B99: Your Daily Dose of Art
BY: PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Earlier this year, the fourth floor of 99 Bowery in Chinatown was taken over by B99. In a mere few months, the art space has hosted art shows, photo shoots, parties, and staged the short-play “An Upset”, which was written up in Variety and the New York Times. Ryan Foss-Skiftesvik (24) the founder of B99 sat down with impactmania to discuss why investing in art is investing in humanity and how growing up behind a screen creates fear-based communication.
The address is 99 Bowery. To me B99 is the symbol of a vitamin — something you take every day for a long life, for creativity, for healthy and spiritual living.
We are trying to bring back an art culture to Bowery and a gallery for emerging artists.
What would you say is unique about the space?
I’ve seen a lot of campaigns around younger artists; the feeling is that artists deserve to be paid. If I had to identify something that’s unique about us, it’s trying to focus on what’s best for the artist and how that artist can impact the community around them.
If we can help them not only be a better artist, but also a better human, they will inspire other people to create art. Impact is important to us — helping other people help others extends our reach.
That is why we didn’t just wanna focus on art, but being able to produce “An Upset” [short play by David Auburn] was amazing. I don’t think it’s really been done, where someone has hosted a play in an art gallery.
What do you specifically do to support emerging artists?
We give emerging artists and young artists a platform in all areas. We won’t just bring you in for a commission. We help build your brand, website, and social media. And help offer more of a mentorship.
It’s not to say that other galleries don’t do that. What we try to do is take away less from the artists and give more. When I first started buying art, I was surprised that the industry standard fee was 50 percent. Friends of mine would have managers that would take 20 percent. It seems to do the artists a disservice and make becoming an artist difficult for most people everywhere, not just in New York.
What are your criteria for selecting artists?
It is being focused on their creativity. How they think about what they’re doing. One thing that’s special about an artist that I’m working with is that he’s truly conceptual. He is interested in making an impact getting other people to think.
Not sort of screen-printing a banana and putting a face on it. It’s how he represents himself in the world and how his representation of himself affects the others around him.
Give me an example of how he’s affected you.
I helped him get into another gallery in New York last year where he did his first solo performance piece. It was a funeral for his past, present, and future self. He had friends and family give eulogies. He really encouraged people to think about their lives and how time is short.
We only have so much time to impact other people, to inspire, and change our attitude. How we treat other people is really important.
Would his future self have been able to carry on that message? Or if he had passed away, would other people be carrying on his future self and his ideas?
What is a big misconception in art?
There has been a distraction through social media and the millennial vision for what art is.
I’ve seen a lot of students pick up random things and have art shows with no real growth, and no intellectual or conceptual focus in their art. Sometimes that superficial sort of showiness can turn people off or un-inspire.
I stopped buying stocks and I started buying art. This idea that you have to have a lot of money to buy art: my first painting was 50 bucks.
What made you reflect that buying art was more interesting or valuable than buying stocks?
It’s the idea of investing in humans. I felt unfulfilled and unsatisfied with staring into a computer screen. These transactions, these trades, it was sort of self-centered and there was no real growth.
I felt if I could make investments in humans I would be able to have not only an impact on them, but also an impact on my own investment. This idea that I get to grow with the artist, develop a relationship, and a friendship. Together we can grow other people, which is inspiring and not selfishly fulfilling. While trying to remain sustainable, affording artists the opportunity to grow has been really interesting. I wanted to be helpful and impactful, and I wanted to grow.
Where is this coming from?
I guess making that decision of not doing what I was supposed to do, was maybe a little bit of the rebel in me. Feeling I didn’t have to wait to do something.
This idea that we’ll be able to buy ourselves the freedom later in life to do what we want is a dream. Nothing in life is guaranteed and nobody owes us anything so, I just didn’t want to wait.
In building B99, what was the most surprising learning you’ve had?
Not so much surprising, but starting anything things take time. Time is everything. Patience, love, and tolerance for the people around me is very important.
Being concrete in everything that I do. Making sure that everybody is on the same page and developing relationships with other people and working towards common goal takes time and patience and sometimes a bit of sacrifice.
