De Pury: Art should be available to all, not just select few

New reality TV show is putting the spotlight on art world.

June 28, 2010 14:37
De Pury and Sarah Jessica Parker

Sara Jessica Parker 311. (photo credit: Barbara Nitke / Bravo)

When you think of Simon de Pury, chairman of the prestigious Phillips de Pury & Company auction house, or of his parallels in the high-end crowd of art professionals and collectors, you hardly envision a potential participant in a reality television show. But that is exactly what de Pury wants to change. He firmly believes art should be accessible to all, and what better way of doing that than via a TV show on a mainstream network?

With its aptly titled hit new show, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, the Bravo network is putting the spotlight on the art world. The show, produced by Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker, presents 14 emerging artists from a variety of backgrounds, each vying for his/her chance to be the next great artist. In addition to a hefty cash prize, the winner will be granted a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.

In an in-depth interview de Pury gave to, the renowned auctioneer discusses the show and explains why he believes the art market has recovered from the 2008 financial meltdown and provides some insight into the next big markets to look out for.

MutualArt: How did you get involved with the show?

Simon de Pury: I felt that television so far had not really covered art in an exciting or entertaining way, and when I heard that Bravo was doing the show, I thought it would be a great opportunity to show what it’s like to create a work of art, and to judge a work of art. I thought it would be a great opportunity to make art more accessible [to the general public], not as the situation whereby art is elitist and made only for a few.

MA: What is your specific role in the show?

De Pury: My role in the show is that of a mentor. I look at the works of the 14 contestants and give them tips and advice to prepare them for the reactions they may encounter once they show their work to the judges.

MA: How did the artists respond to you?

De Pury: It was a very pleasant experience; there was this great energy on the set. There was a great variety of personalities, different skills and different talents. The common denominator was that they were all very sincere in the way they approached their work.

MA: Were you involved with the selection of the 14 contestants?

De Pury: I was involved with the initial casting, when nearly 1,200 artists presented their works in four cities – Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and New York. Out of the 1,200 we selected 60 artists. Those artists were then asked to prepare a video in which they presented themselves and their works; out of that group the production company chose the 14 contestants.

MA: Some people argue that a reality TV show about art is bad for art, because it is more about entertainment and less about quality. What do you say to those people?

De Pury: I disagree with that view. I believe that art should be universally accessible. You have as many people who visit museums or exhibitions today as those who listen to music or go to sports events. Art also has an advantage over some of the other reality shows already done, whether fashion or food, in that it is immediately and visually understandable on the screen. Again, I think anything that makes art more easily accessible is a good thing.

MA: What can you say about your experience working with Sarah Jessica Parker?

De Pury: It was a pleasure to work with her as well as the production company. It’s always a pleasure to work with professionals, and of course it’s fun to look into a different industry and a different field. What struck me was how everyone worked very hard to make the show happen, and everyone worked so well together, at all levels. She is clearly very interested in art, and that came across as she was able to communicate her interest and passion when she was directly in touch with the contestants.

MA: How likely will success come to the winner of the show?

De Pury: I think it is a fabulous opportunity for any artist to have a one man show at the Brooklyn Museum, which is one of the great institutions, and that in itself is an amazing incentive for all the contestants. Additionally, all the contestants have a chance to have their work in the spotlight, and they’ll get some exposure this way. There are many different ways nowadays that artists can get attention to their work. The internet allows for any artist around the world to present and give instant access to their work. Street art has also spread exponentially over the last few years. So there's no need to rely only on the traditional channels to get attention.

MA: Any specific artist or work from the show that you especially liked in the early stages?

De Pury: Obviously, as a mentor I couldn’t voice my preference for one contestant over another, and certainly there were some works that appealed more to me than others, in each competition. My choices didn’t necessarily always overlap with the opinions of the judges, but that’s the great thing about art: Judging a work of art is ultimately very subjective and I think it’s very legitimate that we are looking at the same thing but in our own way, and forming our own opinions about it.

MA: Moving on to the art market, as someone with years of experience working with fine art, what is your current opinion of the art market? Are we truly in the recovery mode from the 2008 financial crisis?

De Pury: Yes, the slowdown of the market took place between October 2008 and June 2009 and this was mostly reflected by the sharp drop in the volume of works being offered on the art market at that time. That volume has come back up…very quickly, and we’ve seen very strong results with auctions that took place last May in New York, with the great success of the Hong Kong Art Fair, and now with the Basel Art Fair about to start, and there are some sales with some really great material in London in late June…so the volume and quality are both at top level, we’ve come back to where the market was before. Both the supply and demand for art indicate that the art market is bouncing back, not just for blue chip work but also from the more emerging side of the market.

MA: Do you think Picasso can break his own record at the upcoming June 23rd auction for his work “Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto?”

De Pury: I hope this work will do very well, I had the privilege of being the auctioneer when it was on the market last time at Sotheby’s. I think it’s a fabulous work, and anything is possible We’ll see what happens!

There’s been a lot of excitement recently revolving around Russian and Southeast Asian art. What is your forecast for collectors in terms of these two genres?

De Pury: We conducted an auction at the Saatchi Gallery last April which was very successful…with art from Brazil, Russia, India and China. The art market over the last five years has clearly become global. We’re seeing a lot of strong results from Asia in general, Latin America, and also Africa and the Middle East. So [art from these countries] is taking a bigger and bigger percentage of the overall art market, and over time it will probably become a dominant part of the art market.

MA: What’s your advice for collectors with regards to offerings currently on the market? Are there any bargains to be had?

De Pury: I think the best advice is to see, see, and see again. To closely follow what is being offered at the art fairs and what’s being offered at the auctions. Nowadays it’s very easy - through the internet - to find out what works are selling where, and for how much.

MA: So do you think internet bidding will grow as well?

De Pury: Yes, internet bidding is growing very quickly…you know if there’s a hot auction the room will be packed, but as soon as a work goes above a certain price level most of the bidding is done over the phone or over the internet, and now with the auctioneer being filmed, the bidder can get a feeling of the atmosphere in the sale room, and it makes it much easier to participate in a live auction wherever you may be. You can do it from your office, home, swimming pool or from wherever you want to do it. You can also see that the average price of works being bid on over the net is going up.

MA: What is your favorite work in your own collection?

De Pury: The last piece that I acquire is always my favorite piece. I suffer from the same disease our clients suffer from; collecting is a beautiful disease and also totally incurable! I recently bought some work by two American artists that work together, Wade Brighton and Kelly Walker. I’m very fond of their work, both as individual artists and as collaborators. It’s your last purchase which is always the most exciting! is a personalized art information service covering thousands of sources across the web.

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