The art world can be a tough nut to crack. Building a financially stable career as an artist relies on getting your work in front of the right eyeballs. That alone takes serious effort, but convincing the owners of those eyeballs to write cheques is another feat entirely. The unfortunate fact is that the traditional system struggles to support emerging talent. Galleries need reassurance that a new artist’s solo show will yield a financial return while art collectors would rather invest in an established name than take a chance on an untested talent. For a budding artist, building enough hype to earn a debut solo exhibition at a respectable gallery often requires the level of momentum that can only come off the back of already having already hosted a successful solo show. It’s a paradox that prevents numerous creative visions ever reaching a receptive audience. These obstacles often overwhelm aspiring artists struggling to elbow their way into the exclusive club that is the modern art world, and as a result we’re left with a frequently homogenous, creatively lacklustre industry that often fails to fulfil its potential of fostering truly exciting, fresh talent.
However there is hope, and it comes in the possibly unexpected form of hip hop producer and rapper Swizz Beatz. In August 2016, and in partnership with Bacardi, the Bronx musician launched his ‘No Commission’ platform, an initiative that aims to drastically reinvent the current art world format and shake the foundations by empowering new artists to reach a wider audience.
Holding weekend-long events in major cities around the world, each No Commission event offers selected artists, both established and new talent alike, an opportunity to exhibit their work for free and receive 100 percent of any sales they make. Unlike the traditional format that would see artists pay a hefty chunk of their earnings to the gallery, under Swizz’s vision, artists pay no commission. For Swizz, levelling the playing field seems to be the driving motivation behind the project, “I always said that if I can offer another option or help change this a little bit I would want to do it,” he says.
Operating under the title of Bacardi’s chief creative for culture, Swizz Beatz has already been able to bring this idea into reality twice since launching in the Bronx last summer. Swizz then brought the project to London in December and is currently preparing for No Commission’s Asian debut, taking place in Shanghai in April. Although still very much in its infancy, the initiative has already shaken up the status quo. “We’ve been able to put over $3 million USD back into artists’ pockets,” says Swizz, “it’s amazing for every artist to sell work and be able to keep 100 percent. It’s by the artist, for the artist.”
“Just because I have a good eye – or an eye that I’m working on – doesn’t mean I don’t need guidance.”
The mission statement seems clear: Open up doors for creative minds by redefining the industry model. But how does a hip-hop producer, born and raised in the Bronx, who’s perhaps more synonymous with Ruff Ryders than fancy galleries, find himself in the position of industry innovator and in charge of deciding who makes the cut? Swizz is refreshingly honest about his fine art credentials, “I’m forever a student. I’m always sharpening my pencil,” he says. To help him with curation duties he’s enlisted professional art curator Nicola Vassell, who previously worked under famed art dealer Jeffrey Ditch, to assist with the process. “Just because I have a good eye – or an eye that I’m working on – doesn’t mean I don’t need guidance.”
Perhaps this self-confessed ‘outsider’ status makes him a good candidate to shake things up. Swizz understands that sometimes it’s easier to assess the flaws in an establishment from the outside. “Most people think they know everything because they have a little bit of status in an area or a little bit of success in an area. I don’t feel like that,” he says. “I feel I can use all the help I can get because it’s going right back to the people, right back to the artists and the more creative minds at the table, the better.”
His approach appears to be working. The No Commission events that he’s already overseen have been undisputedly successful, not just for the exhibitors, but also for first-time art collectors. “Our shows have been selling out 98 percent of the artists, so that’s pretty good, and the rate of new people buying art is over 50p percent,” he says. Providing artists with a credible exhibition space for free isn’t the only service that No Commission offers, it’s also about creating opportunities for networking with industry honchos. A sense of mutual support permeates throughout the project, not just in the organisers, but also the exhibitors. “There’s a certain humbleness, especially with the artists that are well known, because I’m putting them next to somebody that no-one’s ever heard of and I’m doing that on purpose,” says Swizz. “There’s no big I’s and little U’s.”
The globe-hopping nature of the project is ensuring that it reaches as diverse an audience as possible, but why pick Shanghai as the first location for 2017? “Some of the biggest conversations are coming out of China,” Swizz says. “I just wanted to highlight that and then project it across the world and be like ‘listen, this also happens in China. Look at this artist’s animation, look at this artist’s digital work. Look at the things that China has to offer.’” The importance of lifting up talent that deserves to be lifted is vital to Swizz’s vision, regardless of location. “There’s a lot of great artists out there in the world but what I think shines through the No Commission artists is the passion and dedication.”
“Some of the biggest conversations are coming out of China. I just wanted to highlight that and then project it across the world.”
With an event in Berlin taking place this summer followed by a stop in Miami later in the year, it seems Swizz is committed to seeing this project through and meaningfully challenging the current system, because, as he says, his commitment to changing the culture runs deep, “I think that it’s rare that you see a true activation like that, that gives back to the culture for real.”
To register for the Shanghai event running from April 7 – April 9, RSVP here, (you must be 18 or over), and as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already, Swizz has also recently announced the next instalment of his beat battles, this time seeing Lex Luger face off against Southside. Find out more about that right here.