Alex Mitow: On Co-Founding Superfine and Building Relationships
In this episode of the Artmatcher podcast, Alex Mitow speaks with Reilly Clark about co-founding Superfine Art Fair, his story as a creative entrepreneur, advice for artists, and his thoughts on the power of art to build relationships.
About Alex Mitow
Alex Mitow is the CEO and Co-Founder of Superfine Art Fair. A compulsive curator and multi-spirited entrepreneur, he brings a marketing degree from the University of Miami and more than 16 years of experience in the lifestyle, art, and hospitality sectors to his role at the Superfine Art Fair.
A guiding force in the curatorial style and business approach of all Superfine fairs, Alex is also a major collector of contemporary art, a (partially recovering) social media addict, a published writer, and a film producer. From their home base in NYC, Alex, James, and the team have launched Superfine fairs in six US cities and growing each year.
0:15:05 The Importance of In-Person Experiences in the Art World
0:18:45 The Benefits of Art Fairs for Artists and Collectors
0:23:19 The Importance of Maintaining Positive Relationships with Art Buyers
0:24:18 The Importance of Relationships in the Art World
0:00:00.4 Michael Goodman: Hi everybody, I’m Michael Goodman with Artmatcher, the mobile app connecting art lovers, artists, galleries, art fairs, and art events. While we continue to build a great experience, we’ll be talking art with some of the industry’s most interesting and knowledgeable people. Whether you’re an art aficionado or this is all new to you, we’ll be here to provide valuable insight and hilarious good stories. Hope you enjoy our chat today and check out Artmatcher in the Apple App Store and Google Play. Hello everyone, this is Riley Clark, head of partnerships at Artmatcher and guest host of the Artmatcher podcast.
0:00:39.3 Reilly Clark: I’m here with Alex Mitow, co-founder and CEO at Superfine. Superfine is the art fair that puts young professionals in touch with hundreds of cutting edge works of art by the world’s top emerging artists. Alex, CEO and co-founder brings a marketing degree and more than 16 years of experience in the lifestyle, art, and hospitality sectors. Alex is also a recovering art collector of contemporary art, social media addict, published writer, and film producer. Alex, how are you doing today?
0:01:11.7 Alex Mitow: Good. I’m just exhausted hearing all of that and I realized that my 16 years is now 18 years, like a full legal adult of experience in these fields, but I’m exhausted listening to all the stuff you said. Thank you, Riley. Well, how funny. Well, you love to hear it. You love to hear it. Well, welcome to the podcast. First things first, I’d love to learn more about you, your career, that full adult of experience. Please tell us about yourself.
0:01:37.6 Alex Mitow: Yeah, absolutely. So I actually come from a hospitality background initially. My family started a restaurant in Florida in the Tampa area when I was like a baby. That restaurant’s still going and I’m actually a CMO of that restaurant group and currently, funnily enough. So I grew up, I mean, I was sleeping in the booths. My mom was making cheesecake all night. So I kind of learned work ethic and also how to put together a proper value proposition from my parents. And then by hook or crook, I ended up as an owner manager of a restaurant when I was in high school when I was 16. And that’s a much longer story, but that was my first spin at the helm of a restaurant business. And I did that for three and a half years. So by the time I was 20, I had owned and sold my first restaurant, which was pretty cool. And then I was in nightlife a little bit in Miami and through nightlife, I got kind of, I would say arts adjacent at that point. It was kind of the, I wouldn’t say the peak of Art Basel. I think we’re at the peak of Art Basel now, but it was kind of the rising excitement around Basel around 2006, seven, eight.
0:02:46.8 Alex Mitow: So I got out to a lot of fairs and hobnobbed and socialized within the art crowd, but I wasn’t an artist or really, I didn’t consider myself an art collector at the time. And then, I moved to New York and still in restaurants and hospitality. I ran a restaurant for a group up there and a couple of restaurants actually in Battery Park and then broke off, opened my own place called Los Perros Locos. It was a Colombian hot dog joint in the Lower East Side. And it was fun. I got written up in the New York Times when I was 24 years old and they made me sound like such a douche, but it was really funny. And I was excited to be in the Times. And I started doing more pop-up events in kind of arts related capacities. And one of those was the cafe at Scope Art Fair. I was invited, I was friends with the director and the co-director of Scope at the time. And they invited me to come in with Los Perros Locos and do a cafe. So I did that in 2014 and I also again in 2015.
0:03:49.5 Alex Mitow: And while doing that, I scoped out the art fair to get a sense of what, I had been at fairs before, but I had never looked at it from a business perspective. My staff was working, making hot dogs and serving wine. And I kind of took a few breaks and walked around, talked to the dealers, got a sense of what was going on in the ecosystem of an art fair. And I also was invited after that to do the cafe at other art fairs and other art events. So I just kind of got immersed in that world through my business. And later in that year, 2014, I decided to get out of the restaurant business. And I said, I’m back in it now. But at the time I was out for about five years. And so I turned my restaurant into a gallery space and I continued doing pop-up events and all in food, arts, music, across the board. And then over time that kind of evolved into this business model that we’ve grown and that we’re still growing every year, which is super fine. And sort of the genesis of that was just I was a young collector, young art aficionado, but I’d walk into a, and I like to think I’m still a young art aficionado.
0:05:01.9 Alex Mitow : I would walk into a gallery or into a booth at an art fair and the people in the booth would not even look at me. And so I was just like, okay, this sucks. And I knew so many artists who wanted to sell their art. And I knew all these people who wanted to buy art. Right. And I’m not getting a second look. And so I was like, this isn’t right. So we created Super Fine as a network space for artists and potential art buyers to meet each other in a comfortable place where everybody is on equal footing and can engage and foster that art collecting relationship. And that came from me and it came from my business partner, James. We’re going through the same thing at the same time. So that’s the me in a nutshell. It’s about 20 years of my life sped up for you.
0:05:45.2 Reilly Clark: I love it. I love it to hear it. And I got to tell you, hearing the story of you walk into a fair and it can be overwhelming and no one really looks at you and you don’t know what to say and they don’t know what to say. And there’s this mismatch. That’s something I’ve experienced. That’s something Scott Stier, the founder of Art Matcher has experienced. And that’s a lot of why we do what we do as well. There is this real mismatch between the people who want to share and the people who want to engage and learn. And yeah, bye. A question for you. I want to learn more about Super Fine. I want to hear more about what you have going on. But something I appreciate about what you do is you give artists the resources that they need to succeed as creative entrepreneurs. I’m curious to hear how your experiences, your successes as a creative entrepreneur influences that, influences the materials and the tools that you give to artists.
0:06:34.8 Alex Mitow: Absolutely. I mean, that’s a really good question because it really, it really, I mean, there was a learning curve building this business, right? And we’ve seen when artists ask us, you know, why do we say that? Why do we suggest a spread of prices? Why do we have certain areas of the booth that you can’t hang art in or what are we just like control freaks? It’s like, no, we’ve done this 23 times in cities all over the country. We know what works. We know what doesn’t. We’ve had clients that we thought were going to knock it out of the park and they didn’t because of simple errors, pricing errors, hanging errors, ways that the artwork wasn’t presented correctly. So we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. And there’s certain things like, you know, I’ll give a big example. When we started Superfan, we were pretty ambivalent about whether it was a gallery show or an artist show. We just kind of let, you know, whoever wanted to be in and they had quality work, we would, you know, that was our client. And for quite a while, we had a strong commercial gallery component within the fair.
0:07:34.3 Alex Mitow: We never, you know, we never felt like that was our niche. And over time we realized, wait, it’s really not. And we still have a little bit of a legacy gallery component, especially in Washington, DC. It’s one city that we’ve kind of maintained that. But for the most part, I mean, 97% of our exhibitors are independent artists. And whenever we do have a gallery in the fair, it’s usually a collective gallery. Or if it’s a commercial gallery, it’s one where the artists are front and center and they’re still usually there in the booth. And that’s, again, that’s only 3 to 4% of our exhibitor base right now. So that was an example where like, we, you know, we saw, or we felt and saw and heard from our audience what they liked and what was working. And then we just leaned heavily into it. And so that’s something, you know, as we give artists advice, we have over 10,000 artists who listen per month to our podcast, the Artist Business Plan, which you’ve been on Riley, and I look forward to the episode. And, you know, the advice we impart, whether it’s to our 700 artists in the superfine ecosystem every year, or whether it’s to the 10,000 listen per month, or whether it’s through our blog articles, the resources we share, we impart a you don’t need a commercial gallery at this point to succeed as an artist, it’s just not necessary.
0:08:43.7 Alex Mitow: It can be part of your business model as an artist and how you treat your, your, you know, your career. But it doesn’t be all end all that everybody thought it was 10 years ago, we’ve been saying that for six or seven years, but it’s kind of really catching on now. That’s something that we’ve learned literally through doing and trying, I wouldn’t say we came out of the gate with like, the perfect formula, we experimented, iterated and realized that. And again, yeah, just the general, like, you know, the tips, the tricks, the things that we do, we, we, we host webinars, live webinars for our artists about two weeks prior to every fair, just going over some best practices, little things like how you stand in your booth, like whether you’re standing in front of your art or adjacent to it, that how you smile, like what you wear, whether you should bring a paperback book to an art exhibition, you shouldn’t that’s that’s the that’s the giveaway, you should not bring a book, just leave your book at home, because you’re there to engage with people. But things like that, that we teach artists, they might not think about in advance, but then they get it, and then they come in, and they just do a lot better in the in the show.
0:09:46.9 Alex Mitow: So that’s what I’d say the things that we’ve learned through our own creative journey as an event as a company, you know, and we’re able to impart to our clients as well.
0:09:55.8 Reilly Clark: I love it, I love it. And everyone definitely check out the super fine podcast, the artist business plan podcast, lots of great guests, lots of great insights, especially for artists who want to really better equip themselves for success as professional artists. I was just on an episode that’ll be coming out soon to speak about art matcher and what we do. Thanks again. I’d love to hear about the other side of the equation as well. You know, I’d love to get a sense of who do you see as your audience for the fair? You know, we’ve spoken about cultivating that next generation of art lovers and art buyers. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the audience. Absolutely.
0:10:33.1 Alex Mitow: I mean, I can I can really speak to that. We do. But 80% of our marketing is targeted digital advertising. So it’s we really get granular with that with audience that we target. So we have a couple key groups. And we actually, you know, from a marketing standpoint, we create, we call avatars, we create like, what this client looks like, where they shop, what they act like, you know, where they live, all of that for each city. So one of our one of our target groups is this young professional nesting couple, like 26 to 45, dual income household, maybe they’re they just bought their first apartment, or maybe they bought their first house, maybe they’re still renting, but they’re kind of like, you know, starting to throw away those target posters with the French liqueurs, and they want to put some real art up, right. And that’s a core audience for us. And this is called settle in salmon, Sue, that’s who we’re looking at. We also have a large LGBTQ buyer audience for the fairs. And that’s kind of spread across age ranges. So you’ll get older gay men who maybe aren’t a couple, maybe they’re single, often couples, also dual income, they often have a high household income and a high net worth.
0:11:42.1 Alex Mitow: And they love to spend it on art and design, they have second home. So that, you know, they might have a home in New York City or Washington, DC, and then a second one in Palm Springs, or Provincetown, or you know, somewhere else. So that’s, that’s a really core audience for us about 15 to 20% of our of our buyers, and gay women as well. And just you know, folks that have that have again, that dual income situation. We also get a lot of an audience that we call by by and Brett, I’m giving you guys a lot of black box stuff here. I’m hoping this resonates. We have an avatar called by and Brett based on a good friend of mine, Brett. That’s your single guy who, you know, loves to spend money on experiences goes to the coolest new restaurants, like, you know, loves to take the trips to the cool places that you see on online. And he has the money to do it. And so that’s an audience. That’s an audience that’s often neglected by the art establishment, because they, you know, they don’t know enough about it. And that’s where I think your company and ours kind of, you know, we’re a little bit agnostic about what a person knows.
0:12:45.8 Alex Mitow: Now, it’s kind of our job to educate them, bring them in, bring them into the ecosystem and turn them into buyers and supporters of artists, rather than kind of prejudging them. So that’s something I think we’ve done quite well. And I think you guys are really gearing towards as well.
