Why techies don’t buy contemporary art

By Felix Salmon
April 8, 2013
Alice Gregory, in the NYT, has been reading her Austen: "It is a truth universally acknowledged," she writes, "that a young technologist in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a high-end art collection".

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Alice Gregory, in the NYT, has been reading her Austen: “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” she writes, “that a young technologist in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a high-end art collection”. Well, maybe she doesn’t put it exactly like that. But that’s her clear message:

Considering their net worths, technology innovators and the venture capitalists who back them are not collecting much art, according to people in both the tech and art worlds.

For the latter, this is a big problem.

Actually, it really isn’t. Gregory manages to find one alarming quote from someone called Sima Familant, who worries that “we’re going to have a really big problem at some point” if “our wealthy American elite” isn’t “supporting institutions and the arts”. But of course the wealthy American elite, in general, is supporting such institutions. Even the tech elite, in particular, is doing so: the WSJ’s Ellen Gamerman had a long article about “The New High-Tech Patrons” back in February.

Gregory, by contrast, is talking about something different: “the problem”, as she puts it, of successful technology executives somehow failing to buy expensive art by living artists at New York galleries and at art fairs. This is a problem which can be solved with the diligent ministrations of art advisers, as Gregory demonstrates through the uplifting example of venture capitalist Mike Brown:

Mr. Brown’s art adviser, Sarah Jane Bruce, affirmed that “the general assumption is that people in tech will collect street art.” Ms. Bruce, 35, can be credited for Mr. Brown’s evolving taste. The two met in 2011 through a mutual friend just before Art Basel in Miami Beach. She took him there, and he bought his first fine-art pieces.

Firstly: yes, this appeared in the NYT in 2013, more than 30 years after street artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat first took the New York fine-art world by storm. And secondly, it’s entirely rational for anyone, regardless of whether they’re in the tech industry, to recoil at the multiple layers of snobbery and elitism baked in to such tales. Tech types might not be able to tell the difference between a Jacob Kassay and a Gerhard Richter, but they can still smell the mercenary instinct here. (There’s no meaning to the term “fine art”, in this context, beyond simply “expensive art”.)

There’s certainly no richesse oblige to the activity of buying art at art fairs. The act of building up an expensive private collection of contemporary art falls somewhere between consumption and conspicuous consumption. As a result, no one should ever be bullied or guilt-tripped into doing such a thing by some jumped-up art adviser: if you don’t love the art you’re buying, or have some personal reason for wanting to support the artist or gallery in question, then there’s no good reason to buy anything at all.

Take Jonah Peretti, for instance, who’s featured in the article as a collector of digitally-savvy artists. While Gregory mentions his jobs at HuffPo and Buzzfeed, she doesn’t mention that he spent five years working at art/tech shop Eyebeam as their director of R&D. That’s where he got to know the artists he collects; like me, he sees buying art as one way that people can help support their talented friends. The two pieces behind Peretti in the photo accompanying Gregory’s article are by Cory Arcangel; their titles are the instructions for making them for free. You need to get the joke — and, probably, want to support the artist too — in order to spend thousands of dollars on such things. Especially since Arcangel wouldn’t begrudge anybody who just made their own.

Actually, there is one other reason to buy an original Cory Arcangel print. That’s speculation: the idea that it’s an investment, which might be worth more in the future than you’re spending on it today. Any regular reader of my blog knows that speculation is an incredibly bad reason to buy art — but it’s an especially bad reason for technologists, who see much better speculative opportunities every week.

Which brings me to one of the weirder themes in Gregory’s article: the idea that the opacity of the art world contrasts starkly with the openness of the tech world.

To those used to start-up culture, with its utopian transparency and meritocratic ideals, the art world’s barriers to entry are discouraging and confusing. Parties are exclusive. Works are not always sold to those with the most money. Images are often not online. Invoicing can take months. There is, to borrow a term from the lexicon of tech culture, a preponderance of inconvenient “friction.”

This is just bizarre. Talking about the utopian transparency of start-up culture makes about as much sense as talking about the constructive deliberations of Congressional debates: start-up culture is in fact one of the very few areas which is less transparent than the art world. You need to be invited to a tech party; gallery openings, by contrast, you just turn up to. If you want to buy the work of a certain artist, then with a little bit of diligence and persistence you can probably manage to do so somehow. And it’s downright easy to phone up the gallery and at least find out how much that artist’s works cost. If you want to invest in a certain start-up, by contrast, doing so is pretty much impossible unless you know the right people. And valuations aren’t kept quiet so much as they’re kept absolutely secret.

