Interview with Stephen Chow, Boston-based art collector. Stephen commissions artists, giving them the economic freedom to work on their most ambitious projects. He works as a food runner in a restaurant, saves money, invests them Bitcoin, and supports his favorite living artists.
7 PM Zürich Time, 30th of March 2021 | Zoom
P Share with us a book you read in your childhood and that stuck with you until today.
S I don’t remember exactly the contents of the book, but there was a book called Julie with the Wolves that was very influential to me. It kind of appealed to the loner personality that I had in me that wasn’t very comfortable being around large groups of people. And this story of this lone woman, living among wolves, for some reason was very attractive to me. It was kind of how I saw myself in society: not being very sociable, or not being in contact with a lot of people for most of my life. I kind of sensed intuitively that this was what I was supposed to be doing. And I read that book when I was 10 years old. So I have no idea what was inside the book now. But back then it had an impact on me.
P Based on your story I recommend you to read Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. You might enjoy reading this book or any other work by Hesse. When did you start the art patronage project and what influenced you to start it?
S It’s weird, my entire life, even from the age of four seemed to point in this direction. But I didn’t realise that it was art patronage, specifically, until about 2016. I was really fascinated with art and video games, from the age of four up through eighteen or so. The most common way to approach it was to just study art myself, painting and drawing. And I was studying video game artwork, and how people were getting into the gaming industry, creating concept art or illustrations to design the worlds that video games would be placed, into the environment and all of the character designs. So I guess that’s related to the art departments that work on films as well like for Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. So I actually went to a couple of workshops, where these concept artists were meeting in Montreal and in Seattle. It was just a meeting of like 200 artists in the entertainment industry, along with some fine artists as well that were teaching. Those workshops were run by a website called conceptart.org and that was kind of my first introduction to professional artists. Even from there they suggested to me that they felt like they were working 9 to 5, and after a full day of working for somebody else, they would spend that few hours they had at the end of their day to create their own artwork that they personally loved the most. And it was hearing stories like that from very successful, professional artists that were so unhappy with their professional work, that they had to rely on those few extra hours they had at the end of their day to create their most meaningful artworks.
That’s what’s slowly pushed me in a direction of saying, Okay, maybe I shouldn’t try to become an artist myself. And I should just try to collaborate with these extremely talented artists. So, figure out how I can help them do more of the very passionate artworks that they wanted to make on their own time. That seemed like a more productive way to go through the art world, to unlock more of that passionate work instead of trying to make a name for myself as a practising artist. What mattered to me more was that the best possible artwork in the world was getting created. And it clearly was not being made, because the best artists I could find were so unhappy with their professional lives and the work that came out of it.
P How many artists are you supporting right now?
S Two or three artists right now, I’m still paying for works that I had purchased a couple years ago, because we agreed to a monthly payment schedule. And I’m just slowly paying those off. As far as new projects, I’m kind of in hibernation right now. I’m still waiting for Bitcoin to get to a higher level, before I start doing more projects. In 2019 I went really crazy and did 10 different projects in one year. I’m probably gearing up to do something similar to that next year, or maybe the end of this year.
P Is there a piece of art that you own and that you would never never sell?
S That’s actually how I felt about pretty much everything that I’ve purchased, including the fake artworks that I mistakenly bought. My intention is to keep them forever. Or the best works can hopefully go to a museum in the future. The end goal is for the art works that I think really deserve to be in museums to go to museums and be displayed there. It was never my intention to sell anything, to treat artworks as something that could be traded for profit.
P Have you ever thought about creating your own gallery or museum?
S That’s definitely a possibility due to Bitcoin. I don’t know. I’m not sure if I would prefer to run my own gallery or museum or something like that. There’s more control, but it also is much more time intensive. And I almost feel like I would rather be spending my time doing more research instead of trying to run a gallery or museum like that. That’s that’s how I feel at the moment.
P How would you define the relationship between Bitcoin and art?
S I’m thinking about Saifedean’s The Bitcoin Standard. In the book he writes that Bitcoin is actually much more related to what money was for artists in the past, the monetary properties of Bitcoin are much harder than paper money. Michelangelo was paid in gold Florins, and that’s much closer to Bitcoin than it is to the US dollar. So we’re actually returning back to what money used to mean for artists in the past and Saifedean also suggests in his book that this is the most important reason why the quality of art has declined in the 20th century and in the 21st century. When Bitcoin proliferates, there would be this incentive to not squander Bitcoin on low quality or frivolous artworks, it would only be reserved for artwork that really deserved to be purchased and that really convinced the holders of Bitcoin to spend their Bitcoin on masterpieces. Because otherwise the opportunity cost is just way too high to be spending Bitcoin in this way. It has this filtering effect to make sure that we’re buying art for reasons that are extremely high quality or extremely beautiful, or extremely meaningful to the patron. And the consequences of buying bad quality art are much more extreme with Bitcoin. So hopefully, patrons will be much more reflective about what exactly they’re buying and what is the quality of the work that they’re buying. That’s certainly something I think about a lot. And I’m constantly exploring, because I don’t have a lot of answers. There’s this whole ocean of things that I don’t know about art. And I just need to keep finding people that can help me along this journey, for example living artists that I can speak to on Instagram.
