Is the Future of Fine Art in Hollywood's Hands?

Josh Roth of United Talent Agency wants to offer artists the best business insight of both Hollywood and the white cube world, and his team at UTA's relatively-fresh fine arts division might shake up any boundaries between the two.

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Sep 18 2016, 1:30pm

Image by Alex Reyes

We might consider both Wes Anderson and Rashid Johnson artists, but, traditionally, the business dealings of a Hollywood director is handled by a melange of agents and managers, whereas the career of a fine artist like Johnson is often managed by gallerists, dealers, and collectors. Josh Roth of United Talent Agency (UTA), however, wants to offer creatives the best business insight of both Hollywood and the white cube world, and his team at UTA's relatively-fresh fine arts division might shake up any boundaries between the two.

Essentially Roth, who previously worked as an art lawyer and is an avid collector himself, has been tasked to build a team at UTA that can offer fine artists the resources and network to get involved with projects both within Hollywood and outside it. And no, this doesn't mean we should expect Kusama-branded Starbucks cups, or Beats by Koons anytime soon.

To start, UTA—known for representing Hollywood talent like Johnny Depp and Lena Dunham—has signed a handful of artists such as Rashid Johnson, Ai Wei Wei, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and Judy Chicago. Roth and company can help pair them with, say, a show runner if they'd like to adapt something into a movie or TV show. Or the agency could feasibly assist with projects in the vein of Jay-Z's "Picasso Baby," a still-surreal blending of creative worlds that involved the rapper, Pace Gallery, Marina Ambramovich, and Salon 94's Jeanne Greenberg. The agency has already helped facilitate the release of Maura Axelrod's recent documentary on Maurizio Cattelan, as well as Pierre Bismuth's film about an Ed Ruscha sculpture, Where Is Rocky II? And on Saturday, September 17, UTA opened its Artists Space, a 4,500-square-foot venue in a former manufacturing plant in downtown LA to exhibit artwork by Larry Clark in the photographer/filmmaker's first California show since 2000. Clark's gallery Luhring Augustine collaborated on the exhibition.

Roth was appointed to head UTA's fine arts branch nearly two years ago, and it's given industry insiders plenty of time to foster paranoia and resentment over the talent agency's possible intrusion within the gallery system. Gallerists like Pace's Arne Glimcher and dealers like Stefan Simchowitz have echoed similar skepticism about UTA's move, and some have even asked what the hell the project is. Others have already called Roth the "Ari Gold of the art world," and claimed "the Hollywoodification of the art world has begun."

Talking to Roth makes the project sound less dramatic, though. Over the phone, he told me about UTA's goals in the art world, and how it could function as a symbiotic resource for artists, gallerists, and whoever else needs to be involved with bringing a project to fruition. If this results in more James Franco installations, so be it.

An untitled photo by Larry Clark that will be exhibited at UTA's Artist Space

VICE: Would you say part of your goal with UTA's fine arts division is to straddle both the art world and the entertainment industry seamlessly?
Josh Roth: Well, I hope it's seamless. We're trying our hardest. We've got a lot of unique stuff planned. Anytime you try to take an existing model that's been around for a really long time and make changes to it, variations to it, and introduce new elements, you get a lot of interesting, weird, good, and bad feedback. The interesting part of the challenge is navigating through that to start to bring these disparate pieces together that I think we all think, and most of the people I've talked to think, belong together.

I'm curious about how UTA's fine artist division is different from how Hollywood has worked with fine artists in the past.
Well, I think it just builds on it. I think people are having a little bit of pause because when you typically enter a gallery, there's this very classical sense that you're seeing a work of art that's been created by an individual artist in his or her studio. I think that the way that fine artists, visual artists, are telling stories now is not as static as that anymore. Of course the classical sense still exists and these artists are painting and making sculptures in traditional ways, but a lot of them are also thinking about these big social issues, and how they can tell stories that extend beyond the status quo of art.

I think if you look at [certain goals] of artists such as Larry Clark or Ai Wei Wei—both who we're working with—they're very similar. Ai Wei Wei's done countless museum shows and gallery shows. He's made incredibly profound objects. But he has within him this desire to tell stories that really provoke us to have these social conversations, and, for him, I think it's a very natural extension to be making a documentary about the immigration crisis that's taking place in the world today. The long story short is people like Ai Wei Wei, people like Larry Clark, they've always been making objects, but for them they branch out past that because their desire to connect with people and spark conversations and show them their points of view can't exist in just one place. We really want to help that and facilitate that [bigger goal].

