Are the days of the artrepreneur numbered?

8 02 2013

Image via

Interesting question arrived in my inbox today via Michael Mocksim. “You think the Frank Dunphy style era is over?”

Frank Dunphy, of course, was Damien Hirst’s manager – of sorts. According to his entry on the always reliable Wikipedia (note – tongue wedged firmly in cheek there) Dunphy is a ‘business manager, accountant and entrepreneur’. His coup de grâce was organising Hirst’s ‘straight to auction’ sale of new artworks at Sotheby’s in 2008 – the so-called ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever‘.  $200 million worth of art sold over two days. Not bad. Not bad at all.

No idea what commission rate Sotheby’s gave him. It’s not unheard of for the big auction houses to give clients 0% commission – they may have been happy to make do with the buyers’ premium they raked in on the day. A single vendor and the associated massively reduced costs in admin and customer service that come with it, not to mention the avalanche of publicity the event generated for the auction house? I’d do it for 0% from the vendor and 20% or so from the buyers. Yep. Not too shabby. So, let’s be generous and presume a 0% commission rate for Mr. Hirst. That means 10% of total sales to Frank Dunphy. 10% of $200 million. Yeah. Them’s big biscuits.

So, have we seen the last of the Dunphy-esque art entrepreneurial management style? I believe that people like Frank Dunphy appear on the scene when a market is being driven by speculative bubbles, regardless of the industry. Then they retreat once the bubbles start bursting – or are sidelined by the same people who were happy to exploit their entrepreneurial talents while things were going well. But when the cash stops flowing in? Why pay a sizeable percentage of your hard-earned dollars to someone who no longer manifests the alchemical gifts he or she seemed to harness during the boom-time.

The smell of money brings them out of the woodwork. Don’t worry. They’ll be back.


S[edition]. The verdict? Count me amongst the s[educed].

26 11 2012


Tracey Emin, ‘I Promise to Love You’, s[edition].

What do you get the artist who has everything?

A website upon which he (Damien Hirst), she (Tracey Emin) or they (the Chapman Brothers) can blaze a new frontier, and flog inexpensive digital art to eager but financially challenged collectors.

Meet s[edition]. And despite the somewhat snarky tone of my introduction, I actually find the whole idea very exciting. Window into the future stuff. Just like when I was introduced to the street art movement by the first stencils I saw on the Balaclava railway bridge in East St Kilda many moons ago, this feels like it might just go somewhere. Feel free to get back to me in ten years to say “what, in the name of all that is holy, were you thinking?” But for now, this smells big. Or perhaps it’s teen spirit (apologies to Nirvana).

The premise is deliciously simple, and comes to us thanks to the cranium of Harry Blain, formerly of Haunch of Venison, now of Blain Southern, and probably the art world’s most effective innovator. He’s an artrepreneur. Is that a word? If not, it should be.

So how does it work? Some of the biggest names in contemporary art issue large edition (up to 10,000) digital artworks. They are offered for sale on a sliding scale – if you buy an early edition, the price is low – as little as $8 for some artworks. As the edition proves more popular, the price rises.

Once you have made your purchase, it is stored in your own digital ‘vault’, and you can view it on suitable computery-smart-iThings and devices. You’re issued with a digital certificate of authenticity, complete with scanned signature and the edition number. Although there is no mention of it on the site now, when s[edition] was launched, there was talk of setting up a forum on the site through which collectors could buy and sell their digital artworks.

So, I’ve put together a small collection of my own – initially as a means to demonstrate cutting-edge art marketing to my postgraduate students.

But I think I may be hooked.

What’s most interesting, and not at all surprising, is that some marquee artists (I’m looking at you, Damien Hirst) tend to phone it in. I bought a Hirst spot picture as one of my first purchases – I wanted to do the “names, darling, names” thing in the demonstration to my students. And it is… well… a stationary digital picture of spots. Also not surprisingly, Hirst is responsible for the most expensive artwork on the site – a rotating view of his diamond encrusted baby-skull, For Heaven’s Sake that’s priced at A$800.  Well, it does sparkle. And spin. Yawn.

But as more artists have hitched their wagon to the Blain digital train, there have been some very interesting things turn up. Some people get the digital medium. Others? Not so much.

