James Murdoch, son of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, pivoted towards the art world during the Covid-19 pandemic when he acquired a significant stake in Art Basel. But despite being the majority shareholder of its Swiss parent company MCH Group for nearly three years, Murdoch has largely shied away from discussing his vision for the international art fair.
“I hope it hasn’t been that secretive or in any way that allusive,” said Murdoch on an episode of the Art Angle podcast from Artnet News yesterday (June 1).
Murdoch founded investment firm Lupa Systems in 2019, shortly after Walt Disney acquired $52 billion of assets from 21st Century Fox, where Murdoch was formerly CEO. In mid-2020, the firm made headlines when it purchased a 38 percent stake in MCH Group, with the possibility to raise this share to 44 percent in the future.
However, Murdoch says he was interested in acquiring Art Basel, which holds fairs in Basel, Hong Kong, Miami Beach and Paris, long beforehand. “I had been focused or at least trying to learn about MCH group for some years before,” he told Art Angle. “It struck me that there are very few real convening centers of gravity in the culture space that are the sort of scale and brand and immediate understanding of a brand like Art Basel.”
Murdoch worked on developing relationships and trust with MCH group’s key shareholders until the Covid-19 pandemic rolled around, presenting a key time for new investment. “It became a real opportunity not to just help the business, but to become a real partner in the business going forward.”
A push towards global expansion
Since Murdoch’s acquisition, Art Basel has added another location to its roster of international fairs with the 2022 launch of Paris+. But the organization has also focused on more subtle forms of expansion, particularly throughout Asia.
Art Basel has invested in Art Week Tokyo and taken a consulting position with Singapore’s S.E.A. Focus fair, while its parent company acquired a minority stake in ART SG fair, Southeast Asia’s largest-ever art fair which held its inaugural edition in Singapore earlier this year.
“I think these are ways in the future to think about the Art Basel brand, not just the signal events and the big fairs,” said Murdoch. While the past two and a half years have been focused on rebuilding the Art Basel team after the Covid-19 pandemic, he described its next phase as “one characterized by development and innovation with a foundational support for our core art business.”
Murdoch is also increasingly focusing on the region throughout his other ventures, such as Bodhi Tree Systems, which has taken a special interest in funding media and consumer technology companies in Asia.
An artist-centered model
There’s a growing sense in the art world that creators should be able to reap more financial benefits from their work, Murdoch told Art Angle, emphasizing the potential that blockchain can provide in this arena.
MCH Group, in partnership with Swiss nonprofit LUMA Foundation, recently launched Arcual, a startup which makes “smart contracts” or contracts hosted on blockchain for the art world.
“I think overall the whole community will embrace this over time, but it takes a long time to change the way things are done,” said Murdoch.
Lupa Systems is also an investor in Artists, Writers & Artisans (AWA), a comic book startup which focuses on allowing creators to be involved in and benefit from the business aspect of their artwork. “Comic book writers oftentimes get a page rate and the thing gets turned into a billion dollar superhero movie, and they get a couple tickets to the premier,” he said of the venture.
Sustainability at the forefront
A focus on sustainability is set to become a priority for Lupa Systems and its investments, according to Murdoch. “You will see more activity on this from the company, particularly in the art world.”
Art Basel, which often re-uses its wall systems, trusses and LED lighting, aims to achieve zero-waste practices and reduce the art industry’s emissions by 50 percent by 2030.
But certain aspects of the art fair, such as the emissions caused by visitors traveling to its international editions, will take time to work on, said Murdoch. “I think there’s an urgency around it, but we also have to take a real stock of where are the pockets that are particularly wasteful.”
A taste for the avant-garde and “nutty”
What of the art itself? “I’ve always been interested in culture and been passionate about the creative arts,” said Murdoch.
While he didn’t discuss his own art collection, the investor is currently a board member of the Dia Foundation, a nonprofit focused on large-scale and often unusual pieces, often incorporating land installations.
He also cited his admiration for the artist Philip Guston, who dabbled in the avant-garde, neo-expressionism and political satire. Murdoch said that while he isn’t a prominent collector, he’s drawn to works that are “a little nutty and weird.”
“That’s the sort of stuff that takes you out of your comfort zone,” he said.