OPENING THE DOORS OF ARTISTS. Mazdak Sanii is Founder and CEO of Avant Arte, a London and Amsterdam based company which brings the work of outstanding contemporary artists to new generations of collectors. Of Zoroastrian heritage – Mazdak’s father was born in Tehran and was forced to leave Iran in 1979 as part of the Islamic revolution – previously he was COO of Boiler Room, the online music broadcaster and club promoter.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Mazdak Sanii, you run a very successful business but your background is in humanities?
Yes, I was a humanities kid through and through. I played the French horn quite intensely from the age of seven through to my twenties and spent the best part of a decade at a specialist music school. Then I read English at Oxford University and was going to become a poet, but through anecdote and coincidence this led to doing an internship at Rothschild bank in London.
Which appears to be quite far from music and poetry?
I loved the learning curve at Rothschild, an environment that wasn’t just focused on whether you could build a financial model. They valued your ability to listen, to build relationships, to give thoughtful advice. I joined full time after my internship and was very fortunate to be mentored by a Partner who is still one of my primary professional influences. Four years in I met Blaise Bellville, the founder of Boiler Room.
Now you’re most interested in building businesses?
I benefited hugely from my exposure to music, to art, literature and opera from an early age. The last ten years of building businesses has been focused around how I can help more people benefit from the impact I know these cultural forms can have. It’s about breadth and it’s about people having access and understanding and feeling comfortable.
“Avant Arte is a platform that’s trying to make discovering and collecting art radically more accessible than it has been.”
Mazdak Sanii, did you join Boiler Room to reconnect with your roots?
Yes, I could deploy everything I’d learned in Rothschild and do something more entrepreneurial, and online music was an area of natural interest. Boiler Room evolved organically as a gaffer taped webcam in the corner of an old boiler room in a warehouse in Hackney, and a group of musicians livestreaming their experimentation. It developed a cult online following, and when I met Blaise there were just a couple of employees and he was thinking about how to become a business. Boiler Room was a funny model because it hosted small events that were very exclusive to the musicians, their friends and family, and a few other people; and then it was broadcast online for free – and millions of people would tune in to watch. With its huge musical range it was this strange mix of exclusive and inclusive, online and offline.
Blaise Bellville asked you to help him develop Boiler Room?
The conversation with Blaise evolved from doing a range of work for free with music related companies that I thought were interesting, and Boiler Room was one of those. I joined the board in 2013 as a non-exec, and then as COO in 2014 when we raised our seed round, started to accelerate the company’s growth, structure departments and think about its longer term strategy. We grew the online audience significantly. There were 8 million people in total across our channels that would engage with the artists that we were platforming, and we grew a commercial model, finding brand partners who found that audience valuable. I learnt a lot about launching in different markets, leading different teams and building engaged audiences on and offline.
Much of this was new to you?
I’d never run a product team or a partnerships team before, so lots of this was entirely new to me and it was an amazing experience. It was also how I met Christian and Curtis, my co-founders in Avant Arte, and started talking about how to grow the Avant Arte community and how to build a business around it. Christian and Curtis come from a post-industrial town in the Netherlands that doesn’t have any museums or galleries or concert halls, and so had been engaging with culture primarily through the Internet. They weren’t part of the geographic privilege that people in London or New York benefit from in terms of access to culture, but they started the blog that then became the seeds of our community.
What is Avant Arte?
We are a platform that’s trying to make discovering and collecting art radically more accessible than it has been. We work with leading contemporary artists and have a community of over 3 million new generation collectors, and we try and find ways to put the two in dialogue. We do that in two ways: through storytelling, content and context, and also through producing sculpture editions and print editions and works on paper, some public works, some digital art.
What is the core idea behind this?
We believe that art has a profound impact on people, both emotionally and intellectually. But when you compare the impact of art to music or fashion or other areas of culture that have really leveraged technology, art needs to be broadened in terms of access and impact. Part of that is financial access, and edition making provides high quality entry points for collectors to collect a piece of an artist that they love and access points for them to start their collecting journey. The majority of our community are under 40 and going to museums frequently but don’t understand how they might support museums. They are passionate about art and artists but a lot of the time feel excluded from gallery or traditional art settings.
How does Avant Arte work as a business?
