Sarah Belden of Sarah Belden Fine Art.
Art consultant Sarah Belden shares her view on the art world from Madrid.
Meet art advisor, curator and dealer Sarah Belden. Sarah’s career can be summed up in one word: bold. While still in her early 30s, Sarah left her job as director at a leading contemporary art gallery in Chelsea, NYC, to move to Berlin and open her own trailblazing gallery, Curators Without Borders — a platform for curatorial experimentation.
To fund her gallery, Sarah secured a financial backer — a major collector from NYC — and consistently curated gallery shows that were both sophisticated and extremely cutting-edge, even by Berlin’s uber-conceptual standards. During this time, Sarah organized exhibitions that included many young artists who have since gone on to critical acclaim.
In one of her more provocative exhibitions, Invisible Invincible, Sarah included a work by Polish artist Agnieszka Kurant — a live parrot that had been trained to say “I am not a bird,” thus questioning his own existence. Kurant was later commissioned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to create The End of Signature, an interactive digital artwork projected onto the museum’s facade, which the Guggenheim ultimately acquired for its permanent collection.
Taking chances on young unknown artists and giving them carte blanche to create new experimental works meant that the gallery’s program was less commodifiable than more traditional white cube galleries. While this made her job as a dealer more challenging, it also cemented Sarah’s reputation in the Berlin art scene as an exciting young curator and gallerist.
At Curators Without Borders, Sarah also exhibited artist Daniel Knorr, who later represented Romania at the 51st Venice Biennale; and two young Canadian artists — Jeremy Shaw and Michel de Broin — who were awarded the prestigious Sobey Art Award and have since shown at major galleries and museums such as the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. In 2008, Sarah curated a live performance entitled Opening, Closing by cross-disciplinarian artist David Levine. Levine has since shown at MoMA in New York and been awarded the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship.
The list goes on — Sarah worked with Turkish artist Nevin Aladag, who has since shown at major institutions such as SFMOMA; Kristen Schiele, whose work was recently acquired by The Whitney Museum; and Jordan Wolfson, the art world’s reigning enfant terrible, now represented by mega-gallery David Zwirner.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Sarah, like many gallerists, had to close her doors and recalibrate her business model. And, like many women juggling family and career, she needed to reconfigure her work-life balance to accommodate motherhood. We sat down with Sarah to find out more about her art world journey, how it started and how it’s going, as well as her advice to young women just starting out in the industry.
A print by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Private collection, San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Sarah Belden Fine Art.
AA: Your career has taken you many places, but it has also allowed you to live in many places. Can you give our readers a brief overview of your journey as an art dealer and advisor thus far?
SB: Well, as you know, I had to close my gallery in Berlin in 2008 after the crash, like so many others. The silver lining in all that, however, was that it allowed me to move to Spain and settle with my husband in Madrid (we had previously been in a long-distance relationship). After he completed his Ph.D., he got an offer in Japan at the University of Okayama and so we moved there in 2011. It was only when my son was able to start nursery school in Japan that I was able to go back to work full time.
At that point, I really felt the urgency to return to the art world. I have always had this need to curate, work creatively with artists, and constantly discover new talent doing studio visits. That's what I love to do. That's my favorite thing.
I also needed to earn a living, of course, and I had all this international experience, so my goal was to leverage my network and parlay all of my past experience into creating a sustainable business model where I could operate from Japan — or anywhere, really. In retrospect, with the pandemic and the new norm of WFH and working remotely, this has actually served me quite well.
I had lived in New York for some time after graduating from NYU, I worked for galleries in Chelsea, worked at Christie's under Amy Cappellazzo in the Post War and Contemporary department, and for major private collectors like Emily and Jerry Spiegel. I had opened my own gallery in Berlin and sold work there, so I had cultivated relationships with collectors from all over Europe, NYC, and elsewhere.
Because my husband is an academic, he has been offered research positions around the world, so I’ve been dragged around like an army brat since we got married. Once my son was in school I decided to launch SBFA — Sarah Belden Fine Art Advisory, a global art advisory service where I could work remotely advising clients around the world.
When I first started selling works through SBFA, everything was word-of-mouth. People were referred to me through friends and colleagues, through my connections back in New York and collectors in Berlin and London and so, over time, I slowly built my art advisory business. I was selling, I found clients, I was buying Warhols, Basquiats and Kusamas and helping people build collections from the ground-up.
As I was trying to grow my business, my family was moving all over the place. After Japan, we went back to Spain, and then we moved to Madison, Wisconsin, then to Torino, Italy and then back to Toronto, where I’m actually from, originally. In Toronto, I had to drop my art advisory, because I was hired to work for Division Gallery, a Canadian gallery with locations in Toronto and Montreal (now Blouin | Division Gallery).
