Inside the Art World’s Exclusive Queer Backgammon Mafia, Russian Dealers Abandon Moscow, and More Art-World Gossip
Plus, what major L.A. artist is looking for a new assistant? Who's out dining at Altro Paradiso? Read on for answers.
Every week, Artnet News brings you Wet Paint, a gossip column of original scoops. If you have a tip, email Annie Armstrong at [email protected].
AN EVENING AT THE LESBIAN AND BISEXUAL BACKGAMMON LEAGUE
“This is the fourth party I’ve hosted this week,” sighed an exhausted Stefania Bortolami, barefoot and in blue jeans, laying languidly on a couch beneath a Jutta Koether painting and next to a Kayode Ojo sculpture in her light-filled Chelsea loft.
“The good thing about that, though, is I have a lot of leftover booze.”
On a dining room table across from the New York art dealer sat five or six briefcases holding backgammon boards in preparation for what was about to come: this month’s iteration of the art world’s Lesbian and Bisexual Backgammon League, or LBBL for short.
It was a Sunday afternoon following another frantic week in May packed with openings, auctions, and afterparties, and the mood in the room was relief that this group of artists, dealers, advisors, and the like checked off another rigorous week and could now be in the company of a group of queer women and queer women alone—a rare space in the upper echelons of the art world, where male bravado reigns supreme.
“I always look forward to it,” said Lily Snyder, a director at Eric Firestone who arrived that afternoon alongside 56 Henry gallery’s Ellie Rines, Jasmin Tsou of JTT, curator Daisy Sanchez (whose been attending since she was 17 years old) and artist Jennie Schueler. “It’s a very satisfying mix of competition, art-world chatter, and mentoring,” she said. “You have women at all different places in their careers, and general like mindedness.”
The monthly event began in 2016 after chatter at—where else?—the West Village lesbian bar the Cubbyhole, where Seesaw founder Ellen Swieskowski met interior designer Hester Hodde. The two got to know each other and started playing backgammon at RPM Bar, where Rines and Bortolami, then a couple, started to join. The event snowballed from there, with other attendees including Jenna Gribbon, Sable Elyse Smith, and Dominique Lévy.
“It’s a perfect game, because you can drink while you play and talk while you play,” Swieskowski told me. And it’s reaped some real rewards: after budding gallerist Nicole Ripka, who now runs the queer collective Gayjoy, met Rines at one LBBL tournament, Rines lent Ripka her gallery in Sag Harbor to encourage her to cultivate a new audience out east for a summer. “For me, starting as a young person in art, it was amazing,” Ripka said. “I got to meet Stefania, and so many other people I wouldn’t have met otherwise who have been able to help me with my career.”
Not to say its all rosé and warm fuzzies. I overheard art advisor Sheri Pasquarella squaring up over what I presumed to be a piece of art (“Did the payment go through yet?” she asked Tsuo. “I’m still waiting!”), but turned out to be about a bet from a previous tournament. The first to bring out the betting cube was Rines, who put $300 cash on the table. Her tactic was to blockade her board’s home base to prevent Tsuo from being able to move through—and it worked. Rines teased Tsuo about the game being effectively over, to which Tsuo exclaimed: “I was reading the rules of this right before I got here! I don’t have time! I have to run a gallery!”
Around 8 p.m., the games were heating up, and someone put Stereolab on the speakers, which was approximately when things got saucy. Gossip started spinning around, mainly about who was and wasn’t invited, who’s been dating who, and the like. Someone told me that Andrew Kreps once claimed he was an actor in the iconic “Mikey Likes It!” commercial for Life cereal, and that his royalties went towards opening his first gallery. Unfortunately, a cursory Google search debunked this myth.
The room got a little quiet when one guest—none other than former Sotheby’s rainmaker Amy Cappellazzo, who apparently has been playing backgammon since she was a kid—showed up a bit late. It didn’t take long for her to plop down at a board to play Bortolami. After winning, she told Wet Paint: “I like the employment of game theory.”
THE WAR’S IMPACT ON NEW YORK’S ART MONTH
Last night, I covered Phillips‘s 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale, which wound up being the auction house’s most profitable sale ever. While I watched lots whizz past their estimates and phone bidders grin to their mysterious clients, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the house’s owner, the Russian conglomerate Mercury Group, would see of its net proceeds.
