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The Art World Loves to Hate Him. He’s Building an Empire Anyway

The Art World Loves to Hate Him. He’s Building an Empire Anyway

For years, dealer Stefan Simchowitz has been treated as a pariah by the establishment’s upper echelons. That’s not stopping him from building a vast art machine.

Art dealer Stefan Simchowitz has long been treated as persona non grata by the art world’s most important galleries and tastemakers. But you wouldn’t know it while wandering around the 11,000-square-foot Los Angeles warehouses where he stores his collection, one of the biggest private troves in the world.

Wrapped paintings and sculptures are wedged, floor-to-ceiling, along aisles that stretch the length of a grocery store. One wall contains plastic-tile tapestries by Serge Attukwei Clottey, a Ghanaian artist whose works were included in recent high-profile exhibitions in Venice and Saudi Arabia. In a modern-day Medici arrangement for which he’s become known, Simchowitz pays Clottey at least $15,000 a month, which covers supplies and the salaries for the artist’s 23-person staff. “Him, I will never drop,” Simchowitz says. 

On another wall is Julian Pace’s massive homage to Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. “When I met Julian, he was a bartender trying to paint in his bedroom,” says Simchowitz. He currently pays for Pace to paint full-time in one of five airy studios the dealer leases downtown. 

Simchowitz has to twist to squeeze through a narrow space created by two wall-size canvases jutting out. “This isn’t even my largest warehouse,” he says, grinning.

The origin story behind Simchowitz’s 25,000-strong collection is a notorious one. Instead of collecting from galleries like ordinary buyers, he reaches out to unknown artists directly, offering to buy or finance entire bodies of work, some of which he tends to resell to newcomer collectors. The art world decries this method as crass. Especially distressing to top artists and galleries is the way some of these buyers—athletes, actors, poker players—later flip their purchases at auction for tidy profits, like real estate. Such speculative moves are frowned upon in art circles as they can push up a young artist’s prices unsustainably high, leading to career flameouts. 

Many of the artists Simchowitz championed years ago—among them vaunted stars like Sterling Ruby and Jon Rafman—no longer work with him. Power-broker galleries refuse to sell art to him. In 2014, critic Jerry Saltz described Simchowitz as a Sith Lord, a reference to Star Wars’ darker forces. 

A few years ago, artist Marc Horowitz says he felt compelled to break his financial ties with Simchowitz in part because collectors and dealers kept telling him that accepting Simchowitz’s help was hurting his career. “People said I needed the Stefan to wash off,” Horowitz says. 

Simchowitz has always denied operating as a market speculator, but he’s become an art-world pariah, anyway.

“You’re not supposed to make money from art,” Simchowitz says, his voice laced with a South African lilt. Standing in that warehouse dressed in a tall straw hat, loose linens and fringed moccasins, he looks more like a guest on The White Lotus than an art tycoon in exile. Few art insiders today know the extent of his ongoing art-world ambitions, some of which he’s only now ready to divulge. “You’re supposed to sell companies and use the money to just buy art, but that never made sense to me.” 

Simchowitz was born in Johannesburg in 1970, the son of industrialist Manfred Simchowitz and artist Shirley Sacks, who divorced when he was 6. As a boy, he collected stamps, particularly “stamps with mistakes in them,” he says, because flukes are considered more valuable. 

In 1992 he graduated from Stanford with a degree in economics and moved to New York to manage a wealth fund. He produced around a dozen movies (including 2000’s Requiem for a Dream) and later helped create a celebrity- and sport-photo syndication agency, WireImage, that sold to Getty Images for $200 million in 2007.

While in New York, Simchowitz started popping into SoHo galleries. He gravitated toward pieces that dealers used to advertise shows because he assumed such “cover art” might hold greater significance to the market later, he says. He bought early examples by Tauba Auerbach, now a museum favorite, and Sterling Ruby’s first spray-painted painting. 

Eventually, he pivoted to buying art full time. He started working directly with artists, helping them produce editioned sculptures like Jonathan Monk’s series of wilted, mirrored bunny sculptures—a riff on Jeff Koons’s famed “Rabbit.” He found manufacturers in China who could make anything, he says. Around the same time, he helped launch a biennial in Portugal.

Galleries bristled at his desire to work directly with their artists. Over time, he grew just as weary of dealers and artists not paying him back for those production costs in China. “It was a bad business,” he says.

He grew more disillusioned with what he saw as the establishment’s red tape and ineffectual snootiness. Simchowitz’s goal became to find obscure artists and to help them find fame, but when their works still hovered below $5,000 apiece.

He bought—a lot, and was soon faced with the question of what to do with his “albatross,” as he calls it. Five years ago, he met Brian Ludlow, a Los Angeles lawyer who had recently started an art-rental service by borrowing friends’ art to stage luxury real estate listings. They formed a partnership. “Stefan had accumulated a lot of art,” Ludlow says, “and I’d accumulated a lot of blank walls.” 

