The Studio System
A Hollywood talent agency is betting big on the art world. Andrea Scott meets UTA’s Joshua Roth.
On an early evening in late July at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Kanye West was on a rant. There to discuss the video for his song “All Day/I Feel Like That,” a collaboration with the artist and film director Steve McQueen, West said, “I feel like I’ve been abducted by aliens, just to be able to sit next to Steve right now in an art context. I’d give all, no, two of my Grammys to be permanently in the art context.” Then West shared a eureka moment from a recent trip to the Palazzo Fortuny, in Venice: “I didn’t even know about Fortuny. He was a painter, he was an opera designer, he was a clothing designer, he was a merchant. I was like, I feel like Fortuny. Twenty years from now, people will be so open-minded, like, ‘Oh, yeah, you do five things. It’s cool.’ But right now, people are so closed-minded.”
West’s appearance that night had been orchestrated by Joshua Roth, a Hollywood agent who has bet his career that artists are eager to branch out. Last February, Roth left a lucrative law practice to head up a new division of the United Talent Agency, UTA Fine Arts. When he learned that West, a UTA client, wanted to bring his music video to L.A.—it had premiered four months earlier at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, in Paris—Roth put in a call to Michael Govan, the CEO and director of LACMA. Just three weeks later, the installation, in the museum’s Renzo Piano–designed building for contemporary art, opened to a select audience of well-heeled patrons, art professionals, and reporters (not to mention the one-woman VIP section that is Kim Kardashian).
UTA Fine Arts had proved its clout with the event, which was a publicity coup, but it had yet to announce any clients. And despite Roth’s long-standing ties to the L.A. art community, click-bait headlines cropped up in the wake of the venture’s debut. In May, New York magazine’s Vulture site declared, MEET THE ARI GOLD OF THE ART WORLD. A bright-eyed, boyish 37, Roth has a highbrow–Jerry Maguire vibe, and he responds to show-me-the-money demands by advocating for patience. “We’re meeting with artists, hearing their dreams, gauging their interest levels,” he told me over the summer. “There’s no expectation of a return on investment in the first 24 months.” Jim Berkus, a UTA cofounder and chairman, put it this way: “We want to take our first steps gingerly. Have our torches ready before we go into the dark game.”
One of the artists taking a meeting—or at least breaking bread—with the agency at that time was Urs Fischer, who has a house in L.A. He and his wife, the fashionista and filmmaker Tara Subkoff, joined Roth, Berkus, and his wife, Ria, for dinner one night at the Tower Bar. Berkus’s clients include Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, all of whom he considers “true artists,” and he sees the foray into the art world as “a logical next step.” But the relationship between Fischer and UTA has thus far remained strictly social. As Fischer said drily, “In the art world, everyone is a friend.”
How do the needs of “artists” like Angelina Jolie and Channing Tatum (both UTA clients) dovetail with the “talent” represented by galleries, which have been in the business of career maintenance since before Vincent van Gogh signed on with his brother Theo? Galleries are commercial enterprises, after all, and many are already helping artists extend their reach to fashion runways and movie screens. The difference may be a question of perception: What distinguishes commerce from commercialization? As the gallerist Barbara Gladstone, who has worked with Matthew Barney on almost all of his films, told me, “An artist has to have complete freedom.” That, she believes, will be the test for UTA. “It remains to be seen if they will succeed,” she said. “There’s a quote from de Kooning: ‘The important thing about art is that it’s useless.’ ”
In July, over lunch catered by La Scala in a conference room at UTA’s Beverly Hills headquarters, Roth said, “People keep asking me about sneakers, about artists designing sneakers. But we need to think on a grand scale.” Art world gossip, meanwhile, had Roth’s former legal clients, the artists Sam Falls and Sterling Ruby, reading scripts, but when pressed for specifics, Roth pleaded the fifth: “I’m a lawyer. I pride myself on discretion.”
Still, given UTA’s core clientele, movies are an inevitable part of Roth’s strategy. Hollywood has placed artists in the director’s chair with mixed results. In the ’90s, feature films by Robert Longo, David Salle, and Cindy Sherman all tanked at the box office. More recently, though, Julian Schnabel was nominated for an Academy Award for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And 12 Years a Slave—which won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best picture—earned Steve McQueen a nod for best director. By September, UTA Fine Arts had revealed two film projects, both of them documentaries: Maura Axelrod’s study of the prankster-sculptor Maurizio Cattelan, and an absurdist quest for a quite possibly fictional sculpture by Ed Ruscha, made by Pierre Bismuth, a French conceptual artist best known for co-writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
On the first floor of UTA, just beyond the reception desk, hangs a photograph of the Kuwait Stock Exchange, by Andreas Gursky. It’s a witty choice for a company that deals in talent as a commodity, and a bit chilling for the same reason. The picture is owned by the agency’s CEO, Jeremy Zimmer. Works from his impressive collection of contemporary art (Ruscha, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Pae White) are installed throughout the building. Conference rooms are named for the art that hangs near them, as in “meet you in Crewdson in five.” Zimmer sits on the board of the Hammer Museum, as does UTA director and cofounder Peter Benedek. But an agency doesn’t expand its business based on philanthropy.