I think there's a need for someone to help fine artists work within that gray area that doesn't quite fit commercial entertainment or the white-cube gallery world.
Totally. For example, I've been asked about why Pierre Bismuth would need an agency. We worked with him on a movie he directed called Where Is Rocky II? So, A) We can go out and help tell his story to our network of people and relationships in the entertainment business. His film is different in many ways because it deals with an art world subject—an artwork that was made my Ed Ruscha. It's important for us to know what that means, and to be able to go out and tell the story in a correct and engaging way, because as you sit down with people they're like, Well, who is Ed Ruscha? What is Rocky II? I come from a world where I know artists and I know what they do, and so for me to be able to translate their vision and put it into the context of why it should be a film or whatever context is very helpful. I think agents can do that in probably the most effective way. Where we add the value is that we sit down with the film community, the art community, these disparate communities, and we try to corral everybody together, put the right people together, so that the project can end up happening.

An installation shot of UTA's 4,500-square-foot Artist Space

Do you imagine the UTA possibly changing the conversation about how fine art and fine artists could reach a broader audience?
Yeah, but if you think about what an agent is and what the concept of agency means, it's the representation of the individual and how can you fulfill different career directions that they want to pursue. The way to even address this question is does an artist have the desire to have that conversation be changed, or furthered, or altered? You really have to have a client that's got a set of goals that then we sit down and figure out together how we further those goals. So someone who's big in the art world may not even be interested in changing that conversation. He or she may be solely interested in making films that exist within the art world.

What type of artist is the right fit then? Is it someone who, again, straddles multiple worlds?
Well, you know, it's interesting because I think you can't even profile it because you never know what ideas are within somebody and what they want to do to make that happen. I think there are two things that are really important. One is that the art world and the entertainment and media business are powered by good ideas, and I think good ideas can come from anywhere. Good ideas rule the day. But beyond that, I think it's also this commitment that the artists will make within themselves to any given project. Representation of a creative person is a two-way street. I think we view ourselves to be a collaborative agency and that is the only reason that we can be successful for these different people.

How important is star power in terms of the artists you want to collaborate with?
It helps when you do projects with famous people because it's always easy to start a conversation when you say, "Hey, Johnny Depp wants to do x, y, or z." But, you know, we represent people all across the board. Whether it's Lucien Smith, or Ai Wei Wei, or Johnny Depp, or one of our young show runners or show creators... again, when we sit down with a good idea and we think we have an idea that translates, then it's all about going out and trying to find the right buyers for that material. So yes, it helps to have a famous individual. But if you have a great idea, we can find the right people to have a conversation with and see if there's something there. One note on that point, though. I really want to stress to people that an agency being part of the art world is not an either/or proposition. I think it's really a "both" proposition. I think there are incredible galleries in the world that have nurtured careers from the very beginning until now. I mean, if you look at Barbara Gladstone or Marian Goodman—

Jeanne Greenberg's my favorite example.
Yes, Jeanne Greenberg, who we share a client with. We both work with Judy Chicago, and that's a perfect example of a "both" [proposition]. Jeanne is a brilliant art dealer, she's a brilliant career manager for people in the art world, and I think we all agree between Jeanne, Judy, and UTA, that together we are much better than any one of us would be alone.

'Knoxville' by Larry Clark, which will be on view at UTA's Artist Space

For the upcoming Larry Clark exhibition, are you guys outsourcing a gallerist or bringing in a curator to work on the project?
No, we didn't. The genesis of the show is super straightforward and really personally satisfying for me. So basically how this came about was we found an incredible art space that I think was everything that we ever could have asked for in terms of a venue to present work, and have events, and create these dynamic conversations. Then, I went to Luhring Augustine, Clark's gallery in New York, and I explained exactly what I said to you and they facilitated a conversation. He had a great idea for a show, and now it's happening. But it comes from the artist's idea. I can't supplant my judgments to that of a creative person. I think we're just here to facilitate creative people executing their ideas.

And so when we think about the artist space that we have...it's really this venue to bring creative people together. There will be art on the walls. There will be sculptures in the space. But what else can we bring in for future projects? Can we bring in our playwrights to do a one-act play? Can we bring in authors that we work with to do book readings? Can we bring in our musicians to do showcases within the space? How can we curate this dynamic conversation so that people will think and experience creativity in a nuanced way?

Larry Clark's new exhibition will open at the UTA Artist Space on September 17. The venue is located at 670 South Anderson Street in Los Angeles.

Follow Zach on Twitter and visit Alex Reyes's website for more of his design work.

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