Does Anyone Here Speak Art and Tech? (NYTimes, 3 April 2013)
By Alice Gregory
Chelsea is a Manhattan neighborhood long associated with warehouselike spaces filled with contemporary art, icy gallerinas who ignore all but the most well-heeled customers, and schmoozy Thursday nights, where the sidewalks of the West 20s are crowded with visitors smoking and drinking room-temperature white wine as they make their way from one show opening to another.
Just blocks away, at the origami-like IAC headquarters housing OKCupid, Vimeo and Ask.com, the nondescript East Coast office of Google at 76 Ninth Avenue and the home of Betaworks at 416 West 13th Street, are packs of newly minted millionaires, coding, developing apps and inventing the technology we all use daily (and occasionally playing foosball).
But though software engineers and art dealers may pass one another on the High Line, the worlds they inhabit could not be less alike; parallel universes that rarely intersect. And considering their net worths, technology innovators and the venture capitalists who back them are not collecting much art, according to people in both the tech and art worlds.
For the latter, this is a big problem.
“It’s hard to get those guys’ attention,” shouted Thea Westreich, 70, a veteran art adviser, over construction clamor that was disrupting work at her office on Greene Street. “I think they will eventually collect, and collect very heavily and be a part of the community. But I think that’s going to be a hard wall to go through, at least in the short run.”
Rex Sorgatz, 40, a digital consultant for Web businesses and magazines, is among the few in Silicon Alley who socialize with the art clique. In a recent phone conversation, Mr. Sorgatz said that if he invited any of his tech friends to the Guggenheim Museum, most would turn him down.
“I’ve been a bit disappointed by the disconnect between New York City’s art world and technology space,” he wrote in an e-mail later. “It’s extremely rare to see start-up people at gallery openings, for instance.”
There are all sorts of plausible explanations: the tech industry is relatively new (especially in New York); its members are young, busy and most did not plod through four years’ worth of liberal arts syllabuses.
But as many in the art world point out, there is no reason new-media moguls cannot get a remedial art education now.
Sima Familant, a New York art adviser, said she thought the tech industry had almost an obligation to become more engaged with art.
“If these are our next Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fricks, whatever you want to say in terms of our wealthy American elite, then why aren’t they supporting culture?” she asked.
Ms. Familant, 40, said she worried for the future of privately financed arts establishments.
“If these people are the new wealthy, and they’re not supporting institutions and the arts, then we’re going to have a really big problem at some point,” she said.
Some groups are attacking the problem head-on. Later this month, Rhizome, a nonprofit organization dedicated to new media art (Ms. Familant is a board member) will host its fourth annual Seven on Seven Conference, which pairs artists and technologists and asks them to collaborate on a single-day project.
Dennis Crowley, 36, the founder of Foursquare, the social-networking site, is one of this year’s participants, despite what could be considered a relative disinterest in the art world. Though Mr. Crowley has bought art, he focuses most of his harvesting instincts on snowboards, of which he has many.
Mr. Crowley, who had just returned from the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Tex., said about art: “I’d never call myself a collector. And if I did, my friends would make fun of me. They’re all so business-minded. It would be like saying I was a wine connoisseur. I’d be mocked.”
Mr. Petschnigg, 35, who used to live in Seattle and work for Microsoft, went with the purpose of decorating his business’s new offices on Hudson Street.
“There’s so much more art in New York,” he said. “The scale is much larger. To really understand it, you need friends.”
Mr. Resig, 28, came away from the Armory Show with a similar impression, finding it “a little harsh.” By phone later, he added: “I’m not used to being in such a commercially aggressive environment when viewing art.”
In tech, Mr. Resig said, there tends to be “a culture of openness,” with people taking pride in sharing their work and allowing others to use it.
“This seemed sort of the, like, opposite atmosphere: exclusive, hidden,” he said. “I never studied art history, but I’ve been trying to educate myself. It’s been very hard as an outsider even to learn.”
