Meet the New Innovators: 7 Tastemakers Who Are Collecting and Preserving the Art of Tomorrow, Today
These individuals are using their impressive art collections to push the art-world conversation in valuable new directions.
A version of this article first appeared in the fall 2020 Artnet Intelligence Report, which you can download for free here.
The art you acquire reflects your social and ethical agenda, and the members of this group are using their collections to push the conversation in valuable new directions. Meet them below and see the complete list of the New Innovators here and our list of entrepreneurs here. Check back for more in-depth profiles in the coming days.
Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, 41, Cofounder of the Dean Collection, Los Angeles and Englewood, New Jersey
In 2012, the legendary hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean dropped a track called “Street Knock” in which he rapped about owning works by canonical greats ranging from Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring to Rembrandt and Picasso. Nothing wrong with that collection. But in the years since, Dean and his wife, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, steadily refined their buying focus—first to living artists and eventually to living Black artists—en route to formally establishing the Dean Collection, an entity encompassing the family holdings and a planned “cultural platform,” to be headquartered in a forthcoming 110-acre arts-and-music complex in Macedon, New York.
Today, the Dean Collection includes perhaps the most impressive holdings of emerging Black painting anywhere on earth, featuring some of the best examples of works by Henry Taylor, Kehinde Wiley, Tschabalala Self, Jordan Casteel, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and others. And its scope goes beyond painting. The Dean Collection boasts the most extensive holdings of photographs by the late Gordon Parks in private hands, and also recently has been on an acquisition spree of new work including a tire sculpture by Arthur Jafa similar to the ones in the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Beyond collecting, Dean has continually used his platform to empower artists. No Commission, his roaming art fair and music festival, allowed participating artists to keep 100 percent of their sales proceeds. In 2018, the Dean Collection awarded $5,000 grants to each of 20 artists to stage their own exhibitions. And Dean has personally boosted living Black artists’ markets by convincing other Black entrepreneurs to acquire their work—most famously, by advising Diddy to spend $21.1 million on Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times (1997), the highest price ever paid for a piece by a living Black artist.
Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall, Collectors, Minot, North Dakota
Flipping through the Instagram account of married collectors Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall (a professor and surgeon, respectively), one has to appreciate their transparency. The couple posts work by in-vogue artists—Hein Koh, Jessie Makinson, Emily Furr, Sarah Slappey—as soon as they enter the collection. Alongside the images, you’ll see an unlikely location stamp: Minot, North Dakota, a town better known for its Scandinavian Heritage Park than its art scene.
“We started an Instagram account, @theicygays, to convey our location in North Dakota as well as our critical eye,” the couple says in a joint statement. “Much to our surprise, the response has been quite positive.” While they travel extensively to track down new acquisitions, the duo also wants to bring the art world to the Dakotas via a new residency program where artists can create (and socially distance) in one of the country’s least densely populated states. “Who knows, maybe Minot could be the new Marfa!” they say. Crazier things have happened.
Pulane Kingston, Executive Chairperson of Mirai Rail Corporation, Johannesburg
Few collectors buy art with as clear an agenda as South African businesswoman Pulane Kingston. “The mission of my collection is to redress the underrepresentation of African visual artists generally—and African women artists in particular— by ensuring that these artists find their place in the full context of the diverse canon of art history,” she says. Kingston works to achieve that end through the art she acquires—which ranges from paintings by modernist South African masters like Irma Stern to multimedia pieces by emerging artists such as Dineo Seshee Bopape—and the museums she advises.
Kingston serves on the board of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa as well as the Africa acquisitions committee at Tate Modern. As international interest in African art grows, Kingston wants to ensure that the field is developing sustainably and examined with the art-historical rigor and care it deserves.
Patrick Sun, 65, Founder and Executive Director of the Sunpride Foundation Hong Kong, Taipei, and Bangkok
A pioneer in championing queer art in the East, Patrick Sun has done what once seemed impossible. His backing was instrumental to staging “Spectrosynthesis,” the first exhibition at a major Asian public institution dedicated to artworks with LGBTQ themes. The show premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei in 2017, with a spotlight on East Asian artists; a second edition predominantly composed of artists from Southeast Asia debuted at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre in 2019.
“As an LGBTQ advocate, I am proud that we can reach beyond our echo chamber and open a dialogue with the general public through the two exhibitions,” says Sun. “The challenge lies in sorting out the creative history of LGBTQ art, as Asian society is more conservative, and many old masters remain in the closet.” But Sun will continue to try to meet this challenge: his current focus is on bringing the next LGBTQ-centric institutional exhibition to his hometown of Hong Kong in 2022.
Lonti Ebers, Founder of Amant, New York and Toronto
Lonti Ebers doesn’t do small. When the former New Museum board member decided to donate a work to New York City, she chose Isa Genzken’s 26-foot- tall Rose III (2016)—and installed the not-so-subtle symbol of peace at Zuccotti Park, the center of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. The gift offers an apt look into her mindset on collecting (a process she shares with husband, Bruce Flatt, the CEO of Brookfield Asset Management) and philanthropy. Ebers’s catholic tastes range from Genzken, to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye to the late Alice Neel one of whose portraits she bought for $728,000 at Sotheby’s in May 2019, another testament to her penchant for going big.
Bolder still, rather than channel her arts philanthropy into opening a typical private museum, Ebers founded Amant, a hybrid artist-residency center and event space with locations in both boho-industrial Bushwick and the Tuscan hamlet of Chiusure. And you can bet she has more big ideas to come.
Yan Du, 39, Founder of the Asymmetry Art Foundation, Hong Kong and London
“I want to use my role as a collector… to bridge the contemporary-art communities in the East and West,” says Yan Du. “In this ever-changing global environment—especially since COVID-19—fostering creative dialogue across countries and cultures is very important.”
Beyond supporting young artists exhibiting at overseas institutions, such as Christine Sun Kim at the 2019 Whitney Biennale, Du has begun channeling her words into another kind of action. She is in the process of establishing the Asymmetry Art Foundation, a London-based nonprofit organization that will work with arts and educational institutions and museums to develop emerging curators, thus facilitating cultural exchange between Western and Asian communities. The foundation’s first project will be a curatorial fellowship with the Whitechapel Gallery in 2021.
“This is a revolutionary year—everything will change the way that we work together,” says Du. “I want to come out of this special moment with something new.”
–Rebecca Anne Proctor
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