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Salmon: Why Techies Don't Buy Contemporary Art

NEW YORK ( Reuters Blogs) -- 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' start-ups, 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 start-ups 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 that is more exclusive than the art world. If you're a socially awkward 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.

-- Written by Felix Salmon in New York.

Read more of Felix's blogs at Reuters.

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