Hollywood’s Top Talent Agencies Are Trying to Turn Today’s Hottest Visual Artists Into Household Names
UTA Artist Space’s current pop-up space in Atlanta, at Pullman Yards.COURTESY UTA ARTIST SPACE
Few visual artists are household names like Warhol, Basquiat, or Picasso. But if Hollywood’s top talent agencies have any say, contemporary artists could have more of that type of mass appeal by taking advantage of the full range of their creative pursuits.
Earlier this year, United Talent Agency, one of the three major talent agencies, announced that it would open a three-story exhibition space in Atlanta in early 2023. The move is not UTA’s first in the industry. In 2015, the mega-agency founded a fine-arts division and built an exhibition space in Los Angeles the following year. In addition to spearheading entertainment deals for artists looking to branch out, the agency now mounts shows for leading contemporary artists, a mix of ones they represent and ones they don’t. Among the artists to have shown there are Derrick Adams, Ai Weiwei, Petra Cortright, Ferrari Sheppard, Conrad Egyir, Enrique Martínez Celaya, and Mandy El-Sayegh.
After a solo exhibition at the UTA Artist Space in Los Angeles earlier this year, Martínez Celaya officially joined the agency. To start, he plans on pursuing the publication of his novel, and then adapting that novel into a film. The agency has also been presenting him with other opportunities that run the gamut from acting gigs to fashion collaborations.
Even though Martínez Celaya’s relationship with UTA is relatively new, he senses that the opportunities yielded from it will be broad in scope, in particular with projects that crossover into industries beyond the art world. “I have some fantastic galleries,” he said, “but I know that some of the projects that I want to do are somewhat out of the range of what a gallery can do.”
UTA’s Atlanta venture is a continuation of this type of effort, but on a larger scale. As Arthur Lewis, partner and creative director of UTA Fine Arts, told ARTnews, the overall strategy is much “bigger than just the artist space.” UTA wants to replicate what it is already doing with its artists in L.A., namely bringing Hollywood to art and art to Hollywood, while also managing deals between visual artists and Atlanta’s wide-ranging field of TV, film, music, and sports professionals. By investing in the visual arts, Lewis thinks UTA can help Atlanta become even more of “a cultural barometer for the world,” he said.
“A lot of our clients are actually there,” Lewis added. “There’s a lot of different industries there, [so] we saw it as an opportunity to further expand our entire organization.”
While UTA may have the splashiest current venture, the other two top talent agencies—Creative Artists Agency and Endeavor—have also turned their attention to visual artists. In 2016, Endeavor, led by Ari Emmanuel, a collector in his own right who once sat on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, announced a partnership with Frieze, taking a majority stake in the London-based contemporary art magazine and its global art fair operations, which has expanded from London and New York to Los Angeles and Seoul in the years since the acquisition. And CAA has been brokering deals with visual artists looking to move into film and TV for more than a decade. They represented Julian Schnabel when he made The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). The agency is also managing brand partnerships for artists and started development on an NFT platform.
The original template for the artist-Hollywood crossover may be Arthur Jafa, winner of a Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. He rose to the top of the art world after the 2016 debut of Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, his seven-minute video montage of the beauty and anguish of Black life, captured New York audiences with lines around the block. Screened four days after the U.S. Presidential election, the video struck a chord with those trying to process what Trump’s win meant for America—Black America, in particular. Not too long after, CAA offered to help Jafa pursue his future film, directing, and writing projects.
UTA’s Atlanta project, however, may signal an evolution in the complexity of such partnerships. In addition to being a major film-television hub due to its generous tax incentives, Atlanta is also home to major offices for Microsoft and Google and to the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of HBCUs that includes Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, which have long supported, studied, and collected Black art.
The city is undoubtedly “poised to host something like that,” said art adviser Jeremiah Ojo. Not only because it has “millions of people who go through the [city’s] airport connecting to every corner of the globe,” he continued, but there is also “a critical mass of other infrastructure that was built to have a bunch of people come to Atlanta.”
While UTA’s overall investment in Atlanta is still very much in the works, Lewis said that the firm will start sponsoring art events in the city later this year. Jonathan T.D. Neil, co-founder of Inversion Art, an artist service and investment agency, said that in order for its investment to have real impact on the culture of Atlanta, it “would have to be done as a concerted decade-long effort.” Part of that includes “figuring out how to convene people there from other art centers,” in a way that “drives the [cultural] conversation.”
“In recognizing that Atlanta is this epicenter for Black culture and talent, [UTA] can get in on the ground to the latest and greatest stuff that’s happening,” Ojo added.
Up until now, UTA and CAA have focused on deals for artists who are already stars, like Takashi Murakami or Ai Weiwei. Historically, these deals are the most profitable for them. But a new type of artist, whether emerging or well-known, is also beginning to rise; one who wants “to be a 360 brand,” Ojo said. Agencies can manage projects for more people eager to break into other markets, from the traditional to the one for NFTs, and everything in between.
One hurdle in this strategy is that the art world typically operates under “a scarcity model,” with a limited amount of works going to institutions or a select few top collectors, Ojo said.
For agencies, managing this idea of access could prove difficult. In Hollywood’s eyes, the art world “still feels very limiting,” Nguyen said, noting that agencies like his “want to democratize art. We’re interested in reaching the 99 percent.”
From a business standpoint, UTA’s artist space in Atlanta can operate the same way it has in Los Angeles, serving as a meeting ground for the two industries. When painter Arcmanoro Niles exhibited there two years ago, the dinner UTA organized to celebrate the show brought together “top collectors, great art people, and people in Hollywood who have an interest in art,” Lewis said. For local artists, Ojo predicted this means UTA offers the possibility to raise “the standard of what art support can look like.”
And that’s in a traditional sense and otherwise. While the agencies have been dabbling in the art world for years now, UTA’s latest efforts show a deeper commitment to the field. In that way, it’s still an open question how the agency’s involvement in the art world is really going to take shape.
In the end, Martínez Celaya predicts “there will be other models that will appear in the world,” he said, “because this is showing the possibility of what agency-type relationships can do.”
One full-service artist-representation firm, in particular, has already broken into the field. Marine Tanguy founded MTArt seven years ago with the goal of disrupting the traditional model of artist management. The boutique firm provides services like retail activations, curation, or public relations. With offices already in Paris, London, and Monaco, Tanguy is planning on opening in Los Angeles next year. One of the agency’s most recent projects involves bringing a sculpture by artist Lorenzo McQueen to the public art component of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The goal, Tanguy said, is to “be that full 360 where this is a house; this is what they do everything in.”
In the end, talent agents are adamant that they don’t pose a threat to art dealers. They see themselves as wanting to support various forms of storytelling. “There are so many of these young artists who are already in all of these different mediums,” said Lewis. “They’re great storytellers. And we’re looking for great diverse stories to be told.”