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Journey – from Stockbroker to Drug Trade to the Legit Art Biz

May 19, 2017

Have you ever been burnt out, over it, don’t think you can keep doing what you’re doing.  Sometimes we do things for the wrong reasons. Like chasing the almighty dollar when your heart isn’t in it.  Maybe you even feel that way right now.

 

I think it’s important to recognize – like our guest today – that no matter what level of education you’ve received, or what society thinks of you – with courage, creativity, and a focus on building great relationships – it is always possible to reinvent yourself.

 

And all of your experiences up until now, may just be preparing you to take that next step.

 

Listen to episode on SoundCloud here

 

OK, today we have a guy who wasn’t exactly a high school dropout, but he made it through by the seat of his pants. He became one of the youngest floor traders at the SF Stock Exchange before giving it up to spend the majority of his twenties in the drug trade.  Not street level.  I’m talking weight.

 

He was regularly doing 100 pound weed deals, in the early 2000s, when each pound was going for over $3,000 dollars.  You can do the math.

 

You can say he has charisma – that he is a natural networker, good with numbers, a smart guy.  Sure, he is all of those things.  But look at his resume.  Would you hire him?  A decade of work experience missing?  No college degree?

 

What I am saying is that we all face disadvantages.  And when life throws you a jab, do you run, or respond with an uppercut?

 

Sorry … Sorell is a boxer so I had to throw a little boxing metaphor in there … :)

 

This episode features art gallery owner Sorell Raino-Tsui of Athen B Gallery.

 

Now Sorell doesn’t run his art gallery alone.  It is a partnership team made up of Sorell, his wife, and their curator – a guy by the heroic name of Brock Brake.

 

This episode is jampacked with an incredible personal narrative – as well as a nuts and bolts description of how their gallery operates.

 

We’ve also got insight into some smart ways to run big drug deals, if anyone out there is into that...

 

The Art Biz

 

But first - for those who aren’t familiar with the Art Industry, let me quickly sketch it out for you.  

 

We’ve all been to an Art opening.  It’s usually a party with some wine and cheese … or if it’s a younger crowd, maybe some PBR.  People mix and mingle, snapchats are taken, and it’s a scene.

 

What you may not realize is in a serious gallery the opening is not the biggest revenue generator  – it’s more of a marketing event, where, of course, they may sell some art.  Most of the major transactions come before the opening, at private preview events held by the gallery for their collectors.  

 

Collectors are generally the well-heeled gentry of the community, and they collect based both upon their personal style – but also upon the perceived collector value of the artist.

 

The value of a gallery is in their rolodex and their matchmaking ability.  How skilled are they at pairing incredible artists with collectors with deep pockets and a deep appreciation of their work?

 

And there is serious money in the art game.  Art Basel Miami, the world’s largest art fair, attracts Russian oligarchs and the wealthy children of Chinese Captains of Industry.  At each event total art transactions are conducted in the neighborhood of $3 billion dollars.  With a B.

 

But we are not in Miami.  And as we all know, there are levels to every industry.  Athen B is an emerging gallery in an emerging market, with a young and committed leader … focused on the future.


 

White Walls Gallery

 

Sorell prides himself on being one of the most well-oiled business machines of his emerging art gallery peers.  They pay their artists quickly after selling their work.

 

It might seem strange to anyone not in the art world that Sorell is proud of the fact that he pays his artists.  That’s kind of a given, right?

 

Well, not exactly.  A lot of emerging galleries either don’t pay on time, don’t pay in full, or simply don’t pay.  When you combine the high overhead and low sales of an emerging gallery the money simply isn’t there often times.  It’s been spent.

 

And many artists are either too busy or too powerless to do anything about it.

 

But galleries also sometimes use their position of power to … for lack of a better word … abuse artists.  It’s a huge issue.

 

During the 2000’s, White Walls gallery was one of the most famous street art galleries in San Francisco, and across the world...  But being one of the most famous street art galleries still meant that it was on the ground floor of what Sorell calls the Blue Chip art scene.

 

It closed in 2016, and not too long after an article came out in the East Bay Express whose title says it all:

 

Art Gallery Grifter: How White Walls Owner Justin Giarla Scammed Artists Out Of Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars, Then Disappeared

 

It’s a fascinating story, and one that went on for basically the entire decade the gallery was open.  How did this go on for so long??

 

Well, to keep it simple ...  lot of artists simply didn’t speak up –  they either believed his cash flow sob stories … or were too scared that their fragile reputation would be smeared by this powerful curator of the street art scene.  

 

So when one Oakland artist finally spoke up publicly, it unleashed the floodgates – and literally a decade worth of artists came forward with stories of being fleeced.

 

And unfortunately – in the emerging art scene, this is altogether too normal.

 

But like I said, even the best intentioned galleries can have serious cash flow issues.  So recognizing this, Sorell and his partners have built a tremendous second revenue stream into their business.  

 

Over the years he’s built relationships with city officials and private developers, so that when Oakland needs a new mural … his number is on speed dial.

 

We’ve done a lot of murals

 

So how do they make money on these murals?  And how do they get the projects?

 

Well, in the beginning they did them for free.  Young artists are often jumping at opportunities to paint highly visible walls, and payment isn’t a consideration – for the same reason that Sorell and his business partners were willing to organize them.  

 

With so much graffiti and street art popping up they had to get their name out there.   They would be given permission to do a wall in the community, scrounge up some paint, and make it happen.

 

And after a couple years of doing this, they began to network with larger name artists and gain more connections.

 

And then everything changed when an artist named Zio Ziegler approached them, looking to coordinate a location for a mural … sponsored by the United Nations.

 

Zio Ziegler

 

The building he finally secured?  The Cathedral building at the corner of Telegraph and Broadway in Downtown Oakland.  A 14 story landmark building on a triangle corner that is visible from a half mile away.

 

Each floor of the building is owned separately so Sorell spent weeks negotiating with the different people and interests in the buildings HOA.  And came away with victory and a proven track record of getting things done.

 

Since that time, they’ve been able to secure an average of one paid mural per month – each one bringing in top line revenue of anywhere between 5 and 30,000 dollars.

 

Of that, they target a revenue split of 20-30% for themselves, 20-30% on materials, and half for the artist.

 

Some of their recent work has included a 330 foot freeway wall in the city of San Leandro by an Argentinian artist named Pastel

… and a contract for the mural on the old Sears building in Downtown Oakland.  The future home of Uber.  

 

Boxing

I asked Sorell if he ever had to use his boxing talents during his time in the drug trade

“We were doing a 100 pound weed deals.  And pounds were going for $3200 - 3500 at the time.  You’re talking about $300,000 on the table.  Being able to box, and throw punches is not going to help you”  

 

 

 

Visit AthenBGallery.com for a listing of their next art openings.  I guarantee you’ll be blown away by the caliber of their artists.  And when you go in, mention this show.  Sorell will give you the family price on any of your artwork or mural needs

 

 

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