Behind the Mask: An Interview with Lincoln Townley

Lincoln Townley, self-styled ‘art outsider’ and cryptocurrency champion, has emerged as one of the leading contemporary artists of his generation. Dubbed by Michael Caine as ‘the next Andy Warhol’, his global influence and impressive list of star-studded collectors make him a force to be reckoned with in the art sphere. 

But the London-born artist doesn’t play by the rules. Far from it: he flouts convention, eschewing the role of galleries and traditional auction houses. With social media his prized promotional tool, Townley—an art world maverick—does things his way. And this subversion, he maintains, drives the value of his work.

Townley’s new collection, Behind the Mask, will exhibit in May 2019 at La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale) for a six-month period. On the collection, Townley said: ‘It’s about what we hide; what we don’t want people to see in our personality. And I think that’s a trait of a lot of very powerful people.’ It is his first appearance at the prestigious organisation and his work promises to make record sales. 

Arts & Collections sat down with the self-taught artist to discuss his fascination with cryptocurrency, his dynamic approach to selling his work and the art world’s future.

A&C: What drives your success?

LT: To be a successful artist, you have to be willing to do things that unsuccessful artists are unwilling to do—you’ve got to be thinking outside of just being an artist. For me, the money is definitely as important as the art—if I don’t make the money, I can’t create the art; that’s the point.

A&C: What can you tell us about your relationship with Bitcoin?

LT: It’s a very simple process. I’ve got an agency that acts as my account manager for all my Bitcoin; they sort it all out for me. I say to them: ‘I have a buyer, or someone who’s interested, and they are looking at paying by Bitcoin.’ I then know exactly how many Bitcoin it is, with regards to the exchange rate of the time, they sort the deal out for me, and I hold the Bitcoin.

A&C: And does the cryptocurrency’s fluctuating value concern you?

LT: It’s gone down—it’s now near to $10,000 again. But it’s only going to go up. I truly believe that. I’m more than happy to ride the Bitcoin journey—because I believe in it. And I do believe, with regards to blockchain, it is only going to get stronger. And I think more technology is going to advance it.

A&C: How important is Bitcoin as an investment?

LT: I think it’s a huge investment. The thing is, I am a risk-taker. There is a gamble with cryptocurrency. I don’t think it’s as volatile as people think, but it’s still a gamble. But I’m willing to gamble. My art is a tangible investment for someone that invests in Bitcoin, something physical they can see: an appreciating asset. There’s nothing to say my work isn’t appreciating—because it is.

A&C: And what’s the relationship, for you, between Bitcoin and social media?

LT: I’ve managed to break into a market where people are interested in paying with Bitcoin because they’ve found me on social media. There is a direct synergy between the two. I am on all of my social media platforms at least once a day, minimum. I’ve always got something new to say, it’s always got to do with me self-promoting my work. When someone sees it, they get interested and maybe they are holding Bitcoin and they want to be able to spend it and buy some of my work.

A&C: How easy it is for artists to get involved with Bitcoin?

LT: If you look at artists that are willing to put themselves out there, they are going to stumble across someone who has Bitcoin. If someone says, ‘I’ve never come across anyone with any Bitcoin who wants to buy my work,’ well you’re not getting out there enough. The issue is artists who aren’t willing to put themselves out there.

A&C: Will there come a time when Bitcoin is a mainstream way to buy art?

LT: When it becomes a currency we all hold—when we do find we are in that realm—that’s when people are going to be selling more work through it. It is a currency and if people hold it they want to buy something that will appreciate in value. And that’s my art. That’s what it boils down to.

A&C: So what are the main challenges associated with using cryptocurrency?

LT: I don’t think there are any challenges. You’ve got to have a good account manager. Some people hold the wallet themselves. But I don’t. I would rather keep it with someone I know. I found my account manager through one of my collectors. I checked him out, my accountant checked him out, and we’ve been using him ever since.

A&C: What about issues surrounding provenance?

LT: I heard about this, with regards to the administration of the payment. But I’ve got a process that I have with regards to anyone who buys from me. And this is the point: I do find there are unauthorised dealers of my work. And that’s why it’s very important to me that people only buy directly through who I authorise to sell my work.

A&C: And does the concept of blockchain and cryptocurrency itself, inspire you?

LT: I’m more inspired by the people who have the Bitcoin—that’s the creature I am trying to capture in the image. My work is figurative—it is, to an extent, very abstract—but there is a figure in there somewhere.

A&C: So you take these individuals as your subject matter?

LT: Yeah, and I think the idea of using the culture of currency comes into it. I get very infatuated with financial organisations that tend to be very money hungry; I find that a very interesting subject. Why do we behave that way? The culture of money and what it does to people and the stature it creates.

A&C: Are Bitcoin and art one in the same thing?

