Contemporary Art

9 Art World Entrepreneurs You Should Know

By Sotheby's Institute of Art

According to Sotheby's Institute of Art faculty Roxanna Zarnegar, the art world is the perfect place to be an entrepreneur, whether you are trying to build something new or disrupt the status quo. As part of a summer 2017 lecture series, Zarnegar revealed who she considers to be the top nine entrepreneurs of the art world today.

Sarah Thornton
The first on Zarnegar’s list, Thornton dissects culture with an entrepreneurial eye. Formerly the chief correspondent on contemporary art for The Economist, Thornton has written for many publications, including Artforum, The Guardian and The New Yorker, and has contributed to broadcasts at the BBC, NPR and ZDF in Germany. Her book, Seven Days in the Art World (2008) reveals the inner workings of the institutions that contribute to an artist’s place in art history. Named one of the best art books of the year by The New York Times, the book is an international hit, currently available in 20 languages.


Yan Walther
Walther was the CEO of Fine Art Expert Institute, one of the first labs to use forensic science on art for authentication, inspection, condition assessment and more. The information is collated digitally, marking a change from the historically written condition notes. Per Zarnegar, “Walther created a new gold standard for conditioning and catalogue raisonnés, all the things we usually looked in books for.” Fine Art Expert Institute was since acquired by SGS Art Services, where Walther is now serving as Global Manager.

Harry Blain
Blain was in finance until friends convinced him to come to art world. Now the director of Blain Southern Gallery, he also founded, an online platform that enables its users to find and buy art that exists only in a digital format. Zarnegar calls the site "highly addictive." Instead of hanging a painting on the wall, one can browse a digital vault and decide which piece to display at any given time. “Are artists bored of painting?” she asks. “This gives them an opportunity to explore new types of creativity.” Major artists agree – the likes of Tracy Emin, Yoko Ono and Damien Hirst are now creating art for this platform.


Syed Mohammad AlBukhary
Syed Mohammad AlBukhary founded the Islamic Art Museum Malaysia (IAMM) in 1998 and today serves as its director. Dedicated to Islamic history, the IAMM is consistently listed as one of top museums of world. In true entrepreneurial spirit, AlBukhary didn’t hire consultants or specialists, but undertook a two-year journey to see museums and learned first-hand everything he could, from front-of-house hospitality to behind-the-scenes inner workings. Foregrounding transparency, AlBukhary shares some of the usually hidden museum processes, ensuring visitor access to the IAMM's very own restoration lab, where antiquities are given a second life.

Florian Ortkrass & Hannes Koch
Best known for creating Rain Room, Florian Ortkrass and Hannes Koch have engineering backgrounds and lean toward the conceptual. “Ideas were always more interesting to give to people outside of a commercial context, so they don’t have any preconception of what to think,” the duo explain. “And that’s how the arts fit with how we both work.”

When lifestyle retail chain Restoration Hardware opened a contemporary gallery in Chelsea in New York City, the pair signed on, taking their gallery backgrounds and placing their artworks in what some would consider an unusual venue for fine art. (The gallery has since closed.) Today, Ortkrass and Koch are omnipresent at Art Basel and other major art fairs with their experiential and experimental work, often based in robotics.

Tom Sapienza, Kevin Lay and Walter Biggs
Tom Sapienza, Kevin Lay and Walter Biggs are the directors of ARCIS, the first fine art storage company in Manhttan with foreign trade zone (FTZ) status. As a foreign trade zone, ARCIS is designated as a property outside the US and an extension of US Customs – a system known in other areas as a "freeport." Such facilities help the movement of art stay liquid before they officially cross borders with accompanying tariffs and taxes. As Zarnegar says, "ARCIS has broken a barrier that has never been done before."

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