Division Gallery hired me as their international liaison. Basically, my job was to export Canadian artists and help them get on the map, and help the gallery get on the map by extension. So I got the gallery’s artists into the zonamaco art fair in Mexico, the Volta fair in New York, the Dallas art fair, and so on.
I also helped artists like An Te Liu and Wanda Koop secure much-needed representation in the U.S. at Night Gallery and Anat Ebgi in Los Angeles, where I had curated a pop-up show of Canadian artists one summer. But, then my husband was offered a job back in Madrid working for the Reina Sofia Foundation, so we ended up moving back to Spain in 2017.
That's when I relaunched my Art Advisory business SBFA in Madrid with a focus on emerging artists and blue-chip, secondary art market works, which interestingly I have seen a major uptick in interest for since Covid hit. It took a bit of time to shift gears and re-establish my art advisory back in Europe, but so far it’s gone really welI.
SBFA was just featured in Architectural Digest Spain for a collection I put together for a client’s new home in Manhattan. We bought all the works locally here in Madrid while they were on vacation, so it was a great experience for them and I was happy to be able to support the local Spanish art galleries.
At that time my husband and I started to get really interested in cryptocurrencies and the applications of blockchain technology, so I also founded my new company at that time, Unique Multiples, offering editioned works by international artists, and using blockchain technology for authentication, certificates of authenticity and provenance tracking.
I have also been working in an advisory capacity with Artemundi and their most recent art fund— The Guernica V Fund. In this role, I source blue-chip, museum-quality artworks as an asset class for investors. The new fund is aiming for a capital investment commitment of $200 Million and a three-year period to close the fund, so it’s a very dynamic and exciting time right now for new ventures and start-ups within the art market.
Andy Warhol print of Mick Jagger. Private Collection, San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Sarah Belden Fine Art.
AA: In your experience, is art really a solid investment?
SB: Well, from an investor’s perspective: the markets are continually going up and down. Investors are looking for something that's stable — and you know what’s stable? A Picasso. Beyond its emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic value, art has proven to be a real tangible asset that appreciates over time.
A work by Picasso is a stable way to store your wealth. It's also something that can be transported across borders, and it doesn't cost a lot of money to hang it on your wall. It requires less upkeep than, for example, real estate, and typically does not depreciate in value.
Art intrinsically has all of these values that we can utilize as an alternative asset class, and it also offers low volatility as opposed to stocks, which can suffer double-digit losses in one day for example. Art offers investors the opportunity to transfer some liquidity into an asset well-suited to preserving and enhancing wealth in times of extreme uncertainty.
The Guernica V Fund was founded by collector, investor and philanthropist Javier Lumbreras, who started his first fund in 2008, immediately after Lehman Brothers collapsed. That was a time in the art market when it was possible to buy really great, historically significant works of art at a lower price point (they were still millions of dollars of course, but were reduced in price due to the recession and distress sales).
There were certain collectors then, very high net worth individuals, who wanted to deaccession a few things and free up some cash flow. Meanwhile, other investors were looking to use blue-chip art as an asset class because it’s not correlated with the S&P 500. In times of political and economic upheaval, like what we're seeing right now with the pandemic, is actually a very good time to diversify your portfolio and buy art.
Typically an investment portfolio that is diversified with artworks will have 10-20% lower risk than one without art. As we saw in 2008, the S+P 500 collapsed by 37%, whereas the Moses Mei art index only fell by 4.5%.
So the fund acquired these works with the intention to sell these pieces later and waited three to five years to sell. By that time, the market had more liquidity and the fund was able to find buyers and sell the works at the exact right time, utilizing their extensive network and even leveraging geographical arbitrage with currencies to its advantage. So, the inaugural Artemundi Global fund that was launched in 2008 was quite successful and investors saw a 19% return.
Because of Covid, the markets have been very volatile again and so it was the right moment to launch a new fund — that’s the genesis of the Guernica V fund. Funds like Guernica V have quite a high buy-in (Guernica V is $200,000, for example), but if you are not able to invest at that level, there are other options available. You don’t actually have to buy a Picasso to see a decent return — if you have a good eye.
Works by Vik Muniz and Markus Linnenbrinck. Private collection, New York. Photos courtesy of Sarah Belden Fine Art.
AA: Can you give us one example of an artwork you invested in and then sold for a profit?
SB: I actually just sold a Kusama Pumpkin print that I bought in New York when I was a student at NYU. I originally bought it for $3,000 with my credit card because I was broke at the time, struggling to pay off my student loans and cover rent for my apartment in Soho on a gallerina’s salary. It was a small edition, but I just thought, ‘I love this artist, I have to have this work!’
I just sold that print for $38,000. Of course, no one would consider Kusama an emerging artist, but back then her prints and editions were affordable. Now I am seeing small print editions of 150 offered for $60,000 — it's a bit crazy.