P Fascinating. I really, really love this topic. If I understood correctly from an article I read about you a while ago, are you paying the artists you support in Bitcoin? Or are you also paying them in fiat?
S I’ve only done Bitcoin once, as an experiment. I have savings in Bitcoin and I work a job where I’m paid in fiat. I have tried so far to preserve the Bitcoin as long term savings and to accumulate more Bitcoin and add to the savings whenever possible. And the reason is because Bitcoin in the United States would be taxed if you spent it that way. So it’s really not productive to be spending Bitcoin right now on artworks. But extremely powerful as a savings vehicle. So as long as you have a job that pays in fiat then it’s easier to be able to help artists with fiat.
P What would you encourage people to do more in their lifetime?
S The first thing that comes to mind is to stop listening to peer pressure. That’s like the central reason why people start making bad decisions. Because the people around them, even family members that really love you could very well be leading you down a path that is completely wrong for you. So the best person to decide that is yourself. And especially in the media environment that we’re in right now, you really have to do a lot of self study and explore your own books in the library or in databases, online libraries, or on YouTube. There are so many other alternatives, approaches to the world, different opinions that deserve to be heard. Peer pressure is the most toxic thing in the world to me. I’m not sure where that came from, but I’ve been worried about peer pressure for the last twenty years.
I see peer pressure everywhere. And I just can’t stop thinking about it. And that goes back to Walden and all these other books where someone just decided to escape from all of this and started thinking for themselves. Bitcoin enables millions of people to behave like Thoreau if they wanted to, because it gives them that option.
What’s very dangerous is that if your only means of making a living is by conforming to your employer, and sharing all of the opinions that your employer has, you’re not allowed to become true to yourself, you can’t afford to express the most radically honest version of yourself. And you’re kind of imprisoned in a society where you have to conform to peer pressure in order to make a living or to even communicate online. So I kind of see Bitcoin as like the only way to escape from peer pressure right now. I think Bitcoin is much more radical than just financial independence. It frees your mind as well as your financial situation.
P I hosted an Interintellect salon on Thoreau’s Walden one month ago and we touched upon the topics of peer pressure, building homes close to nature, and “playing our own games”. If I hadn’t saved a big chunk of my salary monthly for the past year + invested some money in Bitcoin, I wouldn’t have had the luxury now to quit my job and have time off for self-study and thinking about what I really want to do next. As for my next question for you, Stephen…
books mentioned in the interview
Why invest time and money in art?
S I think that art is the most important thing in the world. Art is the most meaningful thing that there is, especially when it’s done without peer pressure and without financial constraints. If an artist is allowed to create their ultimate masterpiece, I think that’s the most beautiful thing in the world. I don’t think a lot of people know how much sacrifice goes into the highest quality works of art, how many things that they’re sacrificing to do this. But that’s something you find out by constantly interviewing artists and asking them personal questions such as: what kind of expenses go into this and how many people do you have to work with or to pay to cause all of these things to happen? If I can ask you a question, Patricia, what does art mean to you?
P Genuine connection and expression. I immediately connect with art – sculptures, paintings, photographs. Sometimes I express myself through painting on postcards or simple drawings in my journals. Expression via art is very important to me. Art is also an ongoing conversation with someone who is alive or dead. And there are many ways of having that conversation.
S Something I’m really interested in is getting something out of artworks that maybe the artist didn’t even intend for someone like me to be looking at. I love unexpected connections that break the mold of what something should or shouldn’t be associated with or connected with. I often see incredible things coming out of unexpected influences like this.
Why invest time and money in Bitcoin?
S I think Max Keiser called Bitcoin “the ultimate work of art”, that could be a bit difficult to understand. He says Bitcoin is art and his meaning of art is that it allows you to become fearless. Financially that is true, when you become financially free you can start taking all kinds of risks that you were afraid of taking in the past. That could be also true with artwork, in the sense that the artist also has to be fearless when they are creating their work. I see Bitcoin as an enabler of fearless artwork. Without Bitcoin, art feels very constrained, because there is not enough money, time, leisure, self-reflection. I see Bitcoin as the financial engine that allows something like artwork to become the fullest expression of what it can be, but this applies to other things as well.
P Thank you, Stephen, for your time and for your insights.