The men combed through their Hollywood, art and real estate connections. Instead of companies spending millions to amass prize-worthy collections as Deutsche Bank or UBS famously did, would anyone prefer to rent a collection overnight? The market replied: Yes. Last year, RCA Records sent its senior vice president of A&R and operations, Adonis Sutherlin, to pick out several dozen works to decorate its Los Angeles studio. Pieces include Cameron Platter’s oversize cookie painting and Zachary Armstrong’s giant cow. “Like Stefan, it’s good to be ballsy,” Sutherlin says. 

At the company, called Creative Art Partners, less than 5 percent of rentals convert into art sales, though Ludlow said singer John Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, recently bought several leased pieces for their new home. In any given week, Ludlow says 500 leased works are in transit throughout the U.S., with borrowers able to specify if they want works by women or artists of color or with other qualifiers like size, style and color palette.

Creative Art Partners, now a subsidiary of Simchowitz’s parent company Simcor, is leasing at least 3,500 works to over 180 locations, including Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and private-member social club Zero Bond. Each pays monthly fees that could range from $750 to $25,000 depending on the number of works rented. With 45 employees, its art-rental sales topped $10 million last year, up 35 percent from the year before, Simchowitz says. He hopes to grow the business until he’s lending out nearly his entire collection. 

While dealers and collectors lend select trophies to museums, it’s almost unheard of to lend everything. By making the entirety available, Simchowitz is amortizing his purchases in a way few buyers have attempted. He also gets access to real-time data about “what pieces resonate well,” he says, which informs his ongoing purchases. 

“No one is attempting anything like Stefan today,” says Jeffrey Deitch, a dealer and former director of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “He’s constructing an art empire of his own.”

Simchowitz said repositioning his art as a service rather than as an asset means each piece is worth keeping even if it doesn’t appreciate in value. An unsalable piece can still be rented out.

Most of the world’s private collections sit unseen in storage, with few cost-offsetting alternatives, according to former auction executive Amy Cappellazzo. “There’s no handbook for how to operate in this market,” she says. “Stefan is making our systems more efficient and even more democratic.”

Simchowitz has more bohemian ambitions, too—as evidenced by the Red Barns Project, the $5 million compound he’s building in Pasadena, California. Petra Cortright, one of his earliest artist finds, pointed out a crumbling 1890 Victorian farmhouse for sale a few years ago, and Simchowitz bought the property that same day.

“Do you know why it has a pool? Petra wanted one,” he says, pulling onto the grounds. The estate’s main house is now covered in cedar shakes, with a red roof. The surrounding grounds are dotted with smaller outbuildings that will house a kiln and pottery studio, plus additional living spaces for visiting artists. He intends to host artists and think-tank events there, such as lectures on cybersecurity and space exploration. 

For now, he plans to keep holding his Shabbat dinners at his home in Beverly Hills. Anyone who spends any time with Simchowitz quickly learns that this weekly religious observance–turned–art party has come to embody the art community he wants to cultivate. These dinners bring together relatives, artists, staff, collectors and clients—a more eclectic art haven, in his eyes, than the one that cast him out.

Among the people at his dinners are the young talent he continually adds to his orbit. These include Lily Ramírez, an artist from South Central Los Angeles who works out of one of his downtown studio spaces. Ramírez, who paints squiggly abstracts, says she recently bought a car with proceeds from Simchowitz’s sales of her work. He also pays for her studio and materials.

“I admire a fellow hustler, and when someone hands you an opportunity, you should take it,” Ramírez says. 

Cortright, Simchowitz’s star artist ever since he messaged her on Facebook in 2011, says she’s grateful for his largesse over the years. In 2015, he even helped her get a mortgage for a $1.5 million home in Altadena, California, by arranging a bulk sale of her work, including a piece he sold to her mortgage broker.

“Looking back, it’s not normal, but it worked,” she says. 

Even her husband, Marc Horowitz, the artist who asked Simchowitz to stop representing him a few years ago, says he’s since patched up his personal friendship with the dealer. “With Stefan, it’s always complicated,” he says. “Like family.”

It’s unclear whether others in the art world will let Simchowitz back in as readily. Dealer Tim Blum says he high-fives Simchowitz when they see each other, but Blum won’t sell him anything from his own gallery, Blum & Poe, because he regards Simchowitz as a rival dealer. Blum calls Simchowitz’s financing arrangements with young artists “creepy,” adding that he worries that unknown artists could wind up feeling overly beholden. “Thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach,” Blum says.

Simchowitz says by now he’s used to having his intentions misread. He knows he can come off brash. It stings whenever artists brush him off. Still, he’s determined to stay the course. “I’m one of the bad guys who ends up good,” he says, driving up to the unassuming Beverly Hills bungalow that still doubles as his office. “Maybe I started out as a devil, but it’s better to do that and end up an angel than the other way around, right?”

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