Are You Not Entertained?
Since the February announcement that UTA, one of the entertainment industry's three major agencies, would be opening a fine arts division, many people in the art market have been wondering what this new entity's game plan would be. Well, we finally started to get some answers this week via Melena Ryzik at the New York Times, and they mostly appear to lead to the multiplex––for better and worse, depending on how you want to frame the conversation.
Let's start with the facts: We now know of three definite projects engineered in partnership with UTA Fine Arts. The first is "All Day/I Feel Like That," a nine-minute video installation by UTA client Kanye West and Steve McQueen which debuted at LACMA in July. (Note: McQueen is not repped by UTA.) The second project is "Maurizio Cattelan: The Movie," which appears to be a straight-down-the-middle documentary by filmmaker and UTA client Maura Axelrod. (Cattelan himself "is not part of the deal," according to Axelrod.) And the third is an upcoming, details-otherwise-under-wraps exhibition by sculptors/designers the Haas Brothers at London's Rosewood Hotel, which will run during Frieze London next month. (UTA reps both the Haases and the hotel.)
But even more interesting to me was the news that UTA's primary competitors have both quietly represented a handful of fine arts clients for some time. Ryzik reports that CAA houses an art-and-design-focused agent, Thao Nguyen, who works with starchitect Rem Koolhaas and one of the celebrity sphere's new favorite multidisciplinary artist, Daniel Arsham. WME, the third member of the agency trinity, handles Shepard Fairey, Tom Sachs, and Takashi Murakami.
Here's the catch: According to Ryzik, all five of the names above are specifically represented "with an eye to TV or film work." Koolhaas is apparently involved in the development of a "Metropolis" remake. Murakami already shot and released the surreal narrative feature "Jellyfish Eyes" last year, and apparently he wants to bring more Superflat to the silver screen.
In this context, it only seems right that two of UTA's three known fine arts projects are film-based. And my guess is that the third––the Haas Brothers show––will be positioned as proof that the duo can create a compelling, "Dark Crystal" or "Minions"-esque world on screen if given the opportunity by a financier. (The deal between Netflix and the arts collective FriendsWithYou back in July seems like a reasonable comp, though no agency appears to have been involved.)
It's both exciting and sensible for the agencies to steer their fine arts clients toward TV and movies. Triggered by the desire for "pre-awareness" (see: a built-in audience), Hollywood has developed an insatiable hunger for content adapted from source material, and fine artists' works (or brands, at least) offer a new menu item to satisfy that hunger. The agencies' ability to package these projects with their respective in-house acting, writing, and other clients also lessens potential financiers' fears about funding work by fine artists with little to no cinematic experience.
Granted, this phenomenon doesn't mean an end to the ongoing bombardment of content based on novels, comic books, toys, or board games (despite what the looming shadow of an Adam Sandler Candyland movie might make many of us wish). But it does diversify studios' development slates in a refreshing way.
For the artists themselves, the entertainment industry also presents a new revenue stream, as well as a way to bring their work to a mass audience. Both of those are appealing novelties in their own right. And maybe they're just the first of many new opportunities that fine arts agents can eventually introduce into the ecosystem.
However, I'd advise a bit of caution for fine artists dreaming of the red carpet. As I've written before, fine art is a niche medium. Courting a mass audience is an entirely different seduction ritual, and only a small sampling of fine artists have either the existing pop cultural cachet or the creative sensibility to tempt the general public into their arms.
That has nothing to do with the QUALITY of their work, either. For example, I think James Turrell is arguably the greatest living contemporary artist we have, but he's not going to write or direct a feature or TV series. Even if he signed over the rights to a seasoned filmmaker, good luck adapting his experiential installations into something appropriate for a Friday night multiplex visit or a weekend Netflix binge.
So given what we know at the moment, only a tiny minority of artists stand to benefit from UTA, CAA, and WME's interest in fine art. And by design, the agencies' seem positioned more to supplement the gallery system than challenge it. While I think that's the right business move for them, it also makes their impact on the fine art landscape more of a soft footprint than a smoking crater. Only time will tell if it deepens into something more.