Stephen Cohen's artfairs inc. produces dynamic trade events for photographic and contemporary art between L.A., San Francisco, Miami and New York.
Applying a keen eye and an entrepreneurial spirit, Stephen Cohen's career trajectory has impressively put America, and especially California, on the map for international photographic and contemporary art collectors.
Stephen Cohen is a mix between an astute collector, a market analyst and a genuine lover of a good image. Under the consortium artfairs inc. (http://www.artfairsinc.com/afi_about.html), Cohen brings together a phenomenal lineup of galleries and artists, adding vigor and international attention to the American photographic and contemporary art collector's market.
Producing photo l.a., The Annual International Los Angeles Photographic Art Fair, the largest fair of its kind in America, as well as ARTLA, and the newest venture, photo MIAMI, Cohen is a wellspring of knowledge and experience.
Here he touches on the business of art collecting, market changes, style trends and the exquisite talent of L.A. legend Julius Shulman.
You have the eponymous Stephen Cohen Gallery (http://www.stephencohengallery.com/) in L.A. Is that how you started, as a photo collector yourself?
I started selling photography books privately, then 19th century prints, which was before the web, so sometimes I would travel across the country to visit a collector. In 1991, I started photo l.a. There was nothing like it at the time, except for an event put on by the AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers) (http://www.aipad.com/) - I wasn't a member then, though I am now - and I felt that I could do just as good or better. The first photo l.a. was in January 1992. It was a great success, attracting 1,500 people in three and a half days, and really established itself as a new venue.
You moved photo l.a. 2008 to a larger exhibition space of 35,000 square feet at Barker Hangar, Santa Monica Airport. How did this change the feel of the event?
We added Truss lighting for better presentation of the works and established a grid layout with wide isles. It sounds rigid, but actually it made it more methodical and easier for visitors.
There were 3,000 more people than last year. The general look of the place was very contemporary. At ARTLA we have a phenomenal lineup of galleries - 40% are from L.A., so we are really addressing L.A. as a center for creative art, and its collector base has increased.
The success of California for art collecting comes from a combination of weather, space, and a lot of strong institutions like the Hammer Museum (http://www.hammer.ucla.edu/) and the Eli Broad Collection, as well as a growing class of mid-career L.A. artists, such as Ed Ruscha and John Baldassari, making it a very dynamic place.
Do you find art collectors are also interested in buying photographs? Do the markets mix?
Yes, more and more contemporary auctions and galleries are incorporating mixed media and photography and photo-based art. Photography, after all, is just another tool. It's not an issue anymore, a battle between markets – overall, it's an issue of quality.
I noticed your most recent venture was into contemporary art. Could you see photo l.a. turning into more of a mixed media event?
It has moved in that direction. There were 4 or 5 galleries with video installations, like the Monte Clark Gallery (http://www.monteclarkgallery.com/) from Vancouver, who represents Scott McFarland, a video artist who just has a piece at the MoMA, and the Andrea Meislin Gallery (http://www.andreameislin.com/) from Chelsea. I would certainly say photo l.a. is moving into more contemporary photography.
How do auction houses affect market prices? Do you find that their sales disturb prices?
They have in so many ways - of course, auction houses are setting sales records for certain pieces all the time, and I'm not so sure the galleries are matching those sales. The auctions houses tend to appeal to collectors who want the blue chips investments, you could say - buyers from Russia, the Middle East, and China. So there may just be a money gap there.
How do you think the Internet is overvaluing or devaluing prices?
Dealers have agreements with their artists, that if they represent them, artists will not sell their work online. It works like an honor system. But the Internet seems to me to be, moreover, a great platform for displaying and researching work. For serious collectors, it is a phenomenal resource for being an informed buyer. They can educate themselves and see what artists are going for on the market and estimate secondary market prices.
So an auction house would be considered a secondary market, then?
Secondary market means the piece does not come from the representative dealer and usually was purchased from someone other than the artist's dealer, for example, a collector. The work could be traced back to the artist, but usually not from their gallery to them.
When buying through the marketplace, a work could have gone through a lot of hands and it is then that the value of the work gets offset. Prices can be higher in secondary markets and disrupt prices.
L.A. is famed for its film industry - how has Hollywood influenced L.A. and American artists?
Take John Waters, for example. A lot of his work re-sequences and re-stylizes cultural images. Some offer an ironic interpretation of art history or of modern media. Cindy Sherman also comments on a layer of awareness, then takes it one step further. There are numerous artists working with magazines and videos - the Internet has had a big impact on this.
Is it a jaded view to always take an ironic twist on popular culture?
Some artists embrace modern culture with an open perspective, in awe of the old glamour from movies, with a real appreciation and homage to these classic images. They are not necessarily sarcastic, though they do sometimes show a smirk, yes.
And the architectural photographer Julius Schulman was honored at the opening reception event for photo l.a. 2008.
Julius is a wonder and a treasure. He is 97, very sharp, funny and sweet. He spent many years of his career just being a name credit in magazines, and now he is finally being recognized and getting the credit he deserves. He raised architectural photography to the level of art. He gets to the heart of whatever he's photographing - and he's still working. He is truly an icon, there is no doubt his images have shaped Los Angeles.
Top Five Photographers
I like picking artists with a strong eye - those who have a unique way of looking at things and change the way others look at things. They are my favorites.
Top Five Galleries
Jeffrey Fraenkel in SanFrancisco
Craig Krull Gallery in LA
+1 (310) 828-6410
Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York
Matthew Marks Gallery, also in New York
Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo
Stephen Cohen's definition of luxury:
Something you're not accustomed to, something extra, beyond the necessities.
A pre-war Apthorp apartment in New York City's Upper West Side.
A person who has your heart, and you have theirs.
True happiness - no frustration and not a care in the world.