Off Message: Reviewing the Words, Deeds + Relevance of Stefan Simchowitz
One of the problems with publicly declaring yourself a revolutionary is that it doesn't give you a lot of room to backpedal afterward. In the past few years, no one has worked harder to portray himself as the art world's Che Guevara than Stefan Simchowitz. Whether he's purporting to "initiate a paradigm shift" in the art industry, advertising that he "think[s] outside the box constantly," or blasting away at "the traditional [art] mafia," Simchowitz has machine-gun belted his brand to the narrative of disruption. But based on events this week and this past year, it's valid to ask how closely the reality of Simchowitz's business now matches the self-mythology––and, more important, what the answer means for the industry's future.
To review briefly: Since about 2007, the core of Simchowitz's business has been the promotion and rapid resale of emerging contemporary artists. More specifically, Simchowitz––who does not operate a physical exhibition space of his own––has prided himself on working around the traditional gallery system, "similar to how... the Germans invaded France" in World War II by skirting through Belgium rather than charging headlong into the heavily fortified Maginot Line. This strategy has cemented him as the most prominent example of the independent artist-agent: a business model increasingly discussed as a possible threat to classical gallery representation.
Over and over again during his years in the public eye, Simchowitz has renewed his allegedly singular commitment to the work of rising talent. As he wrote in a New Year's Eve 2014 Facebook comment to Art F City's Paddy Johnson:
We sell a lot of work under the 20K USD mark… Most consultant [sic] will tell you, “I am sick of emerging contemporary, I want to do bigger deal [sic] and move up the ladder and sell Stingel and Wool and Jasper Johns where the fees are bigger.” [...] We as an organization, have huge conviction in emerging contemporary. It is a category where we want to stay, consolidate and frankly dominate… We do not want to start working with artists who are older or dead or more expensive. We like it where we are…
In light of that mission statement, it's peculiar that Colin Gleadell noticed Simchowitz pulling up Monty Python's "Bring out your dead!" wagon to Christie's Tuesday sale of the Leslie Waddington collection and carting off somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million worth of works by deceased greats. According to Gleadell, Simchowitz's purchases included three Josef Albers paintings, a small Robert Motherwell abstract, a "jazzy" Francis Picabia, a Joan Miró watercolor, and a Picasso bronze––with Simchowitz even going so far as to pay triple the estimate for three of those pieces.
Yet this isn't the first time in recent memory that Simchowitz's actions have contradicted his rebellious rhetoric. At a Sotheby’s London Contemporary sale last October––meaning less than a year after the earlier-quoted Facebook comment––he bought a 2013 “jumbo-scaled, mixed media” piece by Anselm Kiefer for about $1.7M, as well as a 1999 Sean Scully painting for $862,000. While both artists are still very much alive at this time, they are also much older and pricier than the emerging artists Simchowitz typically champions, as well as deeply entrenched in the traditional art-industry power structure that he allegedly want to dynamite.
Simchowitz's battle plan gets even sketchier when one considers his larger enterprise, Simco's Club. Launched back in 2015, Simco's Club pledges to "[bring] you the best in emerging art" while simultaneously reinforcing its founder's insurgent image with a sturdy thread of his most provocative press features. Yet the site's services currently include options like "consulting and buying at auction for clients" and "a complete set" of logistical functions (e.g. transportation, installation, storage), extending the organization far beyond promoting and dealing works by rising talent.
Now, in fairness, Simchowitz recently championed the notion of flexibility as the key to success in the 21st-century art market. While skewering LES gallerist Lisa Cooley's closure announcement in an August 29th Facebook post, he wrote that the new rules of the industry are "pivot or close" and "bend like a reed or break," with the latter nugget of wisdom dug up from Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.
At the same time, Simchowitz has hardly dialed back his verbal assault on the "bullshit of galleries, of institutions, of educators" lately, which makes it seem inconsistent at the least to pay triple-estimate prices for canonical works from the holdings of a renowned London gallerist. And it's just as dubious for Simco's Club to insist that it "[does] not offer traditional advisory services" literally on the same webpage as it offers to "build collections" and provide "access to a global network of contemporary artists, collectors, dealers, gallerists and institutions." Nor is Simchowitz's supposed uprising aided by some of his other public comments, like the following January 1, 2015 update: "I am a collector/dealer/consultant. I service my clients like a gallery or consultant or dealer would."
On the other hand, if you think of Simchowitz as the Donald Trump of the art world––a comparison that Sarah Thornton first drew and Christian Viveros-Fauné vividly shaded in––then it's pointless to even evaluate him on consistency. After all, narratives regularly overpower facts, and if you're forceful enough, you can flip your position on any issue as easily and conveniently as a brash dealer can flip emerging artworks in a bull market.
Beyond helping to reveal the true identity of Simchowitz's business, though, his 2015-16 moves also beg a more meaningful question about the industry's future: If the independent artist-agent model is so vital, lucrative, and paradigm-shifting, then why has Simchowitz been so actively working to expand beyond it?
Unsheathing Occam's Razor, the simplest answer is that the business model doesn't actually live up to the hype. We just saw a damning slice of evidence to this effect a few weeks ago, when Cecily Brown ended her stint with agent Andrea Crane to rejoin the high-end New York gallery scene with Paula Cooper. As I wrote then, absent the social draw and related economic importance of a permanent exhibition space, it's extremely difficult for agents––or unspaced gallerists, as I sometimes call them––to consistently generate the momentum and primary-market sales that an artist needs to survive, let alone thrive. And if the artist isn't getting paid, then neither is his representative.
The agent model suffers another body blow via Simchowitz's undeniable opening-out from the independent representation and trade of emerging artists. His expanded activities suggest that alternative revenue streams were necessary to keep the Simchowitz enterprise up and running. Only, from the perspective of industry history, those additional revenue streams don't really look "alternative" at all. Instead, they remain some of the most traditional money-making art services of at least the past two decades. And when even the most vocal rebels start to quietly mimic the establishment, it's a dark omen for the revolution.