To be fair, Phillips has donated a sizable chunk of change to the Red Cross‘s relief efforts in Ukraine. Back in March, the house gave nearly $8 million from their London sale to the relief organization. CEO Stephen Brooks said at the time that “witnessing the horrific scenes in Ukraine, I made a very clear statement earlier this week about our condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine. Tonight we have done something very practical.”
Last night’s sale brought in a staggering $225 million. There’s no easy way of knowing how much of that goes back to the Mercury Group, but presumably, some of that lump sum does. All month, there have been traces of how the war in Ukraine has impacted the art market, and from Wet Paint‘s perspective, it seems that small galleries are bearing most of the brunt.
“The fact of the matter was that we couldn’t do anything once the war started, so we stopped programming,” said Anton Svyatsky, who co-runs Fragment Gallery, which was based in both Moscow and New York. In February, he abruptly shuttered its Moscow location four days after the war began. “We were one of the only spaces based in both Moscow and New York, so if anybody could go around sanctions, it’s us. But what’s the point? Who am I going to sell to in that country?”
It’s lucky that Fragment has a space in New York already. Mikhail Ovcharenko, previously a partner of Moscow’s Regina Gallery, opened his own space, called Lazy Mike, in 2020. The gallery was due to participate in the New York edition of NADA this month, but works got tied up in customs for three days due to shipping sanctions on Russia. At the VIP opening of the fair, and for two days after that, Ovcharenko plainly displayed five photos of works by Daniel Manzhos.
“We just weren’t sure if they would make it or not,” Ovcharkeno explained. The only tangible artwork on view was a Natalia Pivko print of Vladimir Putin laying in a coffin, made a day before the fair.
“We wrote a statement saying that we are so sorry and embarrassed to represent the land where we were born,” Ovcharenko said. “This was something we never supported.”
Allison Glenn has joined the Public Art Fund as senior curator … ARTnews posted a rather salacious piece of gossip regarding a certain art-world power couple, only to unpublish it minutes later … Tom Sachs is releasing a new iteration of his NFT rocket project … Arthur Jafa is on the hunt for an assistant in Los Angeles … An anonymous texter sent out an “It List” of New Yorkers naming Gasp founder Will Colman, artist Lucien Smith, and David Zwirner head of events Lauren Ashley Van Dyke as among the people to watch in New York City, and we hear the folks behind the missive are the anonymous duo running the Ion Pack podcast …
Tremaine Emory, Max Farago, Ajani Russell, and Shaniqwa Jarvis in attendance at Lehmann Maupin‘s “Twerk and Jerk” barbecue on behalf of Nari Ward, with food by Ghetto Gastro *** Loring Randolph and Sarah Levine at a rally for abortion rights in New York City *** Almine Rech, Genesis Tramaine, Jack Siebert, and Albert Chehebar noshing on crab cakes and sliders at Ron Harrar‘s art-filled Chelsea apartment *** The multi-hyphenate Donald Glover dining at art-world hotspot Altro Paradiso *** Thelma Golden getting down to Jason DeRulo at theWhitney‘s annual gala, where she was honored *** Martha Stewart making a surprise appearance at the opening collector and photographer Douglas Friedman‘s show uptown at Ben Soleimani *** Alex Da Corte‘s beloved Met commission, As Long as the Sun Lasts (2021), at the Louisiana Museum, where Big Bird will look out melancholically over the Danish countryside ***
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WET PAINT QUESTIONNAIRE
Last week’s question is near and dear to my heart, as the only art I collect is buzzed onto the flesh of my left arm. It seems that many of you are opinionated on who has the best collection of tattoos in the art world! Louis-Philippe Van Eeckhoutte named Carter Forster of the Blanton Museum of Art Museum,who “has a superb Ellsworth Kelly tattoo for which Kelly himself arranged the squares on his arm.” Martin Aguilera, sales director at Mendes Wood, said “Hugh Scott-Douglas has one of the best tattoo collections in the art world. He was a big inspiration and reference point for artists when I began my tattoo journey several years ago. Given I am now priced out of collecting art I love — even from my own gallery — I have added over 35 different artists to my collection and look forward to getting more in Asia during Frieze Seoul.” That’s the spirit! Writer Zach Sokol name-checked artist Nick Sethi, and I’ve heard that Klaus Biesenbach got a Douglas Gordon edition tattooed onto his back at a Gagosian booth years ago.
That’s enough to put my meager collection to shame. My next question for you: Who is the most athletic art dealer?
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