Allen Lures Tech Billionaires to Seattle With Art Fair

Paul Allen
Billionaire Paul Allen. Photographer: Beatrice de Gea/Vulcan Inc. via Bloomberg

Billionaire Paul Allen wants to bring Venice and Miami art world prestige to Seattle -- along with deep-pocketed technology entrepreneurs.

Allen’s investment company Vulcan Inc. is co-producing the Seattle Art Fair, a four-day show with an estimated $250 million of contemporary art on offer that starts Thursday. It’s the only such fair in the Pacific Northwest, a region that has seen an explosion in private wealth as valuations of tech companies surged.

“I’ve been going to the Venice Biennale for at least a decade and always enjoy the stimulation of seeing the work of new and up-and-coming artists,” Allen, who co-founded Microsoft Corp. with Bill Gates, said in a telephone interview. “In 2013 I started thinking, ‘what’s keeping us from doing this in Seattle?’”

With the backing of Allen, a top U.S. collector who owns works by Claude Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe and J.M.W. Turner, the fair has signed up some of the largest galleries that are looking for new clients among the region’s tech billionaires and startup entrepreneurs. A Vulcan affiliate operates the venue where the event will be held, the exhibition hall at CenturyLink Field, the stadium that’s home to the Seattle Seahawks football team (which Allen owns).

‘Pent-Up Desire’

The Seattle fair is marketed as a hybrid commercial trade show with biennale-like citywide installations and onsite projects. The 60 exhibitors include top dealers such as Gagosian Gallery, David Zwirner and Pace. They are joined by local galleries and dealers from Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul. Leeza Ahmady, director of New York’s Asian Contemporary Art Week, is producing an interactive exhibition exploring the Pacific Rim through video, sound, installation, and digital technology.

“There’s a lot of pent-up desire for this fair in the larger Pacific Northwest,” said Greg Kucera, whose Seattle gallery is an exhibitor. “There’s a lot of wealth in Seattle. There isn’t an art fair of this scale west of Chicago and north of San Francisco.”

Seattle is home to collectors including former Microsoft executive Jon Shirley and International Software Corp. founder Charles Simonyi, said Allen, whose $17.1 billion net worth ranks him 48th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Collectors in the region include Jeffrey Brotman, founder of Costco Wholesale Corp. and Howard Schultz, founder and chief executive officer of Starbucks Corp.

New Relationships

About 15,000 people are expected to attend the Seattle show, organizers said. Dealers said they hope to see the key art buyers from Vancouver, Oregon and northern California.

“We are looking to develop new relationships,” said James Cohan, whose Manhattan-based gallery was among the first blue-chip spaces to sign up. “If we meet five to six people, new collectors or would-be collectors, it would be a big victory.”

While there’s nothing stopping a billionaire from launching his own art fair, expanding from its regional confines is a difficult task.

“You don’t build a world-class art fair overnight,” said Michael Plummer, a principal at advisory firm Artvest Partners in New York that owns Spring Masters art fair. “It requires operating losses in the first years. It requires dealers do well and sell art.”

New Art

Art Basel, with editions in Miami, Hong Kong and Switzerland, is the global market’s main trade gathering. Its 46th edition in Switzerland in June featured $3.4 billion of art and lured 98,000 people. Art Basel Miami Beach, which takes place each December, is the largest contemporary art fair in the U.S. with 267 participating galleries that paid as much as $90,000 for a booth.

In Seattle, booths cost $5,200 to $15,600. Allen said his goal is “to bring vibrant, exciting new art” to the city, citing Art Basel Miami Beach as an example.

“Maybe next year we’ll start breaking even,” he said in the interview.

The fair’s co-producer is Art Market Productions, based in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The company, which runs seven fairs including Texas Contemporary and Art Market Hamptons, was started six years ago by Max Fishko, 32, and Jeffrey Wainhause, 44.

$4,000 Shovel

Kucera’s gallery will offer a $4,000 snow shovel by local artist Buster Simpson as well as a $50,000 collaged print by William Kentridge, who had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010.

James Cohan Gallery is bringing works ranging from $12,000 drawings by Japanese artist Tabaimo to Fred Tomaselli’s paintings priced at $200,000 to $500,000.

While Allen’s own collection includes Old Masters, Impressionists and postwar artists, his current focus is contemporary art. He said he bought a metal tapestry by El Anatsui after seeing the Ghanaian artist’s work at the Venice Biennale in 2007.

“He’s got a great team of curators who manage his collection and they are the ones we see at all the fairs,” Cohan said. “They bring things to him.”

On Oct. 10, 40 landscapes from Allen’s collection will go on a traveling exhibition, starting at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon and ending at the Seattle Art Museum in early 2017. “Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection” includes pieces by Vincent Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and Gustav Klimt.

“To live with these pieces of art is truly amazing,” Allen said. “I feel that you should share some of the works to give the public a chance to see them.”

Good Investment

Buying art turned out to be “a very, very good investment for me,” Allen said. “I didn’t go into it thinking this way. I thought some of the prices were very substantial when I bought them. But the market has been on such a tear” that their value increased even more than anticipated.

In 2014, Allen sold one of his Mark Rothko paintings at auction for $56.2 million. The work was acquired for $34.2 million in 2007, also at auction. Allen said he sells in order to purchase another artwork. He declined to say what he bought with the Rothko proceeds.

“In today’s market, things are very fully priced,” he said. “You have to be judicious to make sure what you are buying are very high quality works.”

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