United Talent Agency expands fine arts division

With the appointment of a new creative director, the firm looks to work with more artists and fund ambitious projects

This fall, the United Talent Agency expanded its fine arts division with more artists, partnerships and a new creative director in Allese Thomson, a former associate editor at Artforum. As the art world increasingly develops collaborations with the worlds of film and design, the agency’s move signals a more ambitious approach to representation.

“While I was at Artforum, I interviewed a lot of artists that wanted to work with cutting-edge technologies that were cost prohibitive for galleries,” Thomson said. “One of the things I hope to do at UTA is partner artists and engineers along the lines of the Experiments in Art and Technology non-profit of the 1960s, which paired Bell labs scientists with Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Tinguely. I’ve already spoken with Rirkrit Tiravanija, Rashid Johnson, Anicka Yi and Philippe Parreno, whose practices all move fluidly between different industries and could infiltrate popular culture in subversive and meaningful ways.” Joshua Roth, the Hollywood talent scion who leads the fine arts division, has also recently signed Judy Chicago, Isaac Julien, and Billy Al Bengston.

She emphasized, however, that the agency’s expansion does not mean it will compete with galleries. UTA is better suited to negotiate “heavy, esoteric law”, such as the rights and financing of a sculpture for a new building. “Projects outside the gallery could generate substantial revenue right now, but they don’t because there’s nobody negotiating between major corporations and artists, there has to be someone in the middle to make that case,” Thomson said. “It’s indicative of a problem that Marina Abramović has to go to Kickstarter to fund a project.”

Thomson added that the agency hopes to be a resource to dealers by helping to produce projects outside of the gallery, which might stop artists from defecting to larger galleries when their careers and ambitions grow. For example, in the case of artists needing better technology, she hopes to help through existing relationships with technology giants like Sony, Samsung, Apple, Pixar and Nasa.

Though the work of talent agencies is fundamentally different from that of galleries, dealers remain naturally protective of their relationships with artists.  

“The recent trend of talent agencies working with artists demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the vital and sustained relationship between art dealers and artists,” said Adam Sheffer, the president of the Art Dealers Association of America and partner at Cheim & Read. “Dealers nurture emerging and established artists throughout their careers and bring distinct knowledge of both the art market and art history that is essential to support artists over time.”

UTA's moves stand in contrast with the other two major talent agencies, Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Endeavor. The latter works with the artists Tom Sachs and Takashi Murakami, mostly to help translate their work to the screen. It gained a slew of new artists through its acquisition last year of the sports and event management company IMG, which has Art + Commerce subsidiary, among them Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Jack Pierson, Larry Fink, Peter Beard, and Laurie Simmons. Most of that representation involves commercial licensing of photography. Creative Artists represents Daniel Arsham, Rem Koolhaas, Kim Gordon, Harmony Korine, and Steve McQueen, though much of that work, again, involves movies. The agent Thao Nguyen said the company did, however, recently negotiate a collaboration between John Baldessari, Samsung and their client Visionaire.

With Thomson’s appointment, UTA hopes to fund actual works of art, or more substantive commercial projects. “Just because something operates within the realm of commerce doesn’t mean it has to be commercial,” Thomson’s said. “If you’re able to preserve the integrity of a work of art within a commercial sphere you can have something incredibly radical and powerful.