A New Startup Is Bringing the Y Combinator Model to the Art World

For more than a decade, Chicago-based artist Maria Gaspar has worked to give a voice to the incarcerated. Radioactive: Stories from Beyond the Wall, a 2018 project, was the culmination of a series of workshops she conducted starting in 2012 among inmates at Cook County Jail, one of the country’s largest. The public site intervention combined projecting animations developed in those workshops on the jail’s north-end wall with audio recordings broadcast on site, through the wall, and across the city.

Such projects, which have grown in complexity over her 20-plus-year career, typically require funding from nonprofits, a landscape that’s cumbersome to navigate. And while she wants to find collectors for her work, the gallery system, which facilitates those introductions, seemed uncomfortably opaque.

Related Articles

A realistic painting of a shirtless Black man lying contorted on the ground. He's wearing green pants and has a thick silver chain around his neck. He is lying on a hill in a landscape that looks straight out of a Northern Renaissance painting.

Kehinde Wiley’s New Work Underscores the Pitfalls of His Signature Approach: Swapping Black Figures into European Compositions

Artist Julien Creuzet Wants Us to Question What We Know and Free Ourselves

“What I noticed with some of my really smart, really talented artist friends is that there is not a lot of transparency and clarity about the relationships [with their galleries],” Gaspar told ARTnews.

But then she heard about an alternative for the next phase of her career: a pilot program for an artist accelerator. More than with the art world, accelerator programs are typically associated with Silicon Valley, where they are a primary means to develop tech businesses. Such programs are like boot camp for start-ups, providing mentorship and guidance on everything needed to launch a successful business. The most famous, Y Combinator, has produced thousands of companies in its nearly 20 years in operation, including behemoths like Airbnb, DoorDash, and Instacart.

In 2020, tech entrepreneur Joey Flores asked himself what an accelerator program could do for artists. Almost a decade earlier, Flores had graduated from Y Combinator with his online radio platform, Earbits, which promoted the work of musicians. Flores saw a parallel in tech investing and art investing when considering an artist as a one-person start-up.

“I always thought there was a space for a Y Combinator–type company in the fine art world,” he told ARTnews. “So I started looking into how it would work.”

What he came up with is Inversion Art, as Flores and his cofounder, Jonathan T.D. Neil, call the platform. The company intends to recruit artists for a three-month accelerator program, during which they will work on strategies to reach their goals with a team of advisers that includes both industry veterans and newcomers. Beyond that, Inversion will provide five years of studio management, with the option to extend, handling services that include banking, accounting, marketing, legal, and inventory management. Inversion takes a 15 percent fee on all revenue generated during the studio management period, including sales, commissions, and artist fees from institutions.

Ford Foundation Gallery, No Justice Without Love, 2023/04/04
No Justice Without Love, 2023/04/04, Maria Gaspar, Ford Foundation Gallery.
Ford Foundation Gallery

In June, the platform announced that it has signed a number of artists to two-year studio management and career planning contracts, and hired an artist liaison to support the program. The accelerator is preparing to launch next year.

When Gaspar was weighing the pros and cons of joining Inversion versus a gallery, she considered the 15 percent sales commission Inversion proposes to take versus the standard gallery commission, which is typically 50 percent. But Inversion’s financial terms are a bit more involved. For artists in the accelerator program, Inversion agrees to buy artwork from its artists that is equal to 30 percent of what their practice earned the year prior to joining the accelerator, up to $100,000, holding it for at least five years and guaranteeing a 10 percent return when it’s sold. In addition, Inversion retains an option to purchase up to $500,000 in work over the following eight years at a 15 percent discount on the market rate.

This arrangement, according to Flores, is essential to the company’s growth. “If you think of art like equity, we’re buying equity in the artists in much the same way that a start-up tech accelerator would work,” Flores said.

Inversion is similar in some ways to an artist residency program, as it provides artists the space and resources they need to reach their potential, and access to a community of continued support after it ends. For example, the Studio Museum in Harlem’s residency program, which dates back to 1968, has launched many of contemporary art’s biggest stars, from David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall to Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley. And Studio Museum alums like Wiley and Titus Kaphar have launched their own respective residency programs.

Such programs introduce artists to the market with more developed practices and the prestige and connections gained from having participated. That kind of experience and entrée is what drives thousands of entrepreneurs to apply to Y Combinator every year and what Inversion hopes to offer artists. However, unlike Inversion, artist residencies are typically free, short-term programs that don’t offer ongoing career services or studio support.

An art world program similar to Inversion is NEW INC, a cultural incubator embedded in the New Museum in New York. It provides a cohort of artists with tools, mentorship, and professional development to cultivate projects that sit at the intersection of art, design, and technology. Recognizing the entrepreneurial acumen required to get ahead these days, NEW INC helps identify and manage “all the pieces of an artist’s emerging business,” director Salome Asega told ARTnews.

