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Stefan Simchowitz, Facebook photo
Stefan Simchowitzvia Facebook

What does it take to make it in the art world?

Controversial LA-based art collector, advisor, and curator Stefan Simchowitz on what an artist needs in order to thrive in an ever-competitive and privileged world

Mention self-described LA ‘Cultural Entrepreneur’ Stefan Simchowitz’s name and opinions are sure to be divided.

Art curator, collector and advisor Simchowitz has been known to provide up-and-coming names with materials and studio space, as well as promoting them on his social media – which boasts over 73k followers on Instagram. He has known to have launched the careers of many, from Sterling Ruby to Petra Cortright and Amalia Ulman, the latter whom he had met only once when he helped her successfully sue a bus company whose vehicle she was traveling on crashed and left her hospitalised.

The criticism here, some might say, is that Simchowitz buys work from these (the word vulnerable has been used) artists at low prices before selling them at inflated prices. It's a 50/50 game. Sometimes the artists are able to keep on top of the swelling wave of fast success and at other times, they sink. The other side of this coin, of course, is that artists like Ruby, Cortright and Ulman have all gained notoriety in varying levels – with their works now shown in galleries around the world. Whether Simochowitz is 'preying' on them is up for discussion, there's no doubt he has had some positive influence on the careers of these young artists.

Nicknamed “The Art World’s Patron Satan”, the South African-born art aficionado is a strong advocator of also using social media as a means of discovering and promoting new and emerging artists. A relatively new introduction to our society, there’s no denying the impact new technologies have had on the art world. Breaking down the doors for a multitude of artists around the world, in varying disciplines and degrees of talent, from fashion to art to music and photography. While some will be quick to argue that this is more damaging to stoic art institutions, traditions and established artists than it does them good, this hasn’t stopped Simchowitz from ranking #95 in Art Review Magazine’s POWER 100 list last year – even though it has been reported that he's been blacklisted as a buyer from major galleries.

Simchowitz spoke with NYC photographer, artist, and writer Emmanuel Olunkwa, to offer his insights into his ways of working. Olunkwa explains, “After speaking with Stefan, I thought about my close group of friends who inspire and continually challenge me artistically. Each person has paved their own way by either utilising resources at hand or exploiting the system in place to accommodate their needs. I decided to ask Stefan a few questions about his art and business practices. As an artist, businessman/woman, it is good to have reference points, positionality is important, information is power, so as someone who has a practice that is often questioned, I thought I would ask him about what he thinks an artist should possess in order to thrive in the 21st century, at a time where technology is continually advancing, and the stakes are getting higher.”

“We are in an industry that is full of privilege. In order to buy an artwork, even for a $1000, $500, or $300, you have to have privilege” – Stefan Simchowitz

Emmanuel Olunkwa: You identify as a ‘Cultural Entrepreneur’, when did you decide to identify as such and why?

Stefan Simchowitz: I think that the identification is one that allows me to avoid the classification of being singularly an art dealer, collector, consultant, a curator, art patron. I think these titles are inadequate to describe the scope of services of the speed and breath, and stability, that one needs to participate in the art business and circus of the twenty-first century. And I think coming up with the title and a simple description for what I do ­– I deal with art, art is part of culture, and I deal with it in a way that is quite creative from a business perspective and from a creative aspect I have sought to create somewhat of a new business model within the structure of the industry, so I consider that entrepreneurship and in the field of culture, so I think ‘Cultural Entrepreneurship’ is an adequate description of the somewhat complex amorphous and multisided role that I have in the industry. 

Emmanuel Olunkwa: What is your relationship to labels and self-actualisation?

Stefan Simchowitz: I think we have an art business that is profoundly inadequate for the challenges that are present in the 21st century environment, they’re inadequate for dealing with the speed and the velocity and scale of art as it sort of inhabits the 21st century, and all its environments – social media, the expansion of galleries, exhibition spaces, the expansion of private foundations, the expansion of collector bases that has varied, and I find that my role in this is to provide some kind of structure in this new environment that assists culture in being distributed in a more efficient, productive, and broader way that is more in line with what is going on in society at large, and when I say society at large, I mean certainly on a global scale and a very narrow bandit of society, a society of elite that are involved in culture that can participate in culture, who can afford to, and I think that’s my role in it.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: As an art collector, curator, and advisor, what is your relationship to these roles? How do you execute in a productive way? 

Stefan Simchowitz: I think it is very simple, instead of being a knife, you’re a Swiss army knife. As you go into different environments when you have to open a bottle of wine, you bring out the corkscrew, when you need to measure something, you bring out the little ruler, when you need to saw something off, you bring out the little saw, when you need to magnify something you bring out a magnifying glass. I think that for society at large and skill sets at large, for people in any environment, we have to adapt to essentially a new job environment where we’re highly skilled in various different ways, it’s almost like, sort-of being a Navy Seal, where you’re trained in many different disciplines and you’re very good at them, so that depending on the circumstance that you are placed in, or that comes upon you, you have the skill set to adapt and execute.

I think that it’s a very different nonlinear environment that we’re in today, which doesn’t have the hierarchy that we used to have, there is so much movement, so much speed, so much diversity, and on a global scale. From my point of view, I execute by essentially being highly skilled, knowledgeable in a lot of different ways, so I can provide a service to both artists, collectors, institutions, and galleries and different participants in a field that is maybe somewhat more original and creative than the help that they’ve gotten before. I think the preparation is very different, it is less linear, less directly academic, less sequential, and it’s much more entrepreneurial, much more of being trained, so you can respond to situations as they happen as opposed to only being able to respond to a specific kind of situation that you expect will happen. It is an action of preparedness. I think a lot of roles that people have in society today have to adapt to this sort of job environment, in the art industry and other industries. I hate to use such a simple analogy but if you have ever taken an Uber, and you’ve ever spoken to a driver, you’ll find that many of these people do many things, they sing, produce, they’re software programmers or engineers, and they are driving for Uber to supplement income. I think in the job environment, you have to be highly skilled and diverse, and in culture, both as an artist, gallerist, dealer, you have to be very prepared for an environment that will change very quickly. It’s sort of like living in the city where the weather changes from hour to hour as opposed to a city where the weather is always the same.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: You often dismiss the classist argument that critics make about privilege, resources, and talent — what is your critique of current system? 

Stefan Simchowitz: I mean it’s not really a critique, we are in an industry that is full of privilege. In order to buy an artwork, even for a $1000, $500, or $300, you have to have privilege. I don’t really have a critique. The only critique of the system is that it is not efficient, productive, and that it loses itself in making decisions, that are based on false mythologies of morality and criticality that are irrelevant, outdated, and outmoded. They then apply them to a business model that is no long applicable. The critique is not one of class or unfairness, it is frankly a critique on stupidity, not being productive and efficient in essentially assisting artists in both making work and getting it sold and distributed.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: How is it failing young artists? Is it outdated and how should it be restructured to be more effective? 

Stefan Simchowitz: The system is not interested in young artists. It is interested in these homogenised kind-of structures of distribution, it is failing them in not providing them an opportunity for access to the system because the system has created this mythological structure of success and acceptance that I think needs to be challenged, and the entry points need to be challenged. And the entry points are tiny, so I think by making it more efficient, and more productive, you open up the opportunity for a lot of people.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a practicing career as a visual artist?

Stefan Simchowitz: Be Flexible.