The kind of people that Gregory talked to for her piece are all members of the select group of tech insiders who can and do invest in their friends’ startups, much as people in the art world will buy their friends’ art. Take anybody in Silicon Valley who has made a lot of money in the tech industry and ask him (it’s still nearly always going to be a him) what he wants to do with his money, and you can be sure that “angel investing” will be at or near the very top of the list. That’s because, in order to be an angel investor, you need both money and tech-world bona fides.

This, for me, is the real reason that tech types don’t buy art: they’re busy investing in each other’s startups instead. Being an early-stage investor is in many ways just like being a contemporary art collector: you’re very unlikely to make money at it, even though the potential and anecdotal returns can be enormous; and it’s used in large part as a way of supporting your friends and being seen as being important within a very small world. Wealthy technologists are defined by their Crunchbase profiles in much the same way as art collectors are defined by their art collections.

The weird thing is that the technologists themselves just can’t see it.

Mo Koyfman, a venture capitalist at Spark Capital, which has provide funding for companies including Twitter and Foursquare, is of the same opinion.

“For technologists, it’s all about leveling the playing field, and the art world is a very structured, hierarchical system,” he said. “There is a conflict there, and it’s probably a good bit of the reason why technology entrepreneurs struggle with the art world.”

The world of funding companies like Twitter and Foursquare can be described in many ways, but it’s ridiculous on its face to call it a level playing field. It’s not, and it doesn’t aspire to be. Instead, it’s — let me see if I can find the right language here — a very structured, hierarchical system, where certain companies and individuals can fund anything they like, and most of us are excluded entirely, with various gradations in between.

Gregory, I think, has asked an interesting question, but she got the answer exactly wrong. Techies aren’t abjuring the art world because the art world is more exclusive than the technology world. Quite the opposite. They’re abjuring the art world because the tech world is one of the few places which is more exclusive than the art world. If you’re a socially-awkard technologist with amazing access to anybody you like in the tech world, you’re in a place that most art-world types can only dream of. As a result, you have no reason whatsoever to want to start all over again at the bottom of an entirely different ladder, especially when the whole art scene is so incredibly mercenary and pretentious.

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Comments
24 comments so far

Perhaps it is simply that they are too bright to think the art useful or worthwhile. So much art is being produced today it is surely difficult to know who the “winners” will be. So why risk throwing your money away?

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive

Maybe they realize that paint drippings and squares of the same color are worth…very little. Look at religious beliefs and art “beliefs” and they are essentially one in the same – a special intermediary has to come between you, your common sense, and the art to explain all the hidden meanings…

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

[disclaimer - I'm in tech and in San Francisco]

From my experience across a large number of startups as a founder, advisor & mentor – and from discussions with artists in the Bay Area (and artists who’ve left the Bay Area) – I think the real issue is not that successful tech people are too busy/focused angel investing. Most of them have enough time/money to buy art and angel invest, but they find art opaque and boring.

Opacity is the biggest problem, most tech people have gotten where they are by having a deep and detailed understanding of the businesses they have built and apply that knowledge to their investments. They also view investing as a way of furthering their knowledge. Artists, on the other hand, are reluctant (often loath) to explain why they produced a particular piece and how it was made.

For most tech entrepreneurs, that is just frustration and an experience they’d rather avoid. Indeed, I’ve mentioned this to several artists I know and they told me that their most important tech clients all asked about the creative process. The resulting ‘story’ was often displayed with the artwork….

Based on my limited market research, the real issue is that artists, if they want to sell to tech people, need to be much more forthcoming about their creative process and how pieces were actually made. Documenting the process (photos/video/blogs/etc) would probably do wonders for their sales….

Posted by ckm5 | Report as abusive

I would add to my previous comment that I suspect people with lots of money to spend on art would prefer to buy established, even better dead, artists so that they know they are not throwing their money away on mere speculation. Even supposedly consecrated artists fall by the wayside if art fancies change. I recall that in 1966 one of the highest rated artists in the world according to Connaissance des Artes was Vieira da Silva, perhaps the best of the postwar School of Paris. By 1970 she was passe due to the shift to Pop Art. Her art after that never appreciated beyond the rate of inflation whereas the Pop artists beat that for years afterward.

Posted by Chris08 | Report as abusive

I also read the NYT piece a couple of days ago and actually emailed the author about it. I’m with a young international art dealership (http://www.candb.com) that sells mostly to (young) tech people. The main problem for the art establishment in this case is: They are selling the wrong art in the wrong way.

