Off the court and field, top athletes become players in the art market

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Off the court and field, top athletes become players in the art market
Former NBA player Carmelo Anthony near the artwork of Nelson Makamo at his home in Westchester, New York, on Oct. 27, 2023. Sports figures are increasingly becoming serious collectors, helping drive interest in contemporary art and particularly in artists of color. (Elias Williams/The New York Times)

by Robin Pogrebin and Emmanuel Morgan

NEW YORK, NY.- Carmelo Anthony, the 10-time NBA All-Star who announced his retirement in May, said that when he was starting out as a professional basketball player he did not understand art but grew to appreciate it and began collecting as he matured. Now paintings by major Black artists including Nelson Makamo, Swoon, Rashid Johnson and Kehinde Wiley line the walls of his home in Westchester, New York.

“It’s the emotional attachment that you have when looking at a piece, which makes you want to go back and see it over and over and over again,” Anthony, 39, said. “You learn something every time you look at it.”

Professional athletes have grown more serious about buying art in recent years, not unlike other people with new wealth who become collectors. But their fame has helped make them tastemakers, with the ability to help drive interest in contemporary art and particularly in artists of color. Now many sports figures are being courted by galleries, auction houses, art shows and museums.

“This is a new collector base in the art world,” said art adviser Gardy St. Fleur, who represents several players. “It’s growing fast.”

In September, Miami Heat forward Kevin Love organized one of Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” sales in New York, featuring works by Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly and Ernie Barnes, a Black artist whose joyous painting “The Sugar Shack” sold at Christie’s last year for $15.3 million. During Art Basel Miami next month, St. Fleur said that he intended to visit the art fairs with former NBA players like Deron Williams, Courtney Lee and Amar’e Stoudemire, and that he was arranging a private dinner for some of his athlete clients at a collector’s home on Star Island.

There are other signs that the influence of athletes who collect art has been growing in recent years.

Former NFL linebacker Keith Rivers, an avid collector, curated a show last year at the FLAG Art Foundation in New York City featuring work by painter Kerry James Marshall and sculptors Sonia Gomes and Thaddeus Mosley. He served on the board of advisers of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and now serves on the board of the Hirshhorn in Washington.

Former point guard Elliot Perry has given talks about collecting at museums, and in 2019 mounted an exhibition in the Tennessee locker room of the Memphis Grizzlies.

“I was thinking about the limitations of Black artists to show their works in major museums or Galleries in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s,” he recalled last month on his art collection’s Instagram account. “I wanted to think outside the box and give our players #athletes an opportunity to engage with ART done by African American Artists and respond to the cultural richness of these artists, as well as draw their own interpretation of the works.”

Things have changed in the two decades since Grant Hill, the seven-time NBA All-Star, sponsored a seven-city tour of his considerable personal art collection, “Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art.” At that time fewer athletes were interested in art, and Hill said that he was initially uncomfortable publicly discussing his own interest, even though he was following in the footsteps of his father, Calvin Hill, who began collecting when he was a star player on the Dallas Cowboys.

“I was apprehensive because I thought my peers would maybe look at me a bit differently,” he recalled. “It wasn’t something that was discussed in the locker room back in the early 2000s.”

That shifted, he said, in recent years as some of the biggest figures in music and fashion began to embrace the art market.

“Now, as you have this convergence of sports and entertainment, it’s all very much intertwined,” he said.

There is also a growing awareness of art as an asset class.

“It’s something you can enjoy that maintains its value,” Hill said. “I’d rather buy a piece of art than buy a car.”

Prominent sports agent Rich Paul, who is also a collector, said he had been encouraging the players he represents to consider art as a passion and an investment.

“I’ve purposely tried to get my guys into collecting — not just buying art but educating yourself and not looking at it as a quick flip or a business,” said Paul, the founder of Klutch Sports Group, which represents LeBron James and many other NBA and NFL stars. “Rather than take that trip to Miami or buy a Range Rover or blow the money in the club, you’re better off putting it on your wall.”

Paul’s collection includes works by Mark Bradford, Derrick Adams, Sam Gilliam and Henry Taylor. In 2022 he joined the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to which he has promised to donate Kehinde Wiley’s “Yachinboaz Ben Yisrael II,” one of 60 works the museum acquired in 2021 to highlight Black representation.

Corey Robinson, a collector and former Notre Dame wide receiver who worked for Gagosian and Sotheby’s before becoming a reporter for NBC Sports, said elite athletes “are starting to see themselves in artists,” who are similarly obsessive about their work. Robinson, who recently joined the artists council at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, added that by buying works by artists of color, sports figures can use their platforms to “shift the perception of hundreds of years of art history.”

The drive that Rivers, the former linebacker, brought to learning about art was what partly led Glenn Fuhrman, founder of the FLAG Art Foundation, to invite him to curate a show.

“He attacked the art world with the same intensity and diligence that he did football,” Fuhrman said. “He read voraciously, went to Munich to the Haus der Kunst museum, to London for the Frieze art fair, to Africa to meet artists.”

The art market has begun making an effort to cultivate athletes. Jacqueline Wachter, vice chair of private sales for Sotheby’s in Los Angeles, has been working to develop potential collectors from outside the traditional art world, including athletes, musicians and young Hollywood executives.

This month, Sotheby’s announced that it would collaborate with the NBA in hosting a series of auctions of player jerseys.

“It’s starting a passion from scratch,” Wachter said, adding that the “strategy involves a lot of education,” including visits to exhibitions and artists studios as well as demonstrating that art is something that “might go up in value.”

Christie’s promoted an Andy Warhol portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat in 2021 by displaying it at the Barclays Center for the season-opening home games of the Brooklyn Nets.

“We always look at where is new wealth,” said Alex Rotter, the chairman of Christie’s departments overseeing 20th- and 21st-century art, adding that while a sports figure bid on the Warhol painting, it sold to another buyer for $40 million. “Just as we’re looking at the new tech people, we’re also looking at the athletes.”

The celebrity of athletes gives them a level of access not typically enjoyed by fledgling collectors. Love, the NBA player who organized the Sotheby’s show, has been invited into the studios of prominent artists like Ed Ruscha.

“I was inspired by his two ‘The End’ pieces that I actually ended up getting after I visited his Culver City space” near LA, Love said.

Several sports teams have their own art world initiatives. The Los Angeles Lakers recently announced the third year of its “In the Paint” program, which works to help LA-based artists of color with grants and opportunities to sell their works, with the team pledging to purchase three pieces for its training center. The San Antonio Spurs recently hired a curator, Illa Gaunt, to choose art for its new practice facility; her selections include basketball-themed work by artists including Alexandre Arrechea and Deborah Roberts.

And last summer Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown gave large prints by Spanish artist Rafa Macarrón to the top three draft picks in the NBA rookie class as part of an initiative he started with creative director Set Free Richardson of the AND1 Mixtape series, a popular showcase of street basketball, to teach professional players about art.

Anthony, who was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 2003 when he was 19, said that it was a teammate there, Juwan Howard, who first helped teach him that art was more than just “the Van Goghs and the Rembrandts and the Picassos.” Now Anthony owns more artwork than he can display, so he has made his home a rotating art gallery, regularly shuffling the mix.

He said he was conscious of the power high-profile athletes can have in boosting artists’ careers and encouraging other nascent collectors.

Athletes can have influence in the art because they “bring the attention,” Anthony said. “We have to continue being those voices in speaking up.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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