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No Sacred Cows: Becoming an Art Collector – CHF Interviews Daniel DiGriz

CHF Marketing Director/Podcast HostCHF’s Creative Director and Director of Education, Daniel DiGriz is the CEO of MadPipe, a company that provides creative direction, brand storytelling, and marketing leadership to corporate clients. Think of “mad men” in the 21st century. As a Digital Ecologist®, Daniel catalogs areas that natural and digital ecologies mirror each other and applies this information to design highly effective campaigns for sales, marketing, and educational projects in many different fields, including the art industry.

In a recent interview with CHF Editorial Director Sofia Perez, Daniel discussed his growing interest in art collecting, and debunked some of the art world’s most entrenched beliefs.

SP: Tell us about your experiences as an art collector.

Art Business Conference

“…if you’re commercially successful as an artist, you sort of hate yourself; you should want to be poor to be taken seriously. That’s an egregiously self-destructive ideology for artists to adopt…” 

DD: I didn’t think of myself as an art collector until I interviewed Tim Newton for our podcast. From talking with him, I learned that being an art collector ultimately comes down to why you’re doing it, and the thoughtfulness behind it. I still struggle with a lot of the same challenges that other beginning art collectors face. There’s that voice in your head that says, “Yeah, but how do you know if the art is any good? How do you learn to trust your taste?”

There’s so much opportunity for artists to cross genre boundaries these days, and there’s a trend for muralists and graphic designers to become fine artists. I will accept that there’s a distinction between art and craft, but I happen to really love some of the work that’s being produced by muralists these days. And yet, there’s criticism coming from some sectors that suggest that a lot of new art is not fine art.

SP: What are the arguments?

DD: They turn on how the art is made and how it’s marketed. There are many artists who produce their work rapidly and sell it themselves—and it’s those two things that seem to be the sticking point. Their work is called mass-produced art, consumer art, or commercial art. These are meant as pejoratives. People shy away from it because they don’t want the taint that comes with the criticism, that there’s something wrong with the art they like.

What that means is that if you’re commercially successful as an artist, you sort of hate yourself; you should want to be poor to be taken seriously. That’s an egregiously self-destructive ideology for artists to adopt. What’s being sown among their ranks is defeatism and elitism, which are two sides of the same coin. It says, “Do not be independent. You need to rely on others; that’s the sign you’re a real artist.”

If you’re an artist, you give maybe 40% of your profits to a gallery or auction house. In many cases, museums ask you to donate art. They have no trouble with taking a cut of your pay and asking you to work for nothing, but if you’re independently successful, they criticize you. It’s a cultural bias that is designed to do one thing: to maintain systematic impoverishment among artists, and to keep them from having independent access to their own market.

Sometimes, it’s even the artists themselves who are leveraging these criticisms. They are channeling the opinions of tastemakers who are keeping them poor, subservient, and dependent. I expect the tastemakers to do this, but it infuriates me when one painter criticizes another on these grounds. Artists who crucify other artists are not really artists. That is unacceptable behavior. Being an artist is not just about producing art; it is about creating a world of art.

SP: What are the criticisms of rapidly produced art?

DD: One of the techniques for rapid creation is palette impasto, which is painting with a knife rather than a brush. There are critics who say the works are not substantive, compared to a painting created with a brush, which can take months to create. That’s ridiculous. Palette impasto is a venerable art technique that is multiple centuries old, and it’s a perfectly valid way to create art.

An example is the work of Homer Costello, who is automatically rejected in some circles because he was producing the outsider art of his day. Costello worked quickly—he was an alcoholic, and was feeding his addiction through the sale of these works—so of course palette-and-knife painting was the way to go for him. But I don’t care that he worked rapidly, or that it was meant to be sold quickly. What I care about is that I like the art. In the world of music, look at how many immense cultural contributions were scribbled on a bar napkin or the back of a matchbook in a drunken stupor. Yet, we venerate those songs. Literature too–Hemingway wrote like a demon.

The criticism is partly an attack on independent artists, but it’s also cultural. In other eras, artists wanted to hide the idea that something had been painted—to paint with precision and hide the brushstrokes. Now, many of our aesthetic sensitivities actually welcome the visible brushstroke. It’s one of the reasons we buy original art in the first place, instead of prints or photographs. If I wanted a hyper-realistic image of a tree, I could just go out and take one with my phone. These days, palette impasto is particularly popular, because we see the hand of the artist in the art. It’s akin to rock music. We want to hear the distortion. We want the voice to scream until it rasps.

SP: You mentioned the issue of how the art is sold. What’s the critical flashpoint there?

Formal Meeting crop - Vlad Pronkin
Detail from Formal Meeting, by Vlad Pronkin, a piece Daniel purchased directly from the artist

DD: Many people are selling their work on eBay and other direct-to-consumer sites now, and others take issue with that, saying it’s not good art. Yes, those works go for less, but it’s not because they’re inferior works. They go for less because you’re buying directly from the artist, instead of adding the 40% to 60% that goes to the gallery. If I told you I had a Rembrandt in my garage, and that you could have it for $5,000, you’d have no problem with that, right? It would still be a Rembrandt.

