Beating the count
Steve Argento swings back
Art is subjective, it spurs discussion, and it inspires. Art is also a business. In the art world there is often someone in the middle, existing between passion and price, navigating the highs and the lows. Someone like gallery owner Steve Argento.
Entrusted with the legacy of the work of the late artist Ramón Santiago, his uncle, Argento’s family has long been firmly entrenched in the power and business of the art world. For more than five decades, Santiago’s work has helped to raise more than one million dollars for local not-for-profit organizations through donations of his artwork and direct sales of his original works and prints. Several organizations have benefited, including Camp Good Days and Special Times, the Al Sigl Community of Agencies, the American Heart Association, the Easter Seals Society of Monroe County, and the Veterans Outreach Center. “I really felt the weight of that responsibility early on,” says Argento, “especially because my uncle’s wishes were specific, which was always the case, that I be charged with the continuing impact of his name and his work on the Rochester community and around the world. Not a small task by any stretch.”
After selling a contracting business, Argento has been doing just that, full time, since 1994, maintaining Santiago’s name, the value of his pieces, and the charities that the work has continued to support. He has also worked as an art appraiser and supported several charities and other artists through his SC Fine Art Gallery.
Argento maintains a name of his own as well, always wrapped in a kinetic package of sometimes frank, but often refreshing honesty that comes from refusing to be put in a box. He has served multiple deployments overseas in Europe and on the border of North Korea as a combat MP in the United States Army, battled and survived cancer, and doesn’t shy away from being honest about his past troubles with drugs, the law, and his 2009 diagnosis of chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But in April of 2014, trouble found Argento again when he was arrested for allegedly stealing close to $92,000 from one of the artists he was representing. With a series of headlines and articles that read like the stuff of pulp crime novels, his name and reputation took a beating. A handful of people—including his aunt, Santiago’s widow—came out of the woodwork challenging the legitimacy of his business and his legal standing. It seemed like there would be no end to the strife that his reputation in business dealings continued to bring him.
Almost a year and a half later, however—late this July—a grand jury found the accusations groundless and dismissed all the charges, which raises questions about why they were made in the first place.The turmoil seems to have only solidified the legitimacy of Argento’s rights to his uncle’s name and, in all probability, has increased the value of the already significantly valued art he has been charged with managing. But Argento still feels the pain of a life dragged through the mud, the implications to his family, and once again being in a place of nowhere to go but up. During this time he has remained out of the spotlight, mainly keeping to himself while quietly maintaining his innocence—and his business dealings.
We spoke with Argento recently about what’s going on in his life now.
What’s the status of the Ramón Santiago Studio in light of everything that evolved from the events of last April?
The Ramón Santiago Studio is still a viable entity, owned by me, and I have since closed the brick-and-mortar operation that was in the third floor of the Hungerford and moved it up to the fourth floor of my large loft space. I continue to appraise and continue to broker and make an attempt to keep the business together, but I’m riding the storm out right now; I am hunkered down. Even now I don’t begrudge anyone or the salaciousness of the press and the fact that it’s what sells papers nowadays, but I haven’t been able to tell my side of the story, and that’s unfortunate, but that’s part of the judicial process.
I’ve always said I do pretty good job of fucking up my own life—I don’t need help from anyone else, and my past certainly shows that, but I’ve also rebounded time and again. I’ve had bullets whiz over me, I’ve been shot at, I’ve been stabbed. What defines you is how you react to the pen and the sword.
What experiences and relationships trained you for working in the ups and downs of the art world?
The neat thing about my uncle was that he was comfortable with heads of state, politicians, movie stars, and affluence, but yet he felt just as comfortable hanging out and talking to the guy fixing his plumbing or something like that; he was a very affable and a wonderful guy.
One of the great beacons that he set for himself personally and for others is that artists and their creativity should be an asset to the community, and it should work for the community and be part of their responsibility, but I think that’s a responsibility that everyone has, and there’s a lot of truth to “it takes a village.” You see that these days in Rochester’s own art community with people like Erich Lehman, Sarah Rutherford, and Shawn Dunwoody, just to name a few, and I’m missing so many other people; they’ll tend to get involved with community projects because it goes beyond good business sense; they do it because they love the community, they love the people, they love the creativity, and they love the art. And their projects are stitches in time,that in the long road ahead,will pay dividends not only for the people involved in these partnerships but also all the people these creative projects touch.
