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THE FRIDAY FEATURE: Art Patron Stephen Chow
Cutting a path in supporting the living geniuses of our time
I am thrilled today to be launching THE FRIDAY FEATURE here on Chaos & Beauty, where most Fridays I will be featuring in print the best leading voices and artists who are working day and night to build a much better artistic world.
The common thread will be excellence and working outside of our current cultural landscape in a variety of refreshing ways.
To launch, it was important for me to start with art patron Stephen Chow whose unique voice and mission sets an important tone for us all going forward as we rebuild. The seriousness and generosity with which he has approached this field is fascinating and remarkable, and a critical model for us all.
Many are setting out online to make themselves “art experts” or “connoisseurs” but reveal a thin and often embarrassing grasp of real art, taste-making, experience, and true genius, and seem clearly motivated by ego and markets rather than ideals. Stephen is humble, brilliant, thoughtful, and consumed by this uncommon vocation, and understands the role of the patron is itself an art. I couldn’t agree more.
Enjoy, and definitely make time for his short, beautiful documentary, linked near the end of our interview.
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THE FRIDAY FEATURE: INTERVIEW WITH ART PATRON STEPHEN CHOW
Kay Clarity: To start, how did you decide to become an art patron? Was there a specific moment—a dramatic turn—or was it a more gradual process?
Stephen Chow: Up until age 23, I was trying and failing to incorporate visual art, music, and books into my life in a way that felt right. I've known since I was a child that they were important to me, but I kept approaching them from various different angles that always left me in frustration and despair.
The main problem at the time was that I had moved on from years of playing musical instruments to years of studying oil painting and drawing without having a clear reason why I was doing any of this. Why? For what purpose? What was I really making? Did it really matter? Things hit rock-bottom in 2010 when, while living with my parents, I became severely depressed not only from this crisis of meaning but also from a poor diet and lack of sunlight. It was when I began needing to fight off thoughts of suicide that I realized that my body was telling me, Stop doing this and change something!
I got up and took the first job that would hire me, started collecting more books as I had been doing before, upgraded to collecting second-hand art on eBay because it was inexpensive (this was where I dropped all pretenses of being an artist myself), and then further upgraded to collaborating with living artists in 2016. This was finally what felt right.
KC: I remember being fascinated and energized reading about patronage on your website years ago, especially with many of your Ezra Pound quotes. What struck me is that patronage itself seems to be an art and an area of cultivation and genius in itself. Can you explain your understanding of the role of the patron in this light?
SC: Currently I think of it like this: The patron is a Steve Jobs-type character who has to decide what to do with the capital and what to focus on (more importantly what to say 'No' to and keeping standards as high as possible), and the artist is the Wozniak-type character who just wants to focus on sketching, experimenting, and creating the best things he or she can imagine.
I am not as forward as Ezra Pound when he says that the patron is equal to the artist, because I know I could never do what the artists do, and I hold them in such high regard! But hopefully it is a complementary, synergistic relationship.
KC: How do you go about selecting the artists you support?
SC: I have an internal sense of what my preferences are for art, and this can be seen even in the works that I collected on eBay: dense, multi-layered details, dynamic in the way the work reflects light, a sense of ancient history or culture, strong-willed, confident, fearless, a slice of mature civilization and mature art forms.
I will react physically or intuitively to works like this by living artists when I see them online, and feel compelled to ask the artist as many questions as I can to learn more. This happens very rarely, but when I encounter an artist's work like this I will know it instantly that I need to be supporting them. I know it when I see it, but it's always startling and unexpected, and not something I was exactly looking for or expecting to like at first glance.
I would feel defeated to know exactly what I'm looking for and then to just find it. That feels very claustrophobic or unimaginative or not fully human. I believe that the best the world has to offer must be more interesting than this, and go far beyond my own expectations of what should be out there.
KC: The environment, especially online, is hyper-political right now. From my end as an artist and writer, with my personal convictions, it feels unavoidable to step into that fray because it has been forced from one side so militantly in recent years and has made my career in the regular music industry almost impossible without moral compromise. But your approach manages to glide completely and impressively above all of that in a world that can’t seem to escape the political grip. This stems, it seems to me, from your primary concern with and laser focus on genius. I admire that greatly. Can you explain that focus a bit?
SC: Early on I've experienced the beauty of great metal music transcending all differences and disagreements, and the music that I love in that genre has always been there for me. I know that I would not agree with a lot of musicians politically whose works I love, but that has no bearing on the positive effects that their music has had on me. And so I carry that over to the visual arts and try to look for the best in people. Of course what matters most to me is the quality of their work, and I think that when it comes to genius, you simply have to go to where the genius is and any differences are just something that exists, but shouldn't stop anyone from collaborating.
I admit that it's not easy sometimes! I get riled up too and emotionally cannot handle angry disagreements. I just shut off at that point, and such conversations have never been productive. I would like to believe that genius-level work silences all of this, especially when patronage is offered.
KC: You’ve managed to be an art patron at a higher level than most will ever approach, and you’ve truly made it your life’s work. It's beautiful. Do you have advice for how the average person can become a smaller scale “patron” in their own lives, or is this just a unique vocational calling?