A very broad observation is that the art world currently consists of almost only alphas with hardly any betas. That negatively affects their understanding of their potential new clients who are betas, and how to evolve their business in the information age (90% of our business is online at least).

The new collectors coming into the market – not only the tech people but also the young lawyers, doctors, dentists & engineers – do not rely on experts or galerists to tell them what they should buy or what they should like.

Like everybody else they also start a collection with works that they can relate to. When their taste develops they might broaden their interests but that is the starting point. Felix mentions this as well but something I ask other galerists to consider sometimes is this: The art world’s ‘hip thing’ still is street art which originated from the graffiti movement that reached it’s peak in the early 1980′s. That means that is you are in your late twenties or early 30′s that is a previous generation.

We sell mostly art made by young artists who work digitally themselves, and like Ckm5 mentions: These artists are online, are approachable and they share their technique and work online in youtube videos, making offs etc.

Lastly, this new audience is not coming to you, they may not even go to art fairs, so go to them. To give you a small example: in two weeks we’re exhibiting at “the smartest & most innovative 1km² in Europe” in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. A place where 8.000 scientist, programmers and designers work together and also home to the famous Eindhoven Design Academy. These people are definitely interested in art.

Posted by Cook_and_Becker | Report as abusive

tech people know how easy it is to make reproductions. Maxfield Parrish knew too.
Perhaps the pretense is just that, pretense.
Buying art is just getting something nice for the wall.
Maybe a lot of what they see isn’t nice?
Your dealing with pragmatism and it might be a hard sell.

Posted by zetetic25 | Report as abusive

I also read the NYT piece a couple of days ago and actually emailed the author about it. I’m with a young international art dealership (http://www.candb.com) that sells mostly to (young) tech people. The main problem for the art establishment in this case is: They are selling the wrong art in the wrong way.

A very broad observation is that the art world currently consists of almost only alphas with hardly any betas. That negatively affects their understanding of their potential new clients who are betas, and how to evolve their business in the information age (90% of our business is online at least).

The new collectors coming into the market – not only the tech people but also the young lawyers, doctors, dentists & engineers – do not rely on experts or galerists to tell them what they should buy or what they should like.

Like everybody else they also start a collection with works that they can relate to. When their taste develops they might broaden their interests but that is the starting point. Felix mentions this as well but something I ask other galerists to consider sometimes is this: The art world’s ‘hip thing’ still is street art which originated from the graffiti movement that reached it’s peak in the early 1980′s. That means that is you are in your late twenties or early 30′s that is a previous generation.

We sell mostly art made by young artists who work digitally themselves, and like Ckm5 mentions: These artists are online, are approachable and they share their technique and work online in youtube videos, making offs etc.

Lastly, this new audience is not coming to you, they may not even go to art fairs, so go to them. To give you a small example: in two weeks we’re exhibiting at “the smartest & most innovative 1km² in Europe” in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. A place where 8.000 scientist, programmers and designers work together and also home to the famous Eindhoven Design Academy. These people are definitely interested in art.

Posted by Cook_and_Becker | Report as abusive

Art should be bought for Art’s sake. I do buy art. But one of my tricks is that I NEVER buy anything hyped up or as “an investment” I buy it because I love it and would like to see it on a regular basis because it says something to me. So if I see something I like, I wait and go back a while later. If it still speaks to me, I buy it. I don’t even intend to sell it.

And I much prefer to buy art from students, local artists, local galleries who display new/semi-established artists, and the like. The rest is vanity and conceit and we all know it. And, btw, I’m a techie from Boston. This has nothing to do with wanting to help an accelerator (where 99.9% of the companies will die…I’ve worked in several and that’s the truth) and everything to do with a particular thought pattern. It’s the same one that would prevent me from, say, working at GM or Chase or BoA with multiple layers of needless bureaucracy and exorbitantly overpaid execs. Instead, I’d rather be at start-ups where things are flat and hands-on and my impact immediately felt. I like to deal with art that way too. Buying from a dealer seems crass and unnecessary when I can just go to local galleries or schools and buy things I like at a reasonable price because, when you come down to it, I wouldn’t hang 99.9% of what people think is brilliant (and, therefore, expensive) in my house.

Posted by skyman123 | Report as abusive

As a “techie” who can afford to buy art, I think you’ve made several good points, which I’d like to add to. I don’t know if I am representative of others who have had a liquidity event in the tech world, but I am kind of a geek and suspect that others with similar backgrounds might feel the same way.