In two ways. One is direct with the artist, and the second is with the artist alongside the museum, a recent example of which would be our project at the London Design Museum around Ai Wei Wei’s Making Sense exhibition. We have been working with its CEO Tim Marlow for a long time and knew that this exhibition was being planned, so we partnered with the Design Museum and Weiwei on producing a collection of editions which raised funds for the Design Museum to put on the exhibition.
By editions you mean that one work is multiplied by 10 or 100 or more?
Yes. With Weiwei we did a collection of print editions of 100 and a sculpture edition of 300 of one of his Coca-Cola vases. We also did a time limited edition. We have a screen-printing studio in London where Weiwei worked with our master printer and produced a proof of the work; and the edition size was defined by the number of people who bought the piece in that period of time. Our time-limited editions are our most accessible offering for new collectors, with 1,285 of the Weiwei time-limited edition sold in 24 hours.
“We’ve found that the collectors are very interested across culture; they are not just art collectors but music fans and interested in fashion and part of that modern audience that is transversal.”
Mazdak Sanii, how active is your programme at Avant Arte?
We have a consistent programme of launches. Some have offline elements like with Elizabeth Peyton and the National Portrait Gallery, where collectors can see the physical piece, but for the majority of projects we produce storytelling campaigns and lead up to an online launch. At least once a week we launch an edition with an artist, and those can range from an edition with Julian Schnabel of 10 pieces to an edition with Ai Weiwei of 1,300 pieces.
Are you unique in this venture?
There’s a long history of amazing printing houses and an important ecosystem of businesses making editions of the highest quality – Gemini G.E.L. on the West Coast, Brand X Editions in New York, and Heni which Joe Hage set up in London, but we’re unique in having built an online community of this scale. Our community of 3 million was under 300,000 in 2018 and we now have the largest online following of any art business. We are also unique in the way we connect artists and collectors through both storytelling and edition making.
How do you make yourself known to your community?
Primarily through social media channels. We have a big Instagram following. We have a very active newsletter and a database of people that have signed up for our online magazine. It’s also word of mouth – for example, we take huge care of the packaging that we send to collectors, sending handwritten notes with every edition, and we’ve definitely found collectors referring each other.
Your progress is strong?
We are making progress towards our mission of making art more accessible by offering beautiful works from leading artists at more affordable prices. Off the back of this, we’ve been able to partner with and raise millions of dollars for museums, and build a uniquely strong community of collectors. We’ve never been able to reach more people or put more work into people’s homes.
What kind of people are your collectors?
We have people who bought their very first piece of art with Avant Arte, and they range from young professionals and lawyers through to established collectors. It’s not exclusive. Often they have found us because they’re passionate about one particular artist; and then they’ve discovered our broader program. There are lots of very established collectors who might not be able to buy an original work by one of the artists that they really admire and we build a collaboration with the artist – be it with Jenny Holzer or Paul McCarthy, a whole range of much more established artists – and those collectors then become part of our community as well. We’ve found that the collectors are very interested across culture; they are not just art collectors but music fans and interested in fashion and part of that modern audience that is transversal.
Where are most of your collectors?
It is absolutely global; we have collectors in over 100 countries. They coalesce typically in the U.S., the UK, Germany and France. Greater China, Japan and Korea have been huge markets for us that have grown incredibly rapidly. In South America we found amazing artists, but fewer collectors as a proportion of our overall client base, but the Far East has been a big growth market for us.
Is one reason you reach new worlds because a young person would be shy to go into an art gallery?
That’s exactly right. It’s providing an access point that is of quality and takes people on a journey towards being collectors of original works. A helpful bridge, hopefully as helpful to the galleries as it is to the artists. With museums however it’s much more direct, and we have a range of partnerships with museums where we can meaningfully fundraise for them through these editions. We have raised millions of dollars in very short periods of time at a moment where cultural funding is a problem. It’s particularly acute in the UK, but it’s an issue globally. I don’t know any public museum that isn’t thinking about financial sustainability and trying to evolve towards financial independence rather than a reliance on central funding that may not always be available.
Avant Arte Founder and CEO Mazdak Sanii was a dedicated french horn player from age seven through to his twenties.
Boiler Room connecting club culture to the wider world, on screen and through parties, film and video.