SC: I'm sorry to say that the many quotes that I've read about this have said that patronage like this is extremely rare, and so far I have not seen any reasons to disagree with them!
Because what I envision for the next few decades becomes more and more ambitious and focused, and the things that I've had to learn in order to do this in a way that feels right to me have taken my whole life up until this point. I feel totally at odds with almost everything that I see in the art world. But in the simplest terms: If you stop at nothing to find the highest quality work that the entire world has to offer, I, too, am looking constantly for that.
I started out on eBay buying one work per month for a few hundred dollars each until I found my footing. That is something I would encourage, except applied to small works by living artists. That is the starting point, but at the end of the day my calling is to find the very best that the world has to offer. Anything less than that ambitious goal is a form of private collecting to me, not patronage. Patronage should be dedicated to masterworks and enabling masterworks to happen.
KC: Connected to this, it seems a lot of people don’t believe me when I say that we need intelligent, informed, sensitive art lovers and patrons as much as we need the artists themselves. Do you agree, and what role, if any, does an artistically formed general public play in ensuring a robust artistic culture?
SC: Yes I agree, but it should never be forced! The love for art has to come naturally. It has to be voluntary. And it should always be fiercely independent.
You are basically the extremely small minority dissenting from public opinion, and putting your money where your mouth is. If you are extremely disagreeable and nonconformist and think everyone else is wrong except you, that is a good foundation to have! You must be a private investigator thinking for yourself, investigating everything by yourself, and coming up with answers that surprise everyone, including yourself. That is what we need, and I see it working brilliantly for music on YouTube, but I don't find the same kind of discerning audience in the visual arts.
KC: There seem to a few self-appointed "art experts" floating around online that, to me, are pretty horribly unimpressive and giving many the wrong view of art and artists. That might be me just being crabby. But what do you think actually sets a real art expert apart from the strivers or pretenders? What are the notable qualities for people to watch for to know someone's opinion is worth paying attention to?
SC: I would say that if they have an Instagram account, the Instagram account will tell you everything that you need to know: what works they like, what they're thinking, what they're focused on. To me the real art expert is in their own universe nerding out 100% of the time, and that will be reflected in the Instagram account. Above all you have to be thoroughly impressed by the quality of the work they want to share with you.
KC: Would you like to share a bit about how Bitcoin has informed your desire and ability to support living artists?
SC: I would say it has made me exponentially more ambitious in the long-term, but also much more cautious of going down paths that I really shouldn't be on in the short-term. The opportunity cost of spending Bitcoin is so high that there is only room for what I would consider the highest quality available. I expect Bitcoin to have much higher purchasing power over many years, but at the same time geniuses don't live forever and they need help sooner rather than later!
KC: I’m struck as well by how you seem to find genius across the board, from classic artists in traditional forms, to modern music. This is rare and refreshing, as much of your work and approach is. In that vein, what are a couple of artists you’re really excited about at the moment and why?
SC: I have just in the past two months found what I think are my patron-equivalent in modern music, and they are the legendary fans of BAND-MAID, a Japanese hard rock band made up of five brilliant women. They led the way and showed me through hundreds of interview translations, live concert videos, podcasts, and social media comments just how astonishing and world-class this band is. It is like a 5-in-1 cluster of geniuses, and they are rightfully described as miraculous in that they managed to develop amazing chemistry together over 10+ years (the line-up never changed) and are continually working to evolve their sound. Everything about them, everything they do, has been a blessing to my life. And then I am working now with the goldsmith Morgan Asoyuf to fund a new jewelry project that continues the theme from her Royal Portrait exhibition in 2019. That project is just getting started and I'm very excited to watch it develop.
KC: I love your documentary on becoming a patron for that beautiful Russian iconographer, Yury Yarin, and will share it here for those who haven’t seen it yet:
It's an incredible story. But where else can people find out more about what you do, and can keep up to pace with your work?
SC: The main patronage site is chowartfund.wordpress.com, and then @chowcollection on Instagram goes into much more detail with 5,000 posts on there. But nowadays I will be posting on a new social media platform called Nostr. I use the Damus app which is a client for Apple, but there are many other clients available to access Nostr. I am also @chowcollection on there.
KC: Thank you so much for your ideals, your sense for excellence, and your generosity, and for taking time with this interview. It’s remarkable and much needed in our ego-driven and often, in so many ways, mediocre culture. We will all benefit much from your wisdom. Is there anything else you’d like to share to finish things off today?
SC: Thank you so much, Kay, for the opportunity! When it comes to art I live by the rule of quality over quantity, and I truly believe that culture means the presence of great art, great artists, great patrons, and great audiences, who all demand quality over quantity.
Thanks for reading today and hope you will follow along with Stephen’s work, as I expect we will see incredible things from and around him in the coming years.
I’m looking very forward to this series to begin our much-needed cultural conversation surrounding questions of greatness and art for a world in need of something real, beautiful, and meaningful. Subscribe below to receive notifications. Next Friday will skip, but after that most Fridays will feature a carefully-selected voice for the arts well worth your time.
Chaos & Beauty is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.