The Armory Show’s Irene Kim on what wealthy collectors really want
To casinos they’re ‘whales’, high spending gamblers who win and lose more than anyone else at the tables. Casinos lure them with ultra luxury hotel suites, private jet travel, generous credit lines and whatever else they may desire during their stay — including sex and drugs. And yet whales don’t provide a large proportion of the gambling industry’s profits. In Nevada, about 50 percent of revenues come from slot machines.
At art fairs, big spenders are called VIPs, and they’re a very different market. The list of VIPs is much longer than the list of whales, and they constitute a much bigger proportion of revenues. According to Irene Kim, Director of VIP relations for The Armory Show, when it comes to art sales, “I firmly believe 99 percent would come from existing VIPs.”
That’s because everyone who’s anyone is on the VIP list; 12-14,000 of them attend the event each year from an even longer list of invitees. Many are collectors nominated by galleries participating in the fair, or by museums, who refer their trustees and top donors, including members of acquisitions committees.
The number of VIPs also includes plus ones, press and curators, people who may not collect art at all.
“VIPs represent the entire ecosystem of the art world, embracing anyone who plays an important role,” Kim says. “I worked at Sotheby’s before and that’s a big difference. At an auction house, a VIP is someone who buys at a certain level. It’s transaction-based only, but at an art fair everybody’s important.”
Unlike casinos, The Armory Show doesn’t provide VIPs with complimentary flights and hotels. “We only fly journalists in,” Kim says. “We’re in New York; we’re not in a nobody-can-reach town.”
“Art Dubai does [fly collectors in, put them up, offer them a car service and a free dinner] but they’re owned by a hotel group. They do that because collectors feel obligated to buy and it pays off. That expense maximum is 5-10,000 but the artworks that they buy are from 100,000 dollars at least. Investment-wise there’s enough ROI to do that. The reason we don’t do that is a lot of people already have homes in New York. It’s not Dubai or maastricht. They have friends who have homes here and they’re very familiar with New York. We don’t have to do so much to attract people.”
Home to many of the world’s best museums, galleries and private collections, The Armory also uses its access to the New York City art world to entice VIPs — arranging curated tours and private visits.
One of the challenges Kim does have is maintaining the list’s population. “Not everyone’s buying all the time. Maybe one’s wealth is not the same or a major collector has passed away — that happens all the time.”
Are The Armory’s collectors really that old?
“A lot of them are old! I think the young collectors are usually in their thirties and forties. They get quite seasoned in their fifties, and then when they’re really established with a major collection that’s in their sixties and seventies. How can you amass a really big collection if you haven’t been collecting for 30-40 years. It takes time. It’s relationships, it’s knowledge, it’s experience. It’s impossible for a thirty year old to have a really great collection unless you’ve inherited everything from your father or whoever.”
(Despite the mirrored-surface stool in my hotel room — comped by The Armory — it doesn’t make much sense to treat collectors in their seventies to cocaine. And, anyway, Kim says, Koreans like her aren’t really exposed to drugs. She bought one client some mirrored coasters with stripes on that she imagined to be “Fontana inspired”. Her colleagues revealed the real purpose of them and she was astonished. According to Kim, Fair director Ben Genocchio said, “‘Irene! You had no idea, sweetie?’ And I was like no. I can never forget the shock on his face.”)
The problem with offering VIPs comps to come to the fair is that wealthy collectors can easily afford to pay their way if they want to. Money doesn't much move them. But there is something much more important to them than a free flight.
The contemporary art market primarily deals in unique objects, or objects with just a few editions. What’s crucial to collectors is access to a very limited supply of works. It’s here that The Armory really differentiates between its VIPs, issuing VIP cards with different entry hours on the VIP preview day according to their purchasing power. The most coveted is the 12pm time slot, but for some collectors, even that’s not early enough.
“They want to come the day before the preview day,” Kim says. “It’s not so common, but some collectors want to see the works before anyone else.”
Unfortunately for the art world’s whales, according to Kim, “We don’t do that for anybody.”
- Article by Sam Gaskin