I have no interest in buying works of art just to show other people what I like. While I might see a painting that I appreciate, I don’t care if I have an original or a print, so the latter will suffice. I am uncomfortable buying really expensive pieces of art (that would be 5 digits or more), because I have absolutely no idea what they are worth and don’t want to be a sucker. It’s worse than real estate; at least there are comps for ridiculously priced homes. But if I wanted to buy expensive art, I would be dependent on a consultant whose interets would conflict with mine.

But maybe the most important point is that I want my art to be functional, and not just something I hang on the wall or put on a pedestal. My favorite works of art from the last few years include the Tesla S, the Fisker Karma (ok, maybe not as functional as the S, but it is beautiful),the Nexus 4 (and the 1 and the Galaxy, both of which are in a drawer, though, having been obsoleted), the iphone 4s, the iPad (a few different generations), and the NEX-7 camera (among many others). Yes, they are all electronic devices, but they are works of art. Any company with enough money can design products that perform the same functions as these (ok, maybe not any can replicate them, but many can come close), but few can make them as visually appealing or remarkably simple to use (I don’t think I have ever read a user manual for any of them, except for maybe the Fisker, which is an exception in this list, as its operation is somewhat less than intuitive).

I listed 4 mobile phones but could have added several more, and I rarely talk on any of them. I am one of those guys who can’t leave the phone at home, and picks it up to check it way too often, but not because I feel the need to check my mail. I just want to see the screen light up and bring life to the two shiny pieces of glass sandiched around a band of metal or some other substance not of this world. And see the icons glide with the swipe of my finger. The cameras? I’m not a photography lover, but rather I take photos because I want to see the cameras (the real works of art) do something.

We do buy comtemporary art, it’s just in a different form.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I agree with KenG_CA – i’m a techie who “did very well”.

And since I was a photographer starting at age 10, my interest in buying any sort of painting is exactly 0.

Since the web delivers huge numbers of photos to my browsers in more than good enough equality, my interest in buying large photo prints is limited. But I sometimes hang the ones I make.

The “art world” and “art market” – as very opposed to people who are making honest efforts as artists – can simply go to hell. The world will work just fine the “art markets”. The people make honest efforts will carry on anyway.

And some other “contemporary art” as KenG_CA speaks of may be found in cameras, machine tools, and the like.

Posted by BryanWillman | Report as abusive

And of course all of this seems have missed the various levels of the “function art furniture” and “studio furniture” movements where for generally not insane prices one can buy tables, chairs, etc. that are wonderful to utterly stunning. From living people.

Posted by BryanWillman | Report as abusive

If one does want to buy an original Cory Arcangel print “purely for speculation”, perhaps it would be easier simply to take delivery of a certificate of authenticity. I imagine it’s a bit easier to transport and store.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

Thorstein Veblen remains underrated.

Posted by NadavM | Report as abusive

As a techie, If I ever get rich, I’ll be happy to fund art, but it won’t be the crap that the NY “contemporary art scene” is pushing, it will be a mix of local high-arts stuff (if I were ultra-rich I’d become a major patron of our local opera companies — both the big one in SF, and the San Jose, Berkeley, and SF Lyric groups) and talented local friends (for instance: http://www.marymarch.com/ ). Art consultants and gallery owners in NYC can get bent.

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

The problem here is the definition of art and the definition of ownership.

Traditionally, art is treated as an expression of emotion and passion that someone then purchases and keeps to themselves.

Techies express their in technology that is intended to be shared. The open source movement allows developers like me to switch from being considered “artists” (I used to paint, carve wood, etc.) and vent creatively into mediums that ultimately solve problems and help other people—and that can be openly shared. The same emotional bond is in the product as is with art, but instead of being happy one person is enjoying and hoarding your art, you are additionally satisfied when many benefits from it. “Code is poetry” has never been as prevalent as it is today. I would much rather donate $100 to an open source project than $100 to a drawing that will get dusty on my wall.

Posted by anthonydpaul | Report as abusive

Great piece but there’s a typo in the 2nd graph, looks like a letter got cut off:

Actually, it really isn’t. Gregory manages to find one alarming quote from someone called Sima Familant, who worries that “we’re going to have a really big problem at some point” if “our wealthy American elite” isn’t “supporting institutions and the arts”. But of course the wealthy American elite, in general, is supporting such institutions. ven the tech elite, in particular, is doing so: the WSJ’s Ellen Gamerman had a long article about “The New High-Tech Patrons” back in February.

Michelle

Posted by MichelleRafter | Report as abusive

I’m a techie and I collect art although certainly not at the level this piece is discussing. My yearly budget for art is four figures, not five and up.

