The Agency Effect
As an idiotic, teen-age me once learned at a desolate southside Chicago bus stop, nothing should put you on red alert faster than the assurance, "We're not going to hurt you." Some of the world's leading galleries seem to be applying this lesson to the Big Three entertainment agencies' recent, allegedly non-competitive forays into contemporary art. But are they justified in sounding the alarm? And if so, why?
First, let's follow the lead of any good investigation by establishing our timeline. Though many of us didn't learn about it until a New York Times piece last September, both CAA and rival WME quietly began representing a handful of blue-chip artists, mostly "with an eye to TV or film work," some indeterminate time in the past. But UTA changed the conversation in February 2015 via the launch of its Fine Arts division––a branch exclusively dedicated to art-industry clients. Then, just last month, WME (in partnership with the smaller specialty agency IMG) waded deeper into the action by striking a deal to represent the Frieze brand.
So far, we still have few details about the three agencies' plans for their fine-art clients. Obviously, we know that they share a focus in positioning artists as filmmakers (which I covered in more depth last fall). We also know that branded products (think: Takashi Murakami's Louis Vuitton bags) are high on the agenda, as a January W Magazine feature on UTA FA clarified even further. Outside of those insights, though, everyone––including the agencies themselves––mostly seems to be figuring it out as they go along.
However, there's no mistaking what the Ten Percent Trinity claims NOT to want to do. In The Guardian, Frieze co-founder Matthew Slotover relayed that WME chief Ari Emanuel "is very clear: He doesn't want to compete with the gallery system." Immediately upon announcing UTA FA's existence, the agency's chairman, Jim Berkus, told The Wall Street Journal, "The agency won't broker art sales or show the art as galleries do." Similarly, Joshua Roth––the art-law attorney appointed by Berkus to lead UTA FA––gave this loud-and-clear statement to The New York Observer:
The role of UTA Fine Arts is to help visual artists identify new or previously untapped opportunities, and UTA FA will work closely with the galleries as part of a team approach to building artists’ careers. UTA FA is not seeking to market artworks to art collectors or otherwise act as a sales agent for its clients. Dealers should and will continue to perform this critical function.
And yet, despite all of the above assurances, many prominent gallerists slid the safety off as soon as the agencies stepped into the contemporary art space. Marc Glimcher, President of Pace, fired the first shot immediately, telling The Wall Street Journal for its UTA FA launch story that he “thinks talent agents could drive a divisive wedge between artists and their dealers, who have historically guided artists toward commissions or relationships that may secure them a lasting place in art history.” He also asserts that, to the hyper-aware noses of insiders, too many corporate associations risk saddling celebrated artists with the dreaded stink of the “sell-out.”
Barbara Gladstone, another of NYC’s most storied postwar gallerists, implied uneasiness with the deal-specific nature of the agencies' mission, telling W for its UTA FA feature that, “An artist has to have complete freedom. There’s a quote from de Kooning: ‘The important thing about art is that it’s useless.’" Somewhat ironically, even Andrea Crane––the former Gagosian director who began working as an independent artist agent in 2015––described herself as "a bit skeptical of a Hollywood agency jumping on the [fine art] bandwagon,” according to the same W story.
But if the agencies are sincere about staying in their lane––as their actions so far mostly support––why has the traditional art industry sprung into self-defense mode? I believe that we're witnessing an art-industry parallel to what science calls "the observer effect," in which the act of viewing a phenomenon actually alters what takes place. One classic example is checking the air pressure in a car's tires: To show you the reading, the gauge has to release some of what it's being used to measure. To see the thing, you must by definition change it.
In my view, gallerists' wariness of WME and company owes to what I'd label "the agency effect." The ten-percentaries can claim––and in fact fully intend––not to interfere with the gallery system. But by trying to generate alternative revenue streams for sought-after artists, the agencies necessarily assault two pillars of how gallerists create and build value in the art market.
Those foundations are exclusivity and mythology. From unpriced checklists to (often arbitrarily managed) waiting lists and beyond, high-end art-sellers work to heavily restrict access to their artists and inventory at nearly every opportunity. Like a femme fatale in a Hollywood noir, it's about stoking desire by playing hard to get––or, in dry economic terms, about amping up demand by artificially limiting supply.
Along with this policy, gallerists also go to great lengths to generate a tale of transcendence around artwork––to foster the belief that these pieces and their makers occupy a pedestal high above the muck of everyday life. To return to Gladstone's de Kooning quote, art––like, say, a diamond––doesn't just have IMPORTANCE because it's "useless." It has VALUE. And only through these psychological and social tactics can it be priced.
With those principles in mind, think about the two avenues we know the agencies are exploring with their contemporary-art clients. Creating TV or movies (even art-house ones) means transitioning from the niche medium of fine art into mass media. Creating branded merchandise means transitioning from a sanctified pursuit into mainstream retail. And no matter what other prospects agents engineer down the road, those prospects will inevitably be about expanding the audience for their artists' work. All of these options threaten gallery economics as directly as an open cold sore threatens the prospect of sex on a first date.
The result is this: No matter how committed the Big Three agencies may be to avoiding art sales, anything they do to broaden artists' business horizons will undermine the exclusivity and mythology that have powered the gallery system since its beginnings. CAA, WME, and UTA FA can extend a hand in peace to dealers until their muscles atrophy. But whether or not they realize it, as soon as they crossed the border into contemporary art, they declared war.