There are lots of artists who are on the receiving end of this criticism. Leonid Afremov is a palette-and-knife painter whose works sell like hotcakes on eBay and other online venues. They’re very popular, but some tastemakers and artists are outraged because Afremov’s buyers are not art collectors per se. He’s able to reach people who might otherwise only purchase prints at Ikea, and he converts them into buyers of original art. He also paints rapidly because the market is there. People are buying his stuff as fast he can produce it; it does not sit around.

But if you are able to sell art as quickly as you can make it, and you sell it directly to your customers online, somehow you’re not considered a real artist. I don’t mind people telling me they don’t like the art I like. I DO mind them saying that it’s not art, or that it’s lesser art because of some ideology that is designed to bankrupt artists.

SP: So the thinking goes that if artists are too popular in their lifetime, they can’t possibly be any good.

DD: Exactly. If you know an artist’s name, and you’re not an artist or industry insider, that automatically makes the name suspect. Warhol and Basquiat certainly reached the masses and made huge names for themselves, but that’s only because somebody came along and put a stamp of approval on their work, so now it’s considered fine art. I want to vomit after I look at Damien Hirst’s work, but I’m supposed to like him because he’s touted by the right people, and he sells his art for an egregious amount of money? This just perpetuates a priesthood of people who tell us what we should love. As somebody who’s choosing art for himself, I find that offensive.

Afremov’s pieces are on stretched canvasses. They’re ready to hang, and packaged well. They arrive in great condition. He has a business sense and is sensitive to the needs of his buyers. You can order a piece, and there’s absolute consistency in the way it’s shipped and how it arrives. You can expect a high level of quality in the business aspects of the process. Should I criticize the artist because he’s figured out how to do that?

SP: I like what you said earlier—that it’s the intention that defines what it means to be a collector. How do you approach the process of collecting?

DD: I don’t really have a process yet—I’m new at it. I was mostly interested in literature, but occasionally I’d stumble across art and say, “I like that, but I have no idea why.” I didn’t know what category it was in. Others would tell me that it was abstract expressionism or surrealism or whatever, and I would look for other art in that genre, but I wouldn’t find any that I liked. Actually, I’d find a lot of art I didn’t like.

I started looking at artists’ works and finding commonalities among those I really liked. I knew there were two or three I could put my finger on. I had learned enough art language to know that they were sort of surrealistic without being Dalí or Magritte. I started digging and digging, well into the wee hours of the night, and realized that I don’t love surrealism’s big movers and shakers. I like a lot of what people call “minor” artists, and a lot of those are mid-century, doing representational and figurative work.

SP: How did you find these artists?

DD: Well, I did NOT find them by looking at gallery or museum websites. There’s not enough art there—they don’t have their entire collections on display. I found them on sites that sold art, often in aftermarket or direct from the artist, sometimes with a modest commission. Often, you can complete the purchase entirely online.

“…Artists are under fire because the middlemen can feel it slipping away. Artists now have the chance to build an independent audience…” 

These sites are highly motivated to provide great images and information because they’re selling the art directly to the consumer, which is a new phenomenon. So, what really got me into collecting was the fact that we’ve reached a new apex where selling directly to consumers is easy. We’ve removed the middleman.

I look at a piece of art on a website, and I’m in love with it. I can zoom in and study it in detail. There’s a price there. I know what it costs to actually own it. The prospect of being able to immediately buy art that I love had never presented itself before. I venture to say it didn’t exist 50 years ago, or even 20. It’s fantastic that I can simultaneously identify art I like, and purchase that art without any middleman telling me it’s good or bad—without the “oh, you don’t want that” conversation. This is the way it is now. It’s like Airbnb and Uber. In my view, the day of the gallerist telling us which art to want is over. Nothing against gallerists–they’ve introduced a lot of art to the world and sometimes passionately championed it, but they will also now have to add value in other ways.

SP:  You talk about being able to go on these websites and see the prices. That’s a big shift from going to an auction and wondering if you could really afford a particular piece. That kind of transparency is threatening to the old order.

DD: Artists are under fire, to the degree they seek independent commercial success, because the middlemen can feel it slipping away. Artists now have the chance to build an independent audience and sell to a mass market. They have the opportunity to use business tools. At CHF, we are teaching them to be commercially successful, and so are other organizations.

It’s the same phenomenon that’s happening in publishing. There used to be this idea that if you went through Random House, you were a real writer, but if you self-published your book, you weren’t. Sure, there’s a lot of crap being self-published because anyone can do it; the barrier to entry is low. But there’s also a good amount of crap being published by major publishers. Just because a book is being sold at Barnes & Noble doesn’t mean it’s not absolute garbage.

There are great authors who self-publish and then get offered lucrative contracts because a publishing house has recognized that their work is insanely popular. Those authors essentially bring their audience to the publishing house, which have shrinking marketing departments and expect the author to do a lot of the promotional foot work anyway. Artists should be taking the same approach instead of relying on who they know that can help them break into the art world. They should develop an independent market, take their businesses seriously, sell at least some of their work directly to customers, and make themselves commercially viable in a B2C [business-to-consumer] and even B2B [business-to-business] environment. If they do that, and can demonstrate that they have an audience, gallerists would be lucky to have them—they’ll be able to pick and choose—and museums would be wise to pay attention. Doing this puts the artist on top, above the middleman or, more accurately, at the natural center of a creative business.

SP: So the take-home message to artists is to do your own thing—both artistically and from a business standpoint.

DD: Yes, in the sense that they own it. I think business courses like ours are really important, because we teach artists how to be commercially viable, and how to develop an independent market. It’s also important to have an adventurous mindset—to be open to new possibilities and to redefining the traditional relationship between artist and collectors.

SP: And what’s your message to other collectors?

DD: I’m a beginning collector, and I would defer to [CHF Board Members] Steve Zimmerman and Tim Newton on that question. But perhaps resist cynicism and hoarding. Collecting is partly about knowing the artist and the work. Every collector I’ve interviewed has pointed to the direct relationship they have with artists–personally or through study. Often, they know more about the artist and the body of the artist’s work than even the artist’s own gallerist, agent, or estate does. The collector cares enough to do the research, and he’s geeking out about a particular artist.

Tim made me realize that I was already an art collector. I’m Eastern Orthodox, and I own many icons that were hand-painted by one particular painter who’s no longer with us. I have perhaps the single largest collection of his works anywhere. I know his motivation, and how he became an icon painter. I would even venture to say that I know more about his work than anybody else on the planet. That is part of what makes me a collector.

What I see happening a lot is very cynical collecting where people are buying art and flipping it for a much higher price. They don’t care one whit about the work, and that art may never be seen again. It ends up in a private collection, and is never again shared for the enjoyment of others. Part of our mission at the fund is to get collectors to come out of the closet, to catalog their collections and show them. Collectors are in a unique position to help fill the world with art and awareness of art, so all of us can learn and get satisfaction from those pieces. I feel a moral imperative about the art I’m collecting—to catalogue and display it.

SP: So is that experience what drives you to continue collecting?

DD: Well, I’m collecting for another reason as well: to support the work of living artists. One of the artists whose work I collect is Vlad Pronkin. He’s from Estonia, and he’s selling his art directly to the public on eBay and in other places. His studio is very efficient at doing this, and his success enables him to travel and get inspiration. His art is very muralistic in style, but he’s painting it on canvas, or in some cases, oil on paper. I’ve bought three of his pieces, and joined a Facebook group of people who like his work. I’m able to interact with him.

There’s a direct relationship between us. I’m buying something that I love from him, and he’s using that sale to fund his work and life. That’s an immensely good feeling. And it isn’t charity either; I wouldn’t buy the work if I didn’t like it. It reminds me of Kiva, which IS a charity, but one that allows you to invest in a business and help make that business self-sustaining, so you fill the world with self-reliant entrepreneurs. As an entrepreneur, I love that idea. It inspires me.

After I purchased one of his works, Pronkin sent me a photo with a note that said, “I just want you to see this. This is what’s under your painting.” The piece I had bought was painted over another one of his paintings—something painters do a lot—and he wanted me to have a photograph of the original. It’s a great little piece of historical knowledge, and I only know it because he was able to tell me.

SP: How do we encourage more folks to get interested in collecting original art?

DD: First, we have to learn to talk about what we like, without being self-conscious or having the language owned by someone else. There’s a general aesthetic bewilderment right now. We’ve lost an aesthetic language. If you interviewed people outside of a movie theater, and you asked them what they thought about a movie they liked, you’d hear, “It was good, really good.” Good is our default. How was the food? Good. How are you feeling? Good.

We’ve lost a refined aesthetic language for talking about film and classical music and fine art, and the only way we’re ever going to get that back is to free the conversation. You can’t develop the language in a vacuum, because right now it’s the language of specialized tastemakers. It would be like trying to introduce academic language into public consciousness. You can’t do it that way because it’s not how normal people talk. In order to have an aesthetic vocabulary, and to be able to talk about art, we have to liberate the discussion from its captivity.

SP: What has art collecting meant for you, in your daily life?

Daniel DiGriz - art in home office
Some of the art on display in Daniel’s home office

DD: I write and consult and lead teams from my home office all day long, and that energy used to bounce off the walls back at me. I’d walk into the room in a hyper and frenetic state because of all the work I had pending and everything that was on my mind. It was unrelenting. After I started hanging art on my walls, things changed. I had a window onto something aspirational. Now, when I walk into the office, I exhale instead of holding it all in.

And there’s something else that I didn’t know until I started collecting: I can smell the art. It’s very faint, subtle. Some might say it’s in my head but I’m convinced I can smell it, and that’s comforting as well. It represents freedom—like the scent of a plane that’s being fueled up just before takeoff.

 

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