‘Art Is for Everybody’: Hip-Hop Entrepreneur Swizz Beatz on How He Wants to Change the Art Business From the Bottom Up
We spoke to the multitalented collector, producer, and businessman about his plans for No Commission—and beyond.
It’s safe to say the art world has never seen anything like Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean. Born in the Bronx a mere 40 years ago, he is a Grammy Award-winning hip-hop impresario who attended Harvard Business School, serves as a vice president of Reebok, and also collects art (he owns the largest collection of Gordon Parks in private hands). His influence on culture is extraordinarily multivalent, crossing disciplines in a way that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago.
Kanye West has called him “the best rap producer of all time.” “Ultralight Beam,” the hit song Beatz produced for Kanye, became the soundtrack of Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, a work of video art that Roberta Smith hailed as a “transformative masterpiece.” Beatz is also a collector of Jafa’s work, owning two major pieces.
But collecting is only one piece of Beatz’s grand plan for art. A master in corporate synergy who has worked with such brands as Zenith, Bally, and Bacardi, he has been trying to apply that same entrepreneurial skill to give artists a break in a challenging art market.
Thus far, these efforts have been led by No Commission, an art fair giving artists 100 percent of their sales proceeds—instead of sharing 50 percent with a dealer—that Beatz started in 2016 with sponsorship from Bacardi. Since then, this effort, which Beatz bills as an attempt to “free the artist,” has expanded from Miami to Berlin, London, Shanghai, and the Bronx, reportedly generating more than $3 million for the artists involved. Now, it seems, No Commission is poised to expand into a new stage of its existence.
Recently, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein sat down with Beatz at the UTA Artist Space—where he showcased the work of more than 20 contemporary African American artists in a show coinciding with Frieze Los Angeles organized by his curator Nicola Vassell—to talk about how he has seen the art world expand since he began collecting 20 years ago, where he wants to take No Commission, and why the coming disruption of the art world will involve bringing art to the masses.
This is an incredibly exciting time in the art field, with a lot of changes that have been long in coming being felt across the industry. Part of this is that there are more opportunities for black artists than ever before, with the art market embracing the work of both living and historic artists in a way that just wasn’t true even a few years ago. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve heard dealers presenting work by a “young black artist” at art fairs with the same excitement they may have said “Yale MFA artist” before.
Yeah, I’ve witnessed that, actually.
You’ve been collecting art for 20 years. How have you seen progression take place, where black artists have come more and more into the spotlight?
I can’t say that I was onto the African American art side for 20 years, even though I’m African American myself. There was different art in front of me at that time—our work wasn’t really presented to me. It was more Warhols, Harings, Chagalls, Picassos. Then I started looking at Basquiat and trying to understand his phenomenon—out of all the creative artists of color in the world, why was he the one put on the throne?
That led me to do research on more African American artists, and I said, “Oh, I didn’t know that person existed.” I started having fun collecting their work and, more than that, meeting the artists and comparing notes from music and art, since they’re brothers and sisters. You come to my studio and listen to my music, that’s my process; I come to your studio and look at your artworks, that’s your process.
I just got obsessed with it. I was building a family I didn’t even have in music, where there’s a little bit of a disconnect sometimes because of competition and wanting to be the best. I felt something different with the artists.
At the same time that a more diverse group of artists is getting exposure, there are new collectors coming in. Frieze Los Angeles, in fact, could be seen largely as an attempt to cater to the new class of collectors emerging from the entertainment industry. How have you seen that trajectory changing? You’ve said before that other people in hip-hop, like Nas and Erykah Badu, have been collecting quietly for some time now. How has the collecting bug spread?
I’ve seen it spread—a lot more now than ever—but still not enough. I’m not talking about hype collecting. I’m talking about collecting collecting, where you’re making change as you collect. It’s still so early. You have to understand that this is a different game than buying a piece of jewelry or buying a car. This is actually adding to the conversation. And it’s still hard for collectors of color as well. You go to a gallery, nine times out of 10 you probably can’t get the piece you want.
What is your experience of that? How does that happen?
I mean, I know why that happens—I’m not going to play silly. It happens because the gallery has built up a clientele base over time and here comes this new clientele base, and how do you make the decision between someone who has spent millions with you already versus a person who might buy just one piece? You’re not going to cancel that good customer. So I think there has to be a middle ground in terms of how you split it up, because the galleries, and sometimes the artists as well, don’t want to jeopardize that that relationship. These people may have collected their earlier works and lent their work to museums, so there’s a long history at stake that makes it hard to have someone walk in off the street and get first dibs on something. It’s not even a color thing, by the way. I think it’s just a gallery thing.
At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily make the most business sense to solely cater to an aging clientele instead of cultivating a new pool of collectors.
There are galleries that mix it up a bit, like Jack Shainman and some of the other galleries I buy from. There are a lot of galleries that have been changing their vibes up, which is why I’ve been able to get a lot of pieces in my collection, and also invite other collectors to get something that normally wouldn’t be available to them.
Have you seen any galleries starting to prioritize new collectors?