I feel the way I’ve grown up as a millennial, it’s, “I need things now.” And then I want more.
Taking a step back, realizing that even if we take a step back, we can take two more forward. How we handle change is very important. Do we collapse or do we grow from it? I’ve been lucky that I’m not doing this alone. I have great people that love what I’m doing and there are a lot of partnerships.
Do you structure the deal with the artist?
Yeah. If an artist comes to me, I always try to acknowledge my boundaries and my minimums, then work within the confines of their vision and their creative space. Having a background in finance, I’ve been able to look at partnerships and opportunities with artists as an investment.
It’s more time than money. I love the idea of collecting art and growing with people. I manage an artist, Kaiyu Huang, when he is ready in January, he will have a large solo exhibition.
He transitioned from tattooing to fine art. He is by far the most inspirational and conceptual artists that I have met to date. That relationship is important to me.
What insights can you give to fellow entrepreneurs?
I think due diligence, trust, and boundaries are the framework for a solid business. Reevaluating consistently is important, making sure that everyone’s needs are met. Because if you’re the entrepreneur, the people you have around you are inherently working towards your goals.
I think for entrepreneurs it’s important to truly understand what moves and motivates the people that are moving them forward. When a human’s needs aren’t being met, we start to live elsewhere, right? One of the biggest things that I’ve had to learn is communication. A lack of communication builds resentment or a lack of trust.
Give me an example of how you have experienced that.
I invested in a startup two years ago where I had a distrust of the co-founders. It was from a lack of communication.
That lack of communication in such an intimate environment, especially in a scenario where I was sitting at a desk with this person every day, not acknowledging misunderstandings, not acknowledging a respect for one another, is not something you can ignore. It’s so important not to be afraid to communicate.
This idea of growing up behind a screen has created this lack of interpersonal communication that creates a fear-based superficial communication.
Then translating that into an everyday job in an office setting. It can be difficult to feel comfortable to establish boundaries in personal or professional relationships. So for an entrepreneur, my advice is to be aware of what is acceptable to you and what your needs and goals are.
I’m comfortable speaking about that experience now because it is a couple years ago, but we weren’t really uplifting each other and that was by not communicating.
Who has left an imprint on your professional DNA? There may have been many, but who has impacted you on how you build your business, how you operate as an entrepreneur?
I always look to my father. He started his own business.
He said to me, “I don’t care if you work at 7-11 from 7 to 11. If you’re happy, you’re going to live a full life.” That motivated me to have the experiences I’ve had: investing in a startup, investing in art, and starting this gallery.
He’s supported me along the way. There’s been no greater resource for me. I remember that conversation, and that made me feel, “Okay, I don’t have to impress him. How am I gonna live?” Then going through school, I had this voice in my head saying, “What do you want to do?”
So what drove you to create B99?
It’s that lack of a interpersonal connection. While social media is the way forward and responsible for many opportunities, we have to grow with it rather than hide behind it. Meeting face-to-face, understanding people’s nature, their motives, or what inspires them, can’t always be translated through a computer screen or text.
The development of these insecurities, even the influencer model of having to have the perfect photo, the most blog followers, the most reposts, the most comments or likes — all this stuff is narcissistic. All of it feeds the ego. If we don’t address that, then a lot of what we try to do comes out sideways. Or it creates relationships that are transactional. This idea that I put something out there in the world and I need that validation of someone clicking or telling me that I’m doing well is silly.
Why do I do the things I do? It’s not something I think about when I’m focused on my social media. Those insecurities that have stemmed from social media make a personal relationship difficult. They hinder people from really growing.
Give me a word that describes your journey so far.
Humility. I choose that word, because I don’t do any of it alone. My biggest obstacle is my ego. Surrounding myself with people that I am accountable to helps me.
Knowing that I can’t do it by myself, knowing that I don’t have all the answers, knowing that life is not always what I want it to be like. I don’t get to decide what happens to me, I can’t control everything or everyone. Trying to remain grounded is sometimes difficult. I think that self-awareness comes from that.