Recent alums include Stephanie Dinkins, a transmedia artist who won the inaugural LG Guggenheim Award last month, and a nonprofit called Kinfolk, which uses augmented reality to develop curricula dedicated to under-represented histories, including an AR app that creates monuments of figures from those histories.

Like NEW INC, Inversion reflects a larger shift happening in the art world, with artists approaching their practice the way major contemporary artist-entrepreneurs like Daniel Arsham and Takashi Murakami have. Artists nowadays are “more comfortable self-modeling as entrepreneurs,” Amy Whitaker, assistant professor of visual arts administration at New York University and the coauthor of The Story of NFTs, told ARTnews.

The art world has been slow to adapt to treating artists, traditional or not, as if they’re building businesses, Inversion cofounder Jonathan TD Neil told ARTnews. “Thinking about the business of your studio, thinking about the strategy, thinking about your ambitions, has been largely frowned upon by MFA programs,” he said.

As a result, “there are so many great artists who need extra help with the business side,” Kathy Battista, curator and former MA Contemporary Art Program Director at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York, told ARTnews.

And while galleries are sometimes “exceptional advocates and supporters of artists in their practices, that’s not universal,” Neil said. And they also rarely get into “the nitty gritty of running artists’ studios,” painter Enrique Martinez Celaya, who joined Inversion as an adviser in 2022, told ARTnews.

Jeremiah Olayinka Ojo, an artist who runs the Brooklyn-based art consultancy Ilèkùn Wa, joined Inversion as an adviser in 2022. He saw the potential in approaching an artist’s career like a business, as it makes everyone “work together to make sure that this artist’s career is not only sustainable, but one that can project income,” he told ARTnews.

In early 2021, Ojo began working with Imo Nse Imeh, a Nigerian American painter and professor of African diaspora art, at Ilèkùn Wa. But as demand for Imeh’s work exploded, Imeh told ARTnews that he realized he needed more support than Ojo could provide, so Ojo introduced him to Inversion, where he joined the pilot program. Imeh just held a solo show at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh, a project that Neil played a substantial role in getting off the ground.

Installation view of Imo Nse Imeh, The Hope of Radiance, August Wilson African American Cultural Center
Courtesy of Imo Nse Imeh

Neither Imeh nor Gaspar are emerging artists, like those typically applying for the art world’s highly competitive residency programs. Both their practices are more than a decade old. Inversion is not picking “people to incubate or support that have no track record,” Matt Greenleaf, a cofounder of venture capital firm MAGIC Fund, which has invested in Inversion, told ARTnews. Rather, Inversion is looking to work with artists “who have a proven track record, with at least a fellowship or [who] have already done their first solo exhibition.”

At the outset, Flores wanted to “design something that will serve artists as early as we can without them being totally risky bets.”

But identifying the right moment to buy into an artist’s career is tricky. The art market is fickle, most artists’ careers are not linear, and it can sometimes take an artist decades to achieve stable success.

“[Platforms that bring] an artist to a marketplace and help build that artist’s career over time sometimes suffer from the belief that there is a playbook; and playbooks do not necessarily work in the creative markets because creativity is so variable,” Alvin Hall, a broadcaster, author, and financial educator, told ARTnews. Hall is also a prolific art collector, whose vast holdings include works by Lee Friedlander, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson, among others.

To take some of that risk off the table, Inversion will approach each cohort like an investment portfolio or pool. In doing so, not every artist is expected to produce immediate returns, eschewing the winner-takes-all mentality by which galleries often play.

So even for artists doing “ambitious things that don’t pay off immediately,” Flores said, “they’re going to increase their artist profile. And then perhaps we make our money from the collection side.”

And similar to how Y Combinator invests in the ingenuity of its founders, their companies notwithstanding, Inversion, like Hollywood agencies, will be investing in talent, be it articulated through fine art or “making a feature film or designing a fashion line,” Battista said.

Of course, like any business to come out of Silicon Valley, Inversion has an answer to every VC’s first question: Is it scalable? Neil said the company hopes to grow its artists’ services into a “tech platform for studio management,” and plan to apply a fee of 12 to 15 percent on artists’ income as its fee. Inversion wants eventually to provide that service to thousands of artists, while directly investing in a few hundred.

Melissa Cowley Wolf, director of the Arts Funders Forum, told ARTnews that importing “a successful template from another sector” to the art world, as Inversion is doing, could give artists more agency as the value of their work and careers build.

“There is a fear that all artists have been taken advantage of,” Imeh, the painter and Inversion pilot participant, told ARTnews. With Inversion, he added, “we can all be better [off] having known each other.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *