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Painting a Picture of The Business of Art With Randall J. Slavin

How would you describe your path from starting Masterpiece Publishing in 1997 to

starting the Winn Slavin Fine Art Gallery on Rodeo Drive? What impact did your first

attempt to link galleries with fine art have on your understanding of the art world?

It’s been an interesting ride! It was primarily about reinventing the business in response

to a changing market and increasingly dynamic economy. From 1997 to 2016, Masterpiece Publishing functioned strictly as an artist agency and fine art wholesaler – a middleman between artists and retail galleries. That exposed me to many galleries and allowed me to understand their business models, their priorities, and what they were doing well and not so well. I had no intention of opening retail galleries myself. But, as happens when you’re in a particular industry for decades, the market changed. A

combination of inexpensive reproduction techniques, the rise of social media, and the Great Recession bifurcated the art market into fine art and decorative art, almost eliminating the middle market. Instead of selling to the top 5% of income earners, galleries were now selling to the top 1%. I went upmarket while my competitors went downmarket. It was a counter-intuitive move, but Masterpiece survived while most other agencies and wholesalers went out of business or left the market to pursue other opportunities.

What motivated you to transition from wholesale to retail sales about 20 years later

and did this shift impact your approach to art curation and the relationships you built

within the art community?

I realized that successfully marketing fine artists is much like marketing couture fashion.

Brands like Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana succeed at selling products at very high price points because of exclusivity and tight inventory control. Unless you’re buying

aftermarket, when you buy their products, you’re buying directly from the company. That

gives them complete control over pricing and branding.

A similar strategy is necessary for proper marketing of a fine artist if they are to have a

successful life-long career. Art collectors want to know that an artist’s brand will be

protected so that their artwork retains or increases value.

Entering the retail gallery market as Winn Slavin Fine Art was primarily about protecting the artists we represent and the collectors who invest in their work.

How do you navigate the distinct art markets abroad, like in Shanghai and Vietnam,

especially considering the differences in economic structures and cultural perspectives towards art?

Each country I do business in has a distinctive character and unique challenges. The

U.S. accounts for 45% of the global art market and is the most competitive, but it’s also the easiest to do business as it’s a predominately free-market economy. China represents 17% of the global market, but strict controls regarding content and financial matters make it very challenging. Vietnam is a tiny, but rapidly growing, market that sits somewhere in between the other two in terms of ease of doing business. It’s still a tightly controlled economy, but it’s more lassez-faire than China and without overt censorship.

Could you explain the factors that go into pricing a piece of art and how the fine art

industry determines the value of art?

The business side of fine art isn’t that different from other industries. It’s about supply

and demand, margins and mark-ups. On the supply side, it’s important to recognize that

because it’s a creative and handmade product requiring significant skill by a specific person, the supply is inherently limited. Gucci can make as many of a particular handbag as they wish as they can significantly scale production. A painter, however, can only produce a specific number of paintings during his lifetime, and it isn’t possible to scale up production without sacrificing quality and the artist’s reputation.

The secondary market, particularly at auction, can get extreme. An example is “Salvator

Mundi,” the painting accredited to Leonard DaVinci that sold in 2017 for $450 million. Note

that the price is 2.5 times as much as any other painting at auction, either before or since.

It’s an extreme example of demand outstripping supply. There are roughly 20 paintings by DaVinci that are still in existence. “Salvator Mundi” is the only DaVinci painting a museum or similar institution doesn’t own. So, the bidders who brought the price up knew it would be their only chance to own a DaVinci.

With galleries in various markets, how does Winn Slavin Fine Art Gallery

approach the selection of art for each location? What considerations are taken

into account when curating a collection that resonates with the local audience

and the topic of exclusivity?

Not every artist works in every market. Artistic taste in the U.S. is quite broad, and

quality work of virtually any style or media can succeed. In China, there is appreciation for

realism, significant resistance to abstract art, and zero tolerance for politically-sensitive

subjects. Vietnam, because it was a French colony until 1945, has a taste for artistic styles

reminiscent of European Modern Masters, including Impressionism, Surrealism, and Art


As WS Productions’ CEO, you executive produced the motion picture short

“Creation.” What stories or messages do you want to tell through cinematic artistic

expressions, and how does your work in film production relate to your work in the art


In essence, “Creation” is an artwork by Sir Daniel Winn in an alternate medium. It’s an

arthouse film that is beautiful, transformative, and communicative of Winn’s “Existential

Surrealism” artistic philosophy. As such, it informs and is informed by all the paintings and

sculptures he has created. It’s entirely related to the artist and his oeuvre, which

Masterpiece Publishing and Winn Slavin Fine Art exclusively represent.

Could you tell us a personal story about a time you had a particularly memorable

experience with an artwork that stayed with you? What was it about that particular

piece that struck such a deep chord?

The first time I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I discovered a

monumental marble sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux titled “Ugolino and His Sons.”

The sculpture is a sublimely beautiful rendering of a horrific subject – the politically

motivated imprisonment and starvation of an aristocrat along with his male heirs.

Recounted in Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” the story speaks to persecution, sacrifice, and the

love an innocent child has for their parents. Carpeaux’s execution of the sculpture,

particularly Ugolino’s tortured countenance, brought the story to life for me. It gave me new insight into my own childhood experience of poverty.

It can be difficult to juggle the demands of being a philanthropist, fine art dealer, and

business owner. How do you find a balance between your professional and personal


Like many entrepreneurs, I don’t look at what I do as work. Everything I do is

interrelated, so it isn’t necessary to distinguish between the various roles or between my

personal and professional life.

Lastly, looking back at your journey in the art world, are there any achievements that

are you most proud of, professionally or personally and how did it shape your approach to future endeavors?

There have been many individual moments where I have been proud of something that

went particularly well or worked out the way I intended. But I’m most proud that I’ve

conducted my business with innovation and integrity for nearly 30 years. If I’m fortunate, I’ll get to do it for another 30 years!


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