Kasseem Dean—the collector who sits on the board of trustees of the Brooklyn Museum and holds works by Basquiat, KAWS, and Kehinde Wiley in what he calls the Dean Collection—is perhaps better known as the rap producer Swizz Beatz. In the early 2000s, Swizz Beatz crafted a series of hip-hop classics for Jay Z, T.I., and DMX, and then shifted to helming songs for top artists that landed him high up on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2006, he produced this run of singles for pop deity Beyoncé, the very definition of a hot streak: “Check On It,” “Get Me Bodied,” “Upgrade U,” “Ring the Alarm.”
Sotheby’s has been having the complete opposite of a hot streak. In November, after the house acquired the estate of its once-incarcerated ex-chairman, Alfred Taubman, for $515 million, the splashy first auction of those works barely broached its low estimate, and it has yet to recoup the hefty investment. The house announced later that month that it would offer buyouts. In December, it bet big on acquiring the principals of Art Agency, Partners to the tune of $85 million, a move that left some scratching their heads. Later that month, it announced that they would lose somewhere between $10 million and $19 million in the fourth quarter of 2015.
Maybe Sotheby’s hoped some of that Swizz Beatz magic would rub off on its saleroom when it invited the producer to unveil his latest project, #THEUNKNOWNS, in its S|2 gallery Tuesday night. The premise of #THEUNKNOWNS, as described to me by Dean in a backroom at the auction house’s New York headquarters, was to bring a few artists who have been overlooked by the gallery circuit—outsider artists, street artists, self-taught artists—to the halls of the Brooklyn Museum and the Bronx Museum of the Arts (works were projected onto the buildings at night) and the gilded annals of Sotheby’s. Canon, the camera company sponsoring the proceedings, used the requisite buzzwords in its flack copy: Dean is “trying to disrupt the art world.”
“The big success to me is these artists feeling that they have some new energy to move forward in their dreams,” he said, drinking rosé while wearing bug-eyed John Lennon sunglasses in a dark room.
Sitting next to Dean was the artist Dustin Yellin, whose work Dean collects, and who seemed more bystander than wingman, mostly tapping on a large iPhone.
“So they can be on Dustin Yellin level,” Dean went on, “or Basquiat level, KAWS level—but Dustin Yellin’s level is the level.”
“No, I’m just a small Jew in a big city lookin’ for a pretty girl, I be lost!” said Yellin, not looking up from his phone.
“You have a pretty girl, I’ve seen her!” Dean said.
The works on view at S|2 are indeed unknown—it is unlikely that anyone invited to Tuesday’s cocktail reception at Sotheby’s had previously seen them hawked on the street or tucked into some barely-liked corner of Instagram. The wall text emphasizes how the powers that be have kept them down: “Overlooked by the fine art world her entire life, Princess’ work reflects the harsh realities of growing up in a tough L.A. neighborhood,” or “Early critics labeled Eddie a ‘vandal’ causing galleries to disregard his talents,” and such. Most of the work was discovered on Instagram (hence the stamping of a hashtag in front of the program’s title) and are now for sale, in an online auction, for as much as $3,000.
“We could easily pick amazing artists that we know, but I thought it was more interesting to find these artists on Instagram,” Dean said. “They’re sitting on their couch, just browsing through something, and see this invitation to something that has no details. It just said, I’m doing something amazing, if you want to be a part of it, and you’re an artist, send your work in and use these hashtags and we’ll get back to you. I wanted it to feel real, I didn’t want it to feel like the lottery, so it wasn’t over-promoted.”
(He also added, unprompted: “I can’t say I’m a fan of the curation of the show, that’s just being me, but we’re going to have room to grow, and I like not starting off perfect all the time.”)
That he’s championed such outsider work betrays the fact that, by most measures, he’s become an art-world insider. He counts dealers Jeffrey Deitch, Tony Shafrazi, and Mary Boone as consiglieri. One of Ann Pasternak’s first public moves as director of the Brooklyn Museum was putting Dean on the board of trustees alongside chair Elizabeth Sackler, artist Mickalene Thomas, and former U.S. Treasury secretary Robert Rubin. In 2014, Dean curated the Scope art fair during Art Basel Miami Beach, and during December’s Miami Beach festivities, he created his own art fair, which he called the No Commission Art Fair, and made it free to all. DMX and Alicia Keys—Dean’s wife—performed.
“It was one of the most talked about, if not the most talked about, things at Basel,” Dean said.
His collection is filled with works by the likes of Chagall, Miró, Basquiat, and Warhol. “Basquiats on my wall, goddamn I’m fly, Keith Harings and all that, Picassos and all that, Rembrandts, you name it, bitch I got all that,” Dean rapped in 2012, on the song “Street Knock” with A$AP Rocky. But he told me that he’s shifted the way in which he collects, and is trying to create a new identity for the Dean Collection. Now, he only buys work by living artists.
“I was fortunate enough to start collecting over ten years ago, and I can say, and I can be honest, that I was collecting for the wrong reasons,” Dean said. “I was in the hands of a lot of people who knew what they were talking about, but at the end of the day, I realize that art is about feeling, and I feel like I was collecting more for status. I was collecting for the label exec who would come to my house and see a Sam Francis in my living room and see a Chagall in the dining room. I realized, that shit doesn’t really matter, what matters is the connectivity you have with the artist. I figured I would start over because traveling the world I saw artists that are better than all that work that I bought.”
I asked if he sold the works that he used to pursue, the works that he still owns but doesn’t consider a part of the Dean Collection, which is apparently a different strata of the works he owns.
“A lot of it’s in storage,” he said. “I have one work that’s for sale, actually it’s probably going up for auction. But I’m just unloading it so I can buy more Dustin Yellins.”
“You have two more questions,” a publicist said.
“Let me clarify that,” Dean said. “Any work that’s in the Dean Collection I can never sell, because the Dean Collection belongs to my kids. What I’m selling is, like, a Warhol, so I had that before the Dean Collection.”
Mostly, though, he’s making an earnest attempt to democratize the art world, whether that means having real power at a 100-year-old museum with 1.5 million works, or showing completely unknown artists at a 250-year-old auction house that has to offer buyouts to scores of employees in a quarter when it sold a Twombly for $70 million.
“A lot of people that came to No Commission had never been in a gallery,” Dean said. “A lot of people who bought works had never bought artworks before. Because the entry point into these galleries and into these museums and into these auction houses is not really embraced. So it’s like, what’s the entry point? I have to be rich to go into these galleries? Or it’s like, this is Sotheby’s. You know what? Let’s create an entry point. They can start like myself—buying small pieces, and then being able to buy pieces from Sotheby’s.”