I never buy for investment, only for enjoyment of the piece. Like skyman123 I buy local, often from people I meet at art shows where I am also a participant with my photography. When I worked in the comic book field I put together a lovely collection of original pages. But I bought pages from titles I loved to read rather than from key artists. I agree with ckm5 – process is very important to me. I am much more likely to buy a piece when the process interests me. I also don’t care about any gulf between “fine art” and “good design”. A beautiful item that is also functional is a double win to me.

If I suddenly came in to a great deal of money, I doubt any of this would change. Granted I would go on a early 20th century illustration art spending spree but I can do that online through Heritage Auctions. No dealing with the NYC art market needed.

Auros – thank you for that link to Mary March. Her Identity Tapestry installation is amazing. I would love to participate in one of those.

Posted by karon | Report as abusive

I think one overlooked factor is simple geography. The tech world is centered in Silicon Valley and the contemporary art world is centered in New York and London. I’m therefore not surprised that more hedge fund managers than successful tech entrepreneurs are drawn into buying expensive contemporary art.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

Art = “incredibly mercenary and pretentious”.

If you want something beautiful, or moving, or graceful, then you stay away from the “contemporary art scene”. Only if you are looking for a pretentious way to show off your wealth would that interest you.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

While prices for name artists are often exorbitantly priced and I would be loathe to purchase if I had adequate funds, the sentiment expressed by some of the commenters is sad. Do they come home to blank walls or are so immersed in their own bubble to actually believe photos on the internet are at all the same (emotional, quality, skill) as interesting artwork whether it be sculpture, painting, etc.? Not everything in the world has to be disrupted at light speed. Not everything in the world has to be functional to be enjoyed. Stare into the light of your phone a little less and visit a museum/gallery/the real world a little more.

I’ll never buy art because any art consultant tells me its a nice painting that has investment potential, but I will gladly buy originals from artists I myself truly appreciate. It is not about hanging it on my wall to brag but so I can come home at night, sit back and relax and say, “man that is beautiful, so happy I own that”.

PS. Thanks auros for sharing the link for Mary March. Really enjoyed her stuff.

Posted by BN1019 | Report as abusive

I agree with KenG_CA.

I spend my money on functional art as well, but it’s in the form of old cars…. Between storage, running costs & maintenance, I probably spend quite a bit more each year than the average art collector.

Posted by ckm5 | Report as abusive

This article misses one very important point. A lot of wealthy techies in the Bay Area are into the often spectacular, massive, and community-based art of the type that is produced at Burning Man–temporary, site-specific, and interactive. And these installations are often deliberately destroyed by the creators after a set period. This specific type of “patronage” really is about “art for art’s sake” and is indifferent, if not hostile, to the aesthetic gatekeepers of the grotesquely commercial “New York art scene.”

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

“the whole art scene is so incredibly mercenary and pretentious” paints with too broad of a brush. The WHOLE art scene is more than NYC and international art fairs. Most artists are sincerely expressing/commenting/questioning through visual arts. Buy local, buy what touches you. Support your friends, if you like their work. I don’t think it is mercenary to want to make a living creating art any more than it is for a techie to try to make a living creating services/apps/products. If you buy what you love and love living with it, who cares if you make money off it in the end? Consider trade. Tech service for art–win/win.

Posted by rebeccaartist | Report as abusive

In my experience, even extremely wealthy people in tech are interested in what feels genuinely alive. Some of them even know enough about art to see art-as-an-investment as a part of something they don’t believe in. I think you will find them more open to craft and willing to buy local art over blue chip.

Like others have said here, I’m in technology (though I’m not high rolling bracket being addressed), and I actually do buy art. In fact, my original degree was in fine art. I still even make art, though I don’t consider myself an artist anymore. My budget is definitely more in the 4 digit, but I like buying art I really care about from artists who I want to help support so I don’t see the point in anything else no matter what my future income became. I’m more likely to contribute significantly to a kickstarter fund and get a painting that way then to want to deal with a gallery. In fact, I hate galleries.

Some of my friends who make quite enough money to be into blue chip collecting seem to have the same take. They buy handsome furniture made by local artisans, or have their entire dinnerware set made by a local potter, or wear only bespoke shoes. In an art world that doesn’t see this as *getting it* I can only take away that perhaps that very part of the art world telling people to spend 87k on this painting because it was important in the late 90′s is the part that has actually become out of touch with the tech market. Will there be a market for that art? Sure. But it will probably never be the same kind of person who would consider investing in their friends start-up.

See the connection there?

Posted by tornpapernapkin | Report as abusive
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