0:13:00.2 Reilly Clark: So yeah. Yeah, well, a few a few thoughts on that. First of all, I love the focus on young professionals on again, the next generation. It’s a little early to speak on this. But in January, we’re going to be partnering up with the Fort Lauderdale Art and Design Week. And it’s interesting, I’ve had a number of folks from the LGBTQ plus community in Fort Lauderdale say, Hey, we want to be doing things we want to get more involved. We want this to be kind of an engine to not just buy art, support local artists, but meet people, build a community. I loved what you said about buy and bread. Yeah. I really do believe. Yeah, I really do believe that like, people’s journeys with art frequently doesn’t start with the purchase or the marketplace. It starts with experiences, it starts with the social element, it starts with education. And I really love what you do, because it is so about experience and about really like taking those first steps through a shared special experience in physical space. It’s really special. Thank you. And I kind of wouldn’t speak on that a little bit.
0:14:01.5 Alex Mitow: So you know, obviously, there’s this there’s this large market right now in in arts experiences for things like the Van Gogh exhibit, the Dali exhibit that are these immersive experiences. Now with Superfund, we made a decision pretty early not to lean too heavily into that side of things. So we our challenge was always like, how can we create an environment that’s centered around appreciating and selling art, like actual physical art, whether it’s sculpture on the walls, whatever, on the walls, whatever, but still make it very fun and engaging, without distracting too much and creating, you know, this this super experiential thing that’s fun, but people don’t buy. So that that buy-in Brett avatar was a really good test for us because we go when we create these avatars, we write down the questions this person is asking, which is like, why should I spend this much money on this? Like they know why they should spend $400 on the tasting menu pop up at the Faina Hotel. They know why they should spend, you know, $5,000 on Burning Man tickets and an RV or whatever they know that they don’t know why they should buy a painting, right?
0:15:05.1 Alex Mitow: So answering that question is was key. So what a lot of these folks were missing was that connection that feeling of connection with artists. So we’re providing that and that’s we got this actually from interviewing members of this audience and finding out what was standing in the way of them buying art. So when you facilitate that connection and you make that the experience that is the experience, then you create buyers and collectors out of this archetype of person that maybe was maybe they had the money, but weren’t spending it. So I love the challenge to anyone and you know, we’ve launched super fine in a lot of tech markets in San Francisco, Seattle, also, you know, Miami, which is arguably a tech hub in a sense. And, you know, I love the challenge of hearing, you know, other art fairs and other art, you know, people saying, Oh, you know, that crowd, they just don’t know how to buy art. They don’t they don’t spend money on art. I like that because it feels like I feel like it’s a blue ocean, something I can get into. You and I have talked about this offline, but you know, I studied art history at Stanford, I did my bachelor’s, my master’s, like in the heart of Silicon Valley, studying art history and working in the art market.
0:16:12.2 Reilly Clark: And that’s always something I was told by older, more established, more traditional, usually New York based art dealers was that, you know, your generation doesn’t buy art, they’re only interested in experiences, or the tech people out in San Francisco and San Jose and Palo Alto, they don’t buy art, they’re just interested in experiences. And that was so frustrating to hear, because I knew that wasn’t true. I talked with these folks who are my friends and peers, and they really wanted to get involved, they really wanted to meet artists and build community around art and find shared arts experiences. They wanted that, but they just didn’t know how to get it. And the traditional avenues were very intimidating, purposefully intimidating, which again, is why I so appreciate what you do, because it does, I do see it as a way to get vastly more of those folks involved. And that’s again, something that we’re trying to do at Artmatcher as well. I’d love to talk more about the importance of like, physical in person experiences, especially when it comes to art. You know, we’re very interested in using digital learning tools, digital community building tools to enhance the physical experience, and vice versa, use the physical experience to enhance those online experiences.
0:17:23.8 Reilly Clark: But I’d love to hear how you approach those physical arts experiences, how that strategy has changed since COVID and the pandemic. I’d love to hear your thoughts. So I would say, you know, for one, I mean, people were starved for in person experiences for a long time.
0:17:40.6 Alex Mitow: And, you know, I was actually talking to a longtime client on the phone last week, where they didn’t do any fairs with us for a couple years, they had done many before. And they were saying the same thing. It’s like, we’ve all seen a spike in art sales in in person events over the past two years, and it actually hasn’t gone down as the interest rates gone up. And we were all paranoid about the economy. Still, art sales in person are really strong, stronger than they were before the pandemic. And I think that’s very much due to that starvation for in person experiences, especially ones that involve connecting with human beings one on one, which is what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. So it’s actually somewhat convenient for us, you know, post post lockdown, at least, to be this type of business where people meet the artists face to face and connect with them. So I would Yeah, my perspective, you know, as an art fair organizer is that we’ve definitely seen a spike in sales, we’ve seen a spike in engagement. People, you know, we, I for one, like the beginning of the pandemic, I really relished in like buying things online, and they just show up at my house.