You see a little bit of that. It’s not where it needs to be. With us as new collectors—though I’m not a new collector anymore—you need to show consistency. Like with [Atom Factory founder] Troy Carter, he’s been showing consistency so he’s probably going to get closer to what he wants to do with his collection. Because the artists have a big hand in who gets their work, even though they hide behind their gallery, and they want their art to go to museums and to big collectors who will keep the value going up.
One of the most fascinating things you’re doing in art is the business angle you’re bringing to it. We’re at this crazy moment when, on the one hand, the art world is bigger than ever, but on the other hand, the art business itself has been totally outmoded. Dealers are still selling paintings and sculptures in brick-and-mortar galleries and art-fair booths because that’s pretty much the best thing they’ve figured out how to do. But then you look at something like the music industry, or the film industry, and these fields have seen their businesses completely transformed, largely through streaming. But disruption has not come to the art market.
What is that going to look like?
I can show you better than I can tell you. I mean, No Commission was the first step in that, creating an entirely new entry point that welcomed everyone. That’s already disruptive, letting artists keep 100 percent of their sales in the show and not charging people a fee to enter. It’s disruptive having concerts every night to make it festive. When you go to an artist’s studio, you hear music, there’s life—it’s not a stark, sterile environment. Music and art go together.
Technology is also going to disrupt it—I know that for a fact. There are a lot of good gallery owners out there who deserve to continue, but then there are others who are doing the wrong thing, and they’re going to feel it.
You created No Commission back when you were at Harvard Business School. What gave you the idea?
I had just curated a show in Miami and, no disrespect to anyone, but I realized the galleries win, the collectors win, the fairs win, but the artists just had to kind of find their own way back home. And although I had success with the Miami show and others, there were a lot of artists in those shows who still needed a place to stay and a flight home. And these were not small guys. I was like, “But you just sold out!” And they said, “Now I can’t paint for five months because I just put everything I had into making what you’ve seen amazing.” So I said, “The galleries are not taking care of you?” And they said, “No.” That was like 10 people.
Letting the artists keep 100 percent, at least a few times a year, creates a lot of relief on the buyers as well, because if the artists don’t have to give up 50 percent then the prices can go down. So it’s by the artist, for the artist, with the people.
Since this was an idea you came up with in business school, what’s the business model? If you’re giving away all the sales revenue to the artists, how can No Commission sustain itself—and, moreover, thrive and expand as much as it has?
What I did was find a partner that needed some visual attention: Bacardi. It was an equal exchange—I said, “You guys can run all the bars, and we can do this together. But, out of respect for the artists, we can’t have any logos on the artists’ works.” And they agreed to do it, and we’ve been rocking ever since. I figured out a way to get the money for the artists and to do a business deal with Bacardi that has nothing to do with controlling the art, so the artists get to keep 100 percent.
The fusion of your work in music, your engagement with art, and your embrace of business have made you into precisely the kind of creative force that brands are intent on collaborating with, because they see you as an authentic voice that can bring new ideas and new products to the people. It’s a very powerful fusion, and I can’t help but imagine it’s a direction we’ll see more of the culture heading. Was this an idea in vogue at Harvard?
These things are available, as I knew even before I went to school. It didn’t take rocket science for me to figure that out, and I would have figured it out even without Harvard, to be honest. But the thing is, everybody’s greedy—so they’d take the money from Bacardi but still take a percentage from the artists as well.
In New York, galleries are struggling with rising rents. The irony is that, if you want to get a good space, you either have to pay a fortune for it or it can be more or less free, if you find a real estate company that wants to use art to lure potential clients and you figure out an operating model that allows you to capitalize on that. How did you build No Commission into a win-win model for using sponsorship money to do good in the cultural arena?
No Commission is a technology company. I just decided not to launch it as that at first. I wanted people around the world to feel something tangible in a place where they could physically come in and think, “I can be myself in here, and I can leave with affordable prints by Swoon.” But moving forward, you have to know that technology is going to be a factor.
People think art is for rich people, and I’m like, “No—art is for everybody.” If you want a Rolls Royce, then you gotta earn one—that doesn’t mean you’re not going to drive a Toyota to work until you can get to the next level. A lot of people use that as an excuse not to collect art: “Of course you collect art, you’re rich and famous.” But I’ve bought things for a couple hundred bucks that I love, or $50.
So with something like No Commission, where the artists are getting 100 percent, people are coming in for free, they’re eating and drinking for free, they’re seeing a free concert—that calls for less of something, right? Like it’ll be in an underground, abandoned space? No. I want the space to be better than any space those artists have hung their works in. That was important for me.
So, what’s in it for Bacardi?
A lot. Just think of the amount of money that they’d spend on advertisements or billboards that people don’t pay any attention to. We just redirected that money into something that has a purpose. When you walk in, all the products are by Bacardi, so you get a new Millennial base; there were 37,000 RSVPs to the events—I don’t think they had that before. So their awareness has been raised very high, like 30 or 40 percent, something crazy. That’s where it works.
What will the technology component be then?
It’s very disruptive, so I want to wait until it is finished baking to unload it. I’m right now stripping it down just a little bit. There are so many things I have lined up for it, but the entry point should be really simple.
It seems like streaming is one technological development the art world hasn’t been able to crack.
READ PART TWO: ‘We Can Already See the Future’: Swizz Beatz on What Artists and Gallerists Can Learn From the Music Industry
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