Art

Meet the Gay Couple Shaking Up the Fine Art Market

James Miille and Alex Mitow, co-founders of Superfine!: The Fair, want to make collecting fine art accessible for all.

James Miille and Alex Mitow want to help you fill your home with art.

It’s a simple goal with a not-so-simple plan of attack: Miille and Mitow, co-founders of Superfine!: The Fair, know that the world of fine art isn’t inclusive by design. For many of us, collecting art seems like a pipe dream. And the art market, an arena steeped in prestige, doesn’t exactly welcome newbie collectors or emerging artists with open arms.

“At a lot of other fairs, a booth for an exhibiting artist would start at $20,000,” Mitow tells me over homemade matcha lattes at his and Miille’s DUMBO apartment. “It’s a huge barrier to entry.” Of course, the art itself at many traditional fairs also comes at a higher price tag (think $20,000 and up), which could deter people with smaller budgets looking to get their feet wet in the world of collecting.

James Miille
“The Age of Pisces” by James Miille, whose work is on display at next month’s Superfine! art fair in Washington, D.C.

With so many hurdles in the way, actually selling your art at a fair can seem downright impossible. It was something Miille and Mitow experienced firsthand by trying to exhibit and sell Miille’s photography years ago.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Miille admits, describing how he sold pieces for $50 that he’d now sell for upwards of $600. “From a marketing perspective, we learned to how to sell my work and give it value.”

That naïveté ended up working in their favor: As newcomers learning the ins and outs of the fine art world, Miille and Mitow noticed a huge discrepancy between what the art market was doing and what it could be doing. “We saw what emerging artists were going through—trying to bend over backwards to get gallery representation, and the galleries are there trying to get into art fairs, and the art fairs are there trying to make a few dollars at the end of the day,” Mitow recalls. “It was just this weird chain of economics that wasn’t working for anybody, except maybe the people at the tip-tip top.”

James Miille
Guests at Superfine!’s 2018 fair in New York.

Enter Superfine!, a traveling art fair giving the traditional model of selling and acquiring art a run for its money. Founded in 2015—shortly after Miille, a photographer by trade, and Mitow, a hospitality industry veteran, officially coupled up—Superfine! offers visitors the opportunity to view and purchase contemporary art at weekend-long fairs in different major cities around the country.

Miille and Mitow accept applications for exhibitors from both independent artists and art galleries. The art they look for varies from city to city, fair to fair. Generally, it’s reflective of both the host city’s aesthetic and the Superfine! team’s taste as curators. The selection process is rigorous and involves plenty of back-and-forth, but it’s worth the hassle for both parties: Superfine! upholds its reputation for quality curation, and the fair fills a unique gap in the art market.

“For [independent] artists, there just aren’t many other reputable art fairs that they can show at,” Miille explains. “A lot of them don’t have a very good reputation—they’re badly curated. On the flip side, for the galleries, there’s not really a fair that’s targeting the price bracket that we focus on, under $1,000 and up to $15,000.”

James Miille
An artist talks to guests at Superfine!’s 2018 fair in New York.

At this year’s New York show in May, more than 70% of the artists at the fair were women, a fact that makes Miille and Mitow beam with pride. By virtue of their accessible and transparent model, many of their exhibitors are emerging artists, women, queer, or people of color. “The same way that we’re making art more approachable for collectors, we’re making exhibiting in an art fair more approachable for artists and galleries,” Miille explains.

Their team also partners with Art Money, an Australian company that helps people finance purchases of artworks priced over $1,000 through 10-payment plans. Resources like that enable people of varying economic brackets to invest in art they love, Mitow says.

“We’re definitely a disruptor in the art market, but we’re not trying to destroy it,” he adds. “If you’re an artist and you’ve worked 40 hours on a piece, you should make that. We’re not trying to say, ‘Oh, that’s worth $100, or $50, or $20,’ but we are trying to bring everyone’s expectations to reality.”

James Miille
Guests and programmers at Superfine!’s 2017 fair in Miami.

In just a few short years, Miille and Mitow have grown their business from a small passion project to a seven-person operation, tacking on more members to the growing Superfine! team and expanding their reach as they go. As the brand’s leaders, Miille and Mitow are two sides of the same coin, and their skillsets are complementary: “I have the equivalent of two left feet for using my hands. Like, I can’t write my own name straight!” Mitow says. “But I have a visual in my head of how things should look. So I can take something really rough and hand it to James, and he can reinvent it into something that’s way better.”

Of course, running a business out of your home office is a blessing and a curse. (“’Work-life balance?’ What’s that?” Mitow quips.) But the pair credits much of their success to their partnership in both business and life.

Moving forward, Miille and Mitow plan to keep expanding Superfine! to other cities. Four fairs are already confirmed for 2019: L.A. in February, New York in May, D.C. in October, and Miami Beach in December. A second New York fair, number five overall, might be in the cards, too. At all of their future fairs, including this year’s Washington, D.C., show in October, the duo plans to have LGBTQ programming. (This year’s D.C. fair will include a series of short film screenings in partnership with OUTshine Film Festival.)

The art establishment just doesn’t cater to the queer community, Mitow says, which is silly, since there’s a clear market there.

Helen Robinson
“Full of Truth and Revelation” by Helen Robinson, whose work is on display at next month’s Superfine! art fair in Washington, D.C.

“I feel like people tend to ask, ’Why do [LGBTQ people] like design and art and things?’ And I’m like, ’Well, we didn’t play football,'” Mitow says with a laugh. “When we were told that what we did like wasn’t good, we decided, OK, I’m going to indulge my creative side, and then over the years, we developed it. I know plenty of straight people who also did that. But they were just able to counter societal norms and be their own person… Obviously, we feel emotionally geared toward creating programming around LGBT [issues], but it also makes a lot of sense for our exhibitors.”

No matter where Superfine! travels, though, the goal remains the same: to encourage ordinary people to find artists they love and invest in their work.

“When you really love something, when you love art or science or some other aspect of culture, invest in it,” Mitow advises. “Drop that $5 bill in the jar on your way out. Do what you can.”

The next Superfine! fair in Washington, D.C., runs from Wednesday, October 31 through Sunday, November 4.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@slmjournalist