Matt Collishaw has made some exquisite pieces, as has Bill Viola, and recently Jacco Oliver added two texturally sumptuous artworks to the site.  I’m transfixed by my copy of Collishaw’s Burning Flower. Can’t look away. The best digital art really does take us beyond the physical restrictions of two-, or even three-, dimensional art. With the technology available to make and view digital images moving apace, who knows where this will all end up?

From a market perspective, it’s groundbreaking. What does it mean for the concept of the ‘original’ when an artwork exists as a string of code, and can potentially be reproduced simultaneously, and an infinite number of times, anywhere in the world? Is this the true democratisation of art? You can take your Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin onto the train with you.

And what does this mean for value in the art world? It’s fascinating, and might well be the start of something big. Watch this space.

(Image of Tracey Emin’s ‘I Promise to Love You’ via

Haunch of Venison Sautéed and Stuffed? Founding Directors of Christie’s Commercial Gallery Venture Head for Greener Pastures.

4 06 2010

Much to the annoyance of contemporary art dealers everywhere, in 2007 auction leviathan Christie’s acquired the suitably obscurely-named London gallery, Haunch of Venison (in answer to the inevitable question, it was so named because the building in which it first took up residence is located in the wonderfully named, ‘Haunch of Venison Yard’). The gallery was launched in 2002 under the tender ministrations of  Harry Blain and Graham Southern, who was head of Christie’s contemporary art department in London until 2001, and established in the premises formerly occupied by retired über-dealer, Anthony d’Offay. Its sale to Christie’s caused no end of consternation amongst dealers, because in the then-buoyant marketplace of the mid-ish ‘naughties, there seemed to be a considerable potential for conflict of interest in a circumstance where an auction house that was aggressively promoting its contemporary art auctions also owned a large commercial contemporary art business. How would Christie’s manage to maintain a disinterested outlook if, for example, it was selling a major work by one of the artists represented by its commercial gallery?

So Haunch of Venison flourished and expanded. It now has premises in Manhattan, Zürich and Berlin, in addition to the London gallery, and represents a stable of commercially stable artists including Dan Flavin, Bill Viola and James Rosenquist, and the requisite headline-grabbing enfant-terribles, including yBa alumni Mat Collishaw, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (who, quite coincidentally, featured in my last post about his latest installation in Melbourne’s Fed Square). The current exhibition at Haunch of Venison’s Berlin campus is a collaboration between Michael Joo and Damien Hirst, featuring a couple of Hirst’s emblematic sectioned and formaldehyde-sodden beasties, a pill cabinet, a fly painting, and one of his super-sized human anatomical models.

But could Christie’s great pipe-dream be coming to an end? The Wall Street Journal has reported that, as of 31 August this year, Blain and Southern will be leaving Haunch of Venison to “pursue new projects”. Although there is much brave talk of future directions and evolution, in the world of commercial art dealers, cachet and power resides in the hands of individuals rather than institutions. Personal relationships with artists and collectors are paramount, and the simultaneous departure of Blain and Southern is sure to carve quite a chunk out of the Haunch’s client base.


Diamonds are forever, or, in Damien Hirst’s case, until he can find another ‘stakeholder’ to relieve him of his share of ‘For the Love of God’.

10 06 2009

‘For the Love of God’, indeed.

What to do if one’s much-vaunted, publicity-heat-seeking work of art fails to attract the £50m asking price? Easy. Get together with one’s business manager and art dealer, and buy it yourself. Which poses a rather existential conundrum – if an artwork falls in a distant gallery, and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Or – if you purchase a work of art from yourself, does the price you paid for it represent a ‘real’ price?

After artpreneur (ooo – think I just coined a new word) Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded, platinum coated skull was unveiled with much fanfare in 2007, rather embarrassingly no buyer was prepared to pony up the cash. Rather than sell it at a discount (according to The Art Newspaper, dealer Alberto Mugrabi offered to buy it for £35m), Hirst, along with his dealer, Jay Jopling, and business manager, Frank Dunphy , and Russian neo-oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, all ‘chipped in’ and ‘bought’ the skull together.

Ah, the ins and outs of the art market. Such fun.