Last weekend in Manhattan, an eclectic international crowd of 2,000 poured into upscale auction house and gallery Phillips de Pury & Company for the opening of Richard Hambleton: A Retrospective. The three-day show featured 50 works by the pioneering street artist, from 1982 to present. Presented in collaboration with Giorgio Armani, the “pop-up” gallery was the latest of those put together by Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida.
Working with just a few artists (such as Los Angeles graffiti artist RETNA, French painter Nicolas Pol and Ivory Coast ex-pat Ouattara Watts), the international duo function as curators, dealers, managers and party-throwers. Since their first show in 2009, their openings around the globe have become can’t-miss events for uptown collectors and downtown skateboarders alike. Rocking nice tans and good hair, the friends turned business partners are part of a trend making quality contemporary art more accessible—and more fun.
“We create a very exciting atmosphere and that’s what people come back for,” says Restoin Roitfeld, the 26-year-old son of former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld. “We’re making it accessible to a larger audience. The art world can seem closed, people don’t feel welcome so they don’t give themselves a chance to learn about art and go to galleries. We try and make it more fun and less intimidating while still keeping a very high level of presentation.”
Part of that appeal is the mixed crowd. True, one must be somehow invited but, “we have all genres of people from politicians, musicians, business leaders, actors and actresses to skateboarders and pro surfers,” says the Australian-born Valmorbida, 31, crediting galleries like Gagosian and famed English artist Damien Hirst for a “ripple effect” that’s made high-end art more accessible.
“It’s good to bring people out of their comfortable environments sometimes,” Restoin Roitfeld adds about each opening’s mixed bag of revelers and varied locations. “It put them in an awkward situation but you also create something that can be more human.”
Their formula seems to be working. The Hambleton show also exhibited in Milan, Cannes, London, and at the Moscow State Museum of Modern Art. They’ve also done shows in Los Angeles and Florence, as well as Australia, with upcoming events planned for Hong Kong and Sao Paulo. Sales, reportedly, have been great—the New York Hambleton show sold out.
“We’re a global art brand, which has never been done before,” said Valmorbida, explaining that they do everything from managing an artist’s career to curating, sales and international press. Their partners have included galleries, museums and sponsors including Bombardier Aerospace, Giorgio Armani and RVCA. The pair’s decision to work with an artist is based in part on chemistry and instinct. “We basically want to get one amazing artist a year and focus on him or her until they’re on top of the art world. The hardest thing is finding the artist, it has to be, ‘Oh my God, we know we’ve found it.’ Another task is getting them on board, then dealing with the artist six or seven months before the show, getting art out of them, getting them to release it…”
“When you start in this business, you don’t have a line of artists at your door, you have to prove yourself,” said Restoin Roitfeld, who studied film in university in L.A. “So when Andy and I started it was about relationships and connections and whoever we knew in our group of friends and thought we could do something with. Things built up… if you want things to happen you have to make them happen for yourself.”
Next up is a February 2012 New York show for Ouattara Watts, who Restoin Roitfeld says has been living in New York since the 1980s. “[Jean-Michel] Basquiat found Watts when Watts was going to school in Paris at [l'École Nationale Supérieure des] Beaux-Arts and asked him to come to New York… We were introduced to Watts a few months ago and we knew he’s the one.”