Indeed, for a certain sort of hoodie-wearing entrepreneur more keen on trips to Tahoe than the Tate, the rules of the art world can seem especially opaque.
“There’s lots of things that people don’t understand about the art world,” said Jonah Peretti, 39, a founder of BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post whose collection includes pieces by Cory Arcangel, Hennessy Youngman and Evan Roth. “Even if you have money, it doesn’t mean you’re part of the club.”
To those used to start-up culture, with its utopian transparency and meritocratic ideals, the art world’s barriers to entry are discouraging and confusing. Parties are exclusive. Works are not always sold to those with the most money. Images are often not online. Invoicing can take months. There is, to borrow a term from the lexicon of tech culture, a preponderance of inconvenient “friction.”
As Mr. Peretti put it, referring to one prominent Chelsea gallery, “It’s not like there’s some instruction manual when you show up at Barbara Gladstone that explains all this to you.” Paraphrasing typical complaints some in tech have with the gallery system, he said: “Why are they making it hard for me to buy art? I want to write a big check to this person, and they’re treating me in this way that I don’t quite understand, like they don’t really want my money.”
Mo Koyfman, a venture capitalist at Spark Capital, which has provide funding for companies including Twitter and Foursquare, is of the same opinion.
“For technologists, it’s all about leveling the playing field, and the art world is a very structured, hierarchical system,” he said. “There is a conflict there, and it’s probably a good bit of the reason why technology entrepreneurs struggle with the art world.”
Mr. Koyfman, 35, who collects mostly emerging artists who show in galleries on the Lower East Side, said that he thought this tension is less pronounced in New York City than it is in Silicon Valley, citing a handful of local start-ups operating at the intersection of art and technology: Tumblr, Kickstarter, Etsy.
“As there are more and more Internet successes here in New York, I would expect these people to have more of a fondness for and interest in collecting art, because it’s New York,” Mr. Koyfman said. “That’s why you live here. If you didn’t want to be exposed to the arts, go live in the Valley.”
But geographical proximity (and even practical cross-germination) does not do much to mitigate the prevailing chill between the two spheres, many in each say.
“Walking into a gallery is a very daunting experience, even if you’re Mark Zuckerberg,” said Mike Brown recently as he drove to Amagansett, N.Y. Mr. Brown, a founder of AOL Ventures (and the son of a Condé Nast image archivist), began collecting street art by artists like Swoon and Sail about a decade ago, and has since expanded his interests.
“A lot of guys who are generally introverts, who are building technology all day, they’re stonewalled once and they say, ‘Why do I even bother?’ ” he said.
Mr. Brown’s art adviser, Sarah Jane Bruce, affirmed that “the general assumption is that people in tech will collect street art.” Ms. Bruce, 35, can be credited for Mr. Brown’s evolving taste. The two met in 2011 through a mutual friend just before Art Basel in Miami Beach. She took him there, and he bought his first fine-art pieces.
“There’s a natural barrier to the art world,” Ms. Bruce said. “It’s insular and closed. Prices aren’t published, you have to go up to someone and ask. It can be a very intimidating experience.”
At a party later at AOL Ventures, Mr. Brown introduced Ms. Bruce to his friend Josh Guttman, the senior vice president of Outbrain (“a content delivery network”), who subsequently became a client.
“The art world has a lot of cliques,” said Mr. Guttman, 37, who calls himself an art novice. “I’m less interesting in the cliques, but you could argue that tech is the same. If you have a start-up, you need to network, get to know the right people and the community at large. You need people to like you.”
With the proliferation of fairs (like the Armory, as well as the Independent and the Art Dealers Association of America show, both of which were held last month), the art world has become increasingly driven by well-attended events. But this might be yet another impediment to people known, fairly or not, as much for their antisocial behavior as for their revolutionary inventions.
“I want to walk the floor,” Mr. Brown said. “I want to meet the artists and hear their stories about why they make what they make. I don’t want to go to the parties.”