I am putting back some of the funds I made investing in art into buying more emerging artists now, which has always been my focus and interest. I’m confident that I can weed out interesting artists when they're younger and I sense they’ll have a good trajectory.
This is also a crucial time to be supporting these young artists and the galleries that are promoting them. For the last year, I have been offering my clients a curated 'Artists to Watch' List, featuring promising young international artists, as well as older artists who may have gone unnoticed, or not received their proper due. I just bought a couple of works I'm very excited about by two up-and-coming artists — Jordan Nassar and Amir Fallah.
AA: On the topic of editions, let’s talk about Unique Multiples, your online limited edition platform.
SB: I had been playing around with the idea of creating a curated edition platform for international artists that I worked with at my gallery in Berlin, as well as artists who I knew from New York. and to offer pieces at a lower price point for younger, burgeoning collectors.
Editions allow these new collectors access to the market at prices below $10,000, for example. So, if they can’t afford a painting or a unique work by a certain artist, then they can buy a print that is under $5,000. That was the premise ... but it was also a way for the artists to bifurcate their own market, so that they could have another revenue stream, selling pieces in a lower price range.
At the time, blockchain had entered the discourse and I was (and still am) very intrigued by how we can use blockchain in the art world. So, I began using blockchain to make certificates of authenticity for all of my editions. I partnered with Verisart, which started very early in the space. A lot of major artists, like Shepard Fairey have used this technology as a way to protect their work, because they are worried about their works being copied, duplicated, fakes getting out there in the market, etc. And so, this gave the artists an opportunity to create their own certificates of authenticity on the blockchain, which then were immutable and could be traced in perpetuity.
So, the idea started there. Every single edition is curated and bespoke, each one originating from a conversation with the artists themselves. The idea was to create a virtual platform, and to be one of the first in this blue ocean of the blockchain space, utilizing this amazing technology specifically within the art market.
With Ethereum and the ERC-721 Non-Fungible Tokens, I also saw a way to make smart contracts in order to create resale rights for artists. And this was an idea that I really loved. Back then, we didn’t really see this being put into real use cases yet, but now with the recent explosion of NFTs we will see more of this in action. I hope it will not only be a new way for artists to protect their digital works, but also create resale rights for themselves, which is incredibly important.
That said, even with all the millennials buying art online now and people buying directly from Instagram and jpegs, I still feel the art world in the traditional sense is incredibly important to support and maintain. Despite the inevitable digital revolution we are currently witnessing, we still very much need the ecosystem that is made up of the artists, gallerists, artist-run spaces, non-profits, art fairs and museums.
These places cannot exist in a virtual vacuum. The art world is still IRL and that's key, as it’s such a social network and so much business is done with collectors in-person at the openings and dinners. And of course, traveling to art fairs and gallery weekends where you can discover new artists through physical channels and in-person conversations with the galleries. We cannot live without that and it will indeed come back eventually. I am sure we are going to see a lot of momentum with the return to IRL art events.
On the topic of the importance of IRL experiences and the galleries themselves — since Unique Multiples was a non-brick and mortar space with an online-only platform, I wanted to partner with a gallery, art fair, institution or non-profit for the launch of each one of my artist’s editions. For my first release with British artist Michael Pybus, I partnered with Jelato Love, a new gallery in Mallorca; then for the release of my first sound piece, After Hours by Canadian conceptual artist Charles Stankievech, I showed his work in the new Sound section at the Artissima art fair in Torino, Italy. More recently, I did a promotion for the Madrid-based, non-profit Inland, founded by artist and ecologist Fernando Garcia Dory, where we offered a boxed set of prints by Spanish artist Antonio Ballestar Moreno, a ‘cheese coin’ by the German provocateur Hito Steyerl, and a terracotta bust of Ivan Illich by the much-loved Mexican sculptor Pedro Reyes.
All of these editions can still be found on my website at UniqueMultiples.com and our Artsy page, but we will also be doing a pop-up in Marbella this summer (COVID restrictions permitting), to promote UM Editions and another current project I curated with Hampton’s-based art advisor Heidi Lee-Komoromi called TogetherApart — so stay tuned for that!
A work by Vik Muniz on the far wall. Private collection, New York. Photo courtesy of Sarah Belden Fine Art.
AA: What is some advice you have for young women starting out in the art world?
SB: It's really a personal journey. Navigating the slippery slope of the art world as a woman has not been easy at all. I would say, stick to your gut. Do what you know and believe in yourself. And, don't take no for an answer. Follow what you see yourself doing — what you ultimately want to do — and don’t be afraid to do things your own way.
Don't get put in a box. Ask yourself: Do I want to be a curator? Do I want to work for a gallery or do I want to write about art? I think that a lot of us women in the art world wear so many hats because we can — because we are so creative, and because we have so much to share. And, because we can do a million things at once like Shiva! We just have that creative energy flowing through us. It's something that we have to explore.