Ai Weiwei and Design Museum Director Tim Marlow at Avant Arte_s Master Printmaker, Make-Ready, image courtesy of Avant Arte
Tschabalala Self, Seated, the artist’s first public art sculpture commissioned by Avant Arte, image courtesy of Avant Arte
Jenny Holzer, URGE, URGE, URGE, 2020, edition of 25 in support of the NYC AIDS Memorial, image courtesy of Avant Arte
Elizabeth Peyton, Frederick Douglass, 1850, time-limited print edition with Avant Arte in support of the National Portrait Gallery, image courtesy of Avant Arte
“Living with art and supporting artists are by far the two primary drivers of our collectors’ interests.”
Mazdak Sanii, do galleries see Avant Arte as a competitor?
No, and that’s not how we think of ourselves. We have partnered with many galleries in really productive ways. Many of our artists have incredible gallery relationships and we are very thoughtful about making sure that everyone’s aligned and that their priorities are understood and are part of the collaboration. We’ve introduced lots of our early collectors to gallerists that we’re friendly with and they’ve become very committed supporters of their programs; a proportion of them become collectors of original works and engage with the rest of the art ecosystem.
Do you also discover new talents?
We certainly get a lot of energy from being in artists’ studios and have worked with artists earlier in their career, like Anna Weyant, Antonia Showering and Danielle McKinney, all of whom we’re so excited to see develop incredibly well in recent years. We have a content series that give more prominence to artists even that we don’t work with commercially, and see ourselves as part of the ecosystem that can support artists, alongside the incredible work and impact of galleries and museums. We have a large and very engaged audience so giving artists exposure and connecting them with our community can be a really positive thing.
What level of prices are the artworks for sale at Avant Arte?
It’s a real range, as we work directly with the artists to create new works that enter their oeuvre. The most accessible price has been €350 for a print edition and we have sold works for €250,000. The average is a couple of thousand euros. Living with art and supporting artists are by far the two primary drivers of our collectors’ interests.
What is your view of the craze for NFTs that we saw in the art world?
We send certificates of authenticity with all of our sculptures and prints in physical form; an NFT most basically is a digital form of that which secures digital scarcity and usually has a digital artwork attached to it. We were very reticent to collaborate on NFT projects for a long time because we felt there was such a lot of heat and hype around the market. In 2022, a long time after the initial NFT craze, we built a proposition helping digital artists explore physical mediums like sculpture and print-making for the first time and also helping established artists incorporate NFTs into their physical practice. That bridge between digital and physical felt like a point of differentiation for us. We humans will exist between physical and digital realities and culture will represent those two sides.
How many people work with you at Avant Arte and what kind of people are they?
We have a team of 90 based between London and Amsterdam, which is where our warehouse and fulfilment is. We have product managers and designers, and engineers writing the technical code that enables our artists and collectors to connect. We have a screen-printing studio and a team under the leadership of a master printer, and we have a team of creative producers who partner with the artists, either with our screen-printing studio or with a bronze foundry in Japan or with a Carrara marble quarry or a range of different producers to realise the artist’s work in any medium. Then there are our curators, artist liaison team, content writers and people who can story tell around the artist’s practice. It’s a real spread, a combination between art and technology.
What is your own role?
I spend lots of time with artists and with museums and with curators. The rest of my time is spent coaching the team, providing a strategic direction and working internally. It’s an interesting role of being both within and without. I’m very much enjoying myself. I’m very committed. There’s still a huge amount to build and achieve with Avant Arte.
Did the pandemic affect you badly?
We make physical works so the start of the pandemic was very tumultuous because every studio and producer in the world that we partnered was closed and we didn’t know whether that would be for three days or three months or three years. We thought it likely that different parts of the world would open up at different times and so we spent the first few weeks of the pandemic building a map of all the producers of quality globally across all the mediums we work in. We wanted multiple producers in every major territory in the world, and built relationships with them online. The depth of research that we went through to establish that network became a really important part of the value that we could give to artists even after the pandemic because we could connect an artist with the highest quality maker in any medium, anywhere in the world. The work that we did in that pandemic period of unknowing became really important for the company in the long term.
Is Avant Arte your only commercial activity?
Yes. Companies in their earliest iterations are all encompassing. I am a builder, and for companies at their inception there’s more work than time so I definitely wouldn’t want to take on two at the same time. I do sit on the board of two charities, the London Contemporary Orchestra, and the National Youth Orchestra which I was a French horn player in as a teenager. It’s an organisation built around musical excellence and performance but also about disseminating the leadership qualities music can bring to a much wider audience. My personal highlight was when I was 13 and we played Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand, at the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by Simon Rattle.
All images courtesy of Mazdak Sanii and Avant Arte.
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