Wall Street Lends Its Style to Artists In Need of Funds
Investors Ease the Struggle
By Ben White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; Page A01
NEW YORK -- It was the biggest break of her career, an assignment to produce a sculpture big enough to fill 6,000 square feet of museum space, but artist Sharon Louden didn't have the $20,000 she needed to get the project started.
So Louden and her husband, Vinson Valega, a jazz musician and commodities trader, borrowed an idea from Wall Street.
They drew up a prospectus and began soliciting investors to buy shares in the sculpture, which would be put up for sale after its exhibition at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.
Louden and Valega are part of a movement that gives new meaning to "the art of the deal" -- an effort to remove some of the struggle from the lives of struggling artists by harnessing techniques more familiar to Wall Street than New York's Museum Mile.
"We could have put it all on credit cards and gone into debt," said Valega, describing the financial style that frequently accompanies a life in the arts. "But I thought, this is going to be really valuable some day -- let's collateralize it."
Louden and Valega, both of whom grew up in Olney, called previous collectors of Louden's work, easily gathering enough money to complete the piece. This spring, she sold it to a corporate buyer, earning investors returns of between 50 and 75 percent. Investments ranged from $200 to several thousand dollars, and the minimum return anyone made was about $100.
The sculpture -- 850 miles of black and gray monofilament fishing line bundled into individual pieces meant to evoke a natural landscape -- belongs to auto insurance company Progressive Corp., which maintains a large contemporary art collection. Called "The Attenders," it hangs above the foyer of the company's call center in Phoenix.
"Some people like it, some hate it," Louden said of employee reaction. "But as long as it gets people talking, that's what matters."
Louden said that when she began telling investors about the size of their returns after the sculpture was sold, many begged her to keep the money for her next venture.
"They just freaked out," she said. Louden said she has been inundated with phone calls from investors eager to get in on her next project and artists interested in her novel fundraising approach. She is getting ready to solicit a second round of investors for an ambitious animation project.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company