Recently, the European Fine Art Foundation, which operates the gold standard of art fairs in Maastricht, in the Netherlands, published a report stating that sales in the global art market in 2014 had exceeded $57 billion. Sitting in his large sunlit office, below a photograph of himself with President Obama, and opposite a pair of Robert Mapplethorpe prints, Zimmer, who has a clock’s ticking, no-nonsense air, said, “There has to be an opportunity here, but a lot of the ideas won’t be actionable,” putting a hard-nosed spin on Andy Warhol’s infamous adage “Good business is the best art.”
In Roth’s office hangs a large self-portrait by the art-market darling Alex Israel (whose next project is a feature-length film) and a small abstract canvas by Billy Al Bengston (“a hero of mine since I was kid,” Roth said). On his desk sits a vintage Asprey sign that reads, it can be done. It belonged to Roth’s grandfather, an early proponent of the self-service gas station. That business model—a wildly lucrative concept that was considered reckless at first—seems as relevant to Roth’s new venture as the fact that his father, Steven F. Roth, worked for UTA’s rival, Creative Artists Agency.
Steven F. Roth is on the boards of LACMA and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where Joshua and his wife, Sonya, who met at Loyola Law School, recently started a patron group, aimed at what he calls “a critical mass of future philanthropists.” This fall, Sonya, a former state deputy attorney general, was named Christie’s managing director for Southern California. The couple live with their two young daughters in a 100-year-old house in Hancock Park that’s filled with work by local artists like Paul McCarthy, Jason Rhoades, and Sam Durant.
The small team Roth has put together at UTA has substantial art world cred. Lawyer Lesley Silverman, Roth’s project coordinator, is the sister of the San Francisco gallerist Jessica Silverman and the granddaughter of Gilbert and Lila Silverman, whose collection of Fluxus art, now part of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is considered the best in the world. And Lauri Firstenberg, who was Roth’s first curatorial adviser, has a Ph.D. in the history of art and architecture from Harvard and is the founder of the alternative space LAXART.
In an era when Jeff Koons’s rabbit balloon floats behind Shrek in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Louis Vuitton sells ready-to-wear designed by Yayoi Kusama, Roth’s goal “to extend the reach of art beyond the museum wall” is already a reality. UTA may be taking the biggest gamble on artists, but it certainly isn’t the first agency to enter the game. William Morris Endeavor represents the Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami (who also has collaborated with Louis Vuitton, on a series of wildly popular handbags) as well as the street artist Shepard Fairey. And CAA has long worked with McQueen and Schnabel.
“The contemporary model of an artist’s agent is revealing itself,” Andrea Crane, a former director at Gagosian Gallery, told me recently. In addition to acting as a private art dealer, she is the agent of the painter Cecily Brown. (In September, Crane said she was in negotiations to represent several other artists.) With more than 20 years of experience as a gallery liaison working closely with museums—“artists are longing for institutional support,” Crane said—she is a bit skeptical of a Hollywood agency jumping on the bandwagon. In fact, in an art market so complicated that its specifics have sub-specificities, Crane prefers to think of herself as a consigliere, which is how the The Wall Street Journal described Roth in 2014, when he was heading the art-law department at the powerhouse L.A. firm Glaser Weil, where his clients included artists (Mark Grotjahn, the aforementioned Ruby and Falls) and galleries (Regen Projects, Andrea Rosen). When Zimmer first encountered Roth at a meeting, he recognized a rare balance of skills. “There are two elements: You have to know the art business, and you have to be able to swim in the agency ecosystem,” he told me. “After Josh left the room with his client, I said, ‘He’s the guy.’ ”
By early autumn, brand-related deals were in place for a few artists who skewed more commercial than fine, like the tattooist-turned-painter Scott Campbell. Far more interesting was the news that Roth had signed the feminist sculptor Judy Chicago, the sculptor and ceramist Peter Shire, and Bengston. All three are older than 60 and cult figures to other artists but under the market-besotted radar. In particular, there was interest from an Emmy Award–winning show runner in Chicago’s autobiography. Roth was clearly delighted: “Judy is academically celebrated, but women have had a harder time accessing power structures.”
Still, what’s Hollywood without power players? By December, UTA Fine Art was throwing a party at the Basel Art Fair in Miami for Francesco Vezzoli, best-known for wrangling famous collaborators (Lady Gaga, Catherine Deneuve). The agency had also signed the post-conceptualist darling Rob Pruitt and the unsinkable Salle (with an eye toward licensing, not directing). Dennis Hopper’s art trust was on board for branded products and a possible biopic. Perhaps the most surprising client was the auction-house player Simon de Pury, betting that his memoir would translate to the big or small screen. Will Roth help a radical feminist and an art auctioneer cross over to the mainstream? That depends. As Kanye West put it at LACMA, “People in this town only see one color: green.”Follow Us:
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