There’s an emotional aspect to art, and I give all artists a lot of credit. They…unzip themselves and show their emotions, and you can see right into them, and to allow people to put that emotion and that heart and that soul and affix it to a substrate, hanging it on wall, as a monument or an object or mural or jewelry or any type of craft for them, to then allow people to either pan it or laud it, it’s a tough thing. I don’t know if I can do that; I’m lucky enough to be the guy that tries to help direct them in their position. Over the years I’ve dealt with hundreds of artists nationally, and I’ve handled local artists and artisans both large and small, and it’s nice to see their success along the way. But I’ve also been lucky—and I owe my uncle—to be in a position of knowing how to help people handle things.
How do you maintain the value of the work in your charge, and, in the case of your uncle’s work, the philanthropy that goes with it? Is it hard to manage expectations of dollar value versus emotional value when it comes to selling art?
At the Ramón Santiago Studio, we always treated it as a family enterprise, which my mother, Linda, actually started in 1988, along with my father, Frank, who was in advertising and is also an accomplished fine artist and, after fifty years, just retired from RIT. Some people would buy Ramón’s work for more intrinsic value versus something they desired or fell in love with, and that happens. But it’s a very difficult fence to straddle because we realize we have a monopoly on Ramon’s work, we know what it’s worth. It helped create a $70,000 fundraising initiative for the Veterans Outreach Center in 2011 and in over three years via our charity golf tournament, funded the Ramón Santiago Arts and Crafts Center for Camp Good Days and Special Times.
I actually stopped the practice of buying work back from people because I didn’t think it would be fair to buy work from someone when they’re at a low point economically, knowing that I could turn around and sell a piece for a higher price. To me that’s gouging and it’s not very nice, and it’s not really honest. But on the flipside of that, I have clients who buy low and sell high, and they do that. But there’s an understanding that, if you buy an art piece that you really like, and if it becomes worth more after you buy it because you intend to sell it or donate it, then that’s just gravy, and that’s what we try to impart when we’re in the process of people purchasing or brokering Ramón’s work or handling the consignment.
But it is tough, and it’s tough for other artists, too. Everybody thought, for example, that when Ramón passed away in 2001 that there was some magical formula where we multiply how many decades he was alive by the value of his art and that equals…there’s just no magical formula for it. It really falls upon whoever is in charge of that artist’s legacy to keep it alive and keep trying to further it as if the artist was still alive. And we know that it’s finite. The art that has been created over the years is no longer going to be created; he’s gone. Unfortunately, he passed away too soon at fifty-eight years old, and he had a lot more to give both to the community and to the creative arts. But I’m lucky enough—I own a huge catalog of thousands of images of Ramón’s original works people have never seen before. Less than 5 percent…has ever been reproduced. He was a prolific artist, and over the years, as a family, we were able to keep things back or rather handle the backend. A lot of artists haven’t always realized how much there is to that back office, per se, just like…any other business or organization. There’s inventory, cataloging of the images, there’s the handling of PR and marketing, sales forecasting, goals, strategies, etc. Very successful artists are successful because they’ve understood the value of working towards a goal and treating their art not only as a creative outlet for themselves and a love for the arts and their specific medium but have surrounded themselves with people that can help them because you need a team and a support element.
If you could impart advice to the beginning art collector, what would it be?
If you’re a collector, buy the art because you love it and it speaks to you—that it’s a great piece and something that will continue to give you happiness throughout your life and your collection. Will you profit on that? I don’t know—only the person buying it knows the end goal. From a gallerist’s point of view, it’s a struggle…art is a difficult business. The landscape has changed just like every other industry. I started with a pager, not a smartphone. Now we use social media and [the] market has grown; you have the ability to be in touch with millions of people and allow work to go viral. But it can seem like you’re screaming into a megaphone into a cave where all you hear is echoes back, and you know you’re not reaching anybody. It’s a perilous idea to get into art because if you want to make money, you really need to know what you’re doing.
And I think that can be said for any form of entrepreneurship: Your idea has to make sense; you have to have goals, a strong business plan, [and] the ability to withstand the cash flow crunches; and in Rochester it’s very seasonal. September through early January has really been the season of the gallery. It was called gallery season for a reason back when we had the Rochester Association of Art Dealers and most of us did the bulk of our business during that time period. And that’s a short five months. There are only a few of us Rochester galleries that have been around for the past twenty years.
Art should be your love, but business should be your backbone.
T.C. Pellett is an award-winning freelance art director and creative strategist. He and his wife Kate are true #ROC fans who live in the Neighborhood of the Arts.