LT: Yeah, very true—that’s a good point. There is a huge synergy. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is excited by Bitcoin and isn’t excited by some form of art. I think they do go hand-in-hand. It’s got that energy to it; it’s got an excitement about it. I definitely think it’s the future.

A&C: How are you leading the way with cryptocurrency and art?

LT: At the end of April, we are building a new website. I’m going to complete a piece, and it’s only going to be accessible for existing collectors, and all currencies will be on there. So we’ll have a live currency feed and the top currency will be Bitcoin. Why am I doing it? Because it’s a commercial decision. Anyone can pay in dollars. But on that day, in that moment, they’ll also be able to see how many Bitcoin for that particular piece.

A&C: It’s quite an innovative approach, then?

LT: The thing is they are coming directly to source. Galleries take 50 percent minimum. When I sell, I get all the money. Why shouldn’t I get all the money, if I’m doing all the work?

A&C: So you believe the art world is on the threshold of big shake up?

LT: I’m already shaking it up. I’m shaking as hard as I can shake.

A&C: And how do other artists on your level come into it?

LT: I think they have a very different relationship with the market place than I do because they have business managers, which I think is encapsulated in my personality anyway. I don’t need a business manager. I know my business. I want to make a success of my art and make money. When I’m in the studio, I’m a different animal.

A&C: And how easy is it for others to follow your lead?

LT: Some will say, ‘I can’t do that’. I get this all the time. People say, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got a background in marketing.’ Well, listen, it isn’t something you can’t learn. I could learn to paint photorealistic if I wanted to. But I don’t—because it’s not necessary. But if I felt I could enhance myself by learning a new trade with regards to what currency I should be taking, or how I can market myself, or do a crash-course on social media (which I have done) I will do it. That’s what I mean by looking outside of just being an artist. Artists believe in their work; but they don’t believe in themselves. A lot of artists believe in what they do. But, when it comes down to it, they want to pass it on to a gallery or one of their art agents abroad.

A&C: So what’s your relationship like with galleries?

LT: I know for a fact that not all the galleries I work with understand me 100 percent. I say, ‘You’ve got to know me and understand my work.’ I know my work better than anyone, because I am the artist. That’s why I’m very minimal on who I have representing me, because, to be fair, Lincoln represents Lincoln.

I have that fire in my belly in that way—it’s very important to me. And the other thing is: I don’t think there’s an understanding of the power of seeing an artist in his studio. The point is you need to be able to socialise with your collectors. Galleries might say they’re proactive. They’re not as proactive as me. I believe a trait of artists that is conditioned is they either go to art school or college, or whatever it is, and they get into their minds that they have to find an agent and a gallery.

Put it like this, if you’re in a gallery with 25 other artists, and the gallery only puts on one show for you a year, what are the chances of ever selling any work? We are doing a documentary at the moment, which is called 93 Nos. it will be released in October in Los Angeles. The reason it’s called 93 Nos is because I set out on a mission and had 93 galleries, 93 physical galleries, all over the country from Mayfair to the outskirts of Dorset and they all said: ‘No, not interested.’ Now, I probably get two or three different galleries from all over the world sending me emails every month saying, ‘We will work with you.’

A&C: What about your authorised sellers?

LT: I will embrace anyone who gives me 100 percent. I’ve got an art agent who used to sell cars—he’s made a lot of money because he has a belief in my work and me.

A&C: And what’s your advice for other aspiring artists?

LT: Go for it. You’ve got to keep going. One of the biggest problems is lack of persistence.

A&C: You were self-taught?

LT: This is purely my opinion, but I don’t want someone teaching me how to produce art. I might listen to artists like Hirst, but only because they are where they are. I don’t want to be taught anything, by anybody, about the way I put my art out there. I don’t believe in that, at all. You can teach yourself, and I think there is a hindrance of being taught by someone who isn’t successful.

A&C: Finally, what about the role of social media?

LT: There is a world of social media out there, that’s changed even in the last six years, tremendously changed. You can be a global artist (this is my true belief) within three months. I believe you don’t need a gallery. There are so many platforms you can put your work on. I actually had a client Whatsapp me last week saying, ‘Where are you with this piece.’ He’s not going to be able to do that with a gallery; a gallery is not going to have that information. I’m not saying galleries are going to completely disappear, there will be certain galleries, but they will be very unique and they will need to work very fast—they will need to connect very quickly with their clients and collectors. Because I think there is a revolution of artists who understand how to use social media. The artist is going to feel less and less in need of a gallery, as long as they’ve got a wall they can put one of their pieces on, they can invite people to come and see it. Let me tell you something. I’ve become a millionaire out of Twitter. I started with Twitter, and then I moved to Instagram. Now I’m looking at other ideas that I’ve got. In the next three years, I will create a platform that is based around artists self-promoting themselves.

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