advisory services to help them find original works by a range of artists that Sugarlift knows personally. The idea there, as I understand it, is to help emerging collectors discover work by emerging artists, which I’m all for.

That said, I’m no longer so focused on online sale platforms—and I’ve actually spent the past year developing a new platform, Foundwork, whose purpose isn’t to sell work to collectors, but rather to help create more visibility and connections between artists, curators, and gallerists, i.e. the people who play a key role in collaborating with artists, organizing shows, and advocating artists’ work to the public. For every artist and gallerist who have the chance to meet and decide to work together, there are of course others out there looking for new opportunities, including opportunities to collaborate with people who don’t necessarily live nearby or share the same network. It seems like a lot of potential opportunities are missed due to a basic lack of access or visibility across this group (both locally and at longer distances), and that’s what Foundwork is designed to help address. This dynamic applies equally to curators and educators who want to research or connect with new artists for shows or other projects. In terms of the market, this sort of connective platform ultimately enables more artists to show and sell their work through galleries—and enables galleries to promote and partner with a wider population of artists. In the end, more work makes it out into the market and into the broader art arena, and more people have a chance to participate.

10. What do you look for in the art you collect?

The handful of works I’ve collected have all been objects I wanted to live with aesthetically, but—as my dad sometimes says about plays or films that he likes—they also have something on their mind, which in this case means work that gets me thinking about something other than its appearance. Guess I’m keeping my options fairly open there.

11. What is the best advice you can offer to someone who is ready to start collecting contemporary art?

This advice is cliché for a reason (it’s critical): make a habit out of seeing a lot of art. Get to you know yourself better in that context. If you live near galleries, visit them often and don’t be shy to talk with gallerists and ask them to tell you about the work—that’s what they love to do. Also, do some reading about the artist before you purchase their work (even just a quick online search will often tell you a lot). If we’re talking about collecting work by young or emerging artists, you probably shouldn’t start your collection with a profit motive. At the same time, in you’re going to invest in someone’s work at any level, you do want to know that they have a dedicated practice which they’re likely to continue pursuing into the future.