0:18:45.6 Alex Mitow: And I was never much of an online shopper before. And then I was like, Oh, my God, I can get like king crab legs delivered to my door, I can get like, you know, I like this, like cocktail shaker, send that over to I mean, I was making a lot of cocktails. But that was fun. And then it kind of got kind of got old after a while, or like, okay, like, you know, I want to be out, I want to see things, I want to touch things, I want to like see them in person before buying. And something I’ve really seen with art, and there’s always exceptions to the rule. I mean, I’ve always exceptions, I’ve met artists who sell, you know, $50,000 originals over Instagram, it happens. I mean, it’s really cool. You know, if you’re an artist that’s making that work, then by all means, like, keep it going. But generally speaking, you know, we interviewed, you know, hundreds of artists and hundreds of collectors on this topic, you know, it’s hard to spend more than a few hundred dollars on something you haven’t seen in person. And that can be you know, whether it’s a couch or whether it’s a piece of art, you know, you need it, you want to see it, you want to, you feel it, if it’s possible to feel it, right, but you really want to get a sense of that item.
0:19:47.9 Alex Mitow: It’s texture, like it’s, it’s, you know, luminosity, all the things that you would only really know in person, we can always strive to make better and better and better online platforms. But at the end of the day, like, you know, the in person experience is really important. So yeah, I think that that’s something where we, you know, collectively coming out of lockdown and coming out of the endless parade of Amazon boxes and everything. It’s nice to go see something in person and really see what it is and take it home. So that’s, that’s what I’ve seen.
0:20:17.4 Reilly Clark: Absolutely. And to zoom out even a little bit more, I’d love to just talk for a bit about the special ability of arts to connect with people, you know, using art as a tool to connect with people as that third thing for two people to connect. And you know, when I think about works of art that I’ve bought, for example, I’ve only ever and this is just a personal pattern. I’ve only ever bought work when I’ve met the artists spent time with them gotten to know them. And that work of art comes to represent like a story or connection. And again, but art matcher, we’re a social community platform, our tagline is creating relationships through art. I’d love to talk about art’s special ability to do that. And maybe super fine special ability to do that. Yeah, I mean, for sure. Art is, you know, first and foremost, it’s a form of communication. And that’s something I think that gets lost in in the in the in the art world, right? Where it’s like, it starts to become an object or an asset, right? But but it really is a form of communication. And, you know, I really love art that I have.
0:21:22.2 Alex Mitow: I’m a huge collector, I have tons of pieces, I have to feel something I have to feel something with that. That’s number one, it has to connect with me. And what connects with me doesn’t necessarily, in many cases, connect with someone else. And that’s what makes it individual. Owning a piece of art, it’s not the same as creating it, obviously, like, to, you know, for that, whoever can create these amazing paintings and sculptures, they have more skills than I do, right? In that, but owning it is in a sense, being a part of that creative process, it’s it’s internalizing it and making it yours becomes something that you know, one throws away art, you keep it on your wall, you know, forever, and it gets passed down, it gets passed, it moves to another home, you know, it’s always there with you. So it’s a big decision. And it just it does have that ability to connect with people. To your point about the artist, right, connecting with the artist. The only time I’ve ever wanted to get rid of a piece of art is if I have a negative experience with the artist, I don’t, you know, I can’t have something on my wall.
0:22:20.5 Alex Mitow: If I don’t have a positive connection with the person who made it, it just doesn’t I find it difficult to separate that for contemporary art. So so that’s something is really I don’t know if we’re really so much going into like, you know, one, two, three kind of lessons for artists here. But there’s a couple things I’d pull out about this one is maintain positive relationships with your art buyers. And that could mean that, you know, maybe they don’t buy from you the next year, like, just let that be because you want the positive relationship to stay. Being too pushy can sometimes make people feel awkward about having the work that they already have of yours. I’ve experienced that with artists. You know, some certain over shares can be a little bit like, like, you know, obviously, you want a personal connection, but maybe some over shares we don’t want to do because then someone owns your work, and they’re always thinking about that, not about you. There’s something to really think about as an artist. The other thing is kind of what you mentioned initially, Riley, which is, you know, you don’t own anything where you don’t have a connection.
0:23:19.9 Alex Mitow: And I always tell artists that art is an extreme luxury for people. It’s as much as I want to say it’s a necessity in our life, we have must have art, whatever. It’s not I mean, food is a necessity, like your couch, to an extent is a necessity. Art is an afterthought and it shouldn’t be I think people should should incorporate it more into their lives, something that we really foster, we have to remember that someone doesn’t have to buy your work. They buy your work because of the connection with you because they want to and sometimes that takes time. And so you know, say you do a fair and at the fair, you know, you’re hoping that you sell $10,000 in art, right? That’s your goal. But instead, you meet 100 people, you got 100 new emails, you’ve sold, you know, a dozen prints, I mean, don’t mark that down as a failure, that could be a massive success for you, because it takes people time to know you to know your work to know, you know, to maybe see the next series that you make or that piece that they saw at the art fair that they can’t get off their mind.
0:24:18.8 Alex Mitow: So really, you know, understanding that, like, like taking this general observation to like an actual business lesson, understanding that it requires a connection for someone to be willing to buy this luxury thing kind of puts into perspective so that you can then build those relationships that result in sales and income for you.
0:24:42.3 Reilly Clark: I love it. I love it. Again, it’s just all about relationships. That is the most important thing. We’re coming up to time here. I want to be respectful of your time. I’d love to talk briefly, lastly, about your upcoming fair in Miami, kind of coming back to your roots. And I’m based in South Florida, Scott, the founder is based in South Florida. We love it here. We’re happy to be working with some great arts and arts institutions here. Please, our audience would love to hear about this fair. Yeah, absolutely.
0:25:10.7 Alex Mitow: And I can’t wait to see you guys there and hope we get to do something cool together in Miami. So Miami’s gonna be a very interesting fair. So we long story short, we started the show in 2015 during Miami Art Week, Art Basel, we did three more consecutive years, so four in a row in Miami in December. And at some point, we realized like, okay, this isn’t for us. Like this is, you know, there’s just so much going on. There’s so much noise, you know, we’re really trying to spotlight these individual artists, and it’s getting lost in the mix. And we had been ranked Miami’s favorite art fair by a major publication, we were covered by every publication. But we just it just wasn’t, we didn’t deliver the same value we did in the rest of the year in our other cities. So last year, we brought the fair to Miami in March to Miami Beach, we did a very cool venue indoor outdoor space said no more indoor outdoor, we’re going to do fully an indoor space this time. And so we moved the fair to ice palace studios, which is a really cool historic building in downtown Miami that was actually an ice warehouse.
0:26:12.2 Alex Mitow: A lot of people don’t realize that in the south, they had to bring ice in before refrigerators that you just plug in or freezers. So they brought ice and this was an ice warehouse. And then it’s been a film studio for at least 30 years or more. So we’re actually using that space, we have 25,000 square feet of indoor space with a beautiful outdoor garden area with hammocks and bistro tables. And we’re gonna have you know, really nice little cafe situation up there. And then some really fun stuff in the show that’d be close to 100 artists. It’s our home market. So we’re coming back and it’s going to be February 16 to 19 over Presidents Day weekend. So it’s we’re the only fair along with Art Wynwood that’s taking place that weekend. And we like the we like that. So it’s like a family feel there’s enough going on that you want to get out your doors and check out what’s going on, but not so much that it’s overwhelming and you can’t figure out where to go next. So we’re really excited to bring the fair to ice palace in February. And I’m really looking forward to being there.
0:27:11.1 Reilly Clark: And not here in New York freezing. I love it. I love it. Well, I’m excited to see it. And I’m excited to see you everyone that is February 16 through 19 at the ice palace studios Miami. Please do check out super fine that’s at super fine dot world and super fine art fair on Instagram. Stay in contact with super fine. Check out their podcast, the artist business plan podcast. I’ll be appearing on it soon. And Alex, thank you again for your time.
0:27:40.9 Alex Mitow: It’s really a pleasure. Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me.