Talent agency exec Arthur Lewis focuses national attention on Atlanta art scene

Arthur Lewis is a talent agent executive who will oversee the United Talent Agency's new fine art operations in Atlanta. He's picture here with Thelma Golden (left), director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and artist Lorna Simpson in Los Angeles.
(Courtesy of Jeff McLane)

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Arthur Lewis is a talent agent executive who will oversee the United Talent Agency's new fine art operations in Atlanta. He's picture here with Thelma Golden (left), director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and artist Lorna Simpson in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Jeff McLane)

UTA Artist Space envisioned as a welcoming hangout with art.

Although he’s employed by one of the most powerful talent agencies in the country, L.A.’s United Talent Agency (UTA), and he is a veteran of executive roles at the Gap, HSN and Kohl’s, Arthur Lewis, 54, looks and sounds about as far from corporate cookie cutter as they come.

Today he’s wearing a Harry Styles-level gender-bending pearl necklace and behind him on a Zoom call hangs a striking, 48-by-60-inch oil and acrylic painting by Jerrell Gibbs called “Say A Little Prayer” (2019). With his statement eyeglasses and backdrop of contemporary art, Lewis’ milieu is a welcome relief from the expensive wainscoting and blank walls more typical of the high-level executive Zoom call.

As a partner and the creative director of UTA Fine Arts, an extension of the powerhouse agency representing blue chip talent like Will Ferrell, Anderson Cooper, Jessica Alba and Wes Anderson, Lewis brings the UTA luster and ability to make career-defining deals to the visual arts world. Among the artists he represents are MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Titus Kaphar as he moves into film and the estate of Ernie Barnes, whose painting “Sugar Shack” recently sold at Christie’s for more than $15 million.

With a UTA satellite office now open in Atlanta and plans to debut the UTA Artist Space gallery here next year, the charismatic Lewis stands poised to make a definitive impact on the city’s art scene. For a sneak peek at what to expect, UTA Artist Space will preview its vision with two month-long pop-up shows at the Historic Rail Park at Pullman Yards. The shows kick off Aug. 26 with “Mario Joyce: A Stranger’s House That Is Our Own,” featuring paintings by the Los Angeles-based self-taught artist. It will be followed Sept. 30 with an exhibition of work by James Bester, a multidisciplinary artist.

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Art collector and creative director of UTA Fine Arts Arthur Lewis, will oversee the Los Angeles talent agency's new exhibition space in Midtown. (Courtesy of Jeff McLane)

Credit: Photo by Jeff McLane

Art collector and creative director of UTA Fine Arts Arthur Lewis, will oversee the Los Angeles talent agency's new exhibition space in Midtown.
(Courtesy of Jeff McLane)

Credit: Photo by Jeff McLane

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Art collector and creative director of UTA Fine Arts Arthur Lewis, will oversee the Los Angeles talent agency's new exhibition space in Midtown. (Courtesy of Jeff McLane)

Credit: Photo by Jeff McLane

Credit: Photo by Jeff McLane

Familiar territory

The arrival of UTA and Lewis in Atlanta feels well-timed for an art scene in need of some of the same West Coast energy and talent that the movie industry has brought to the city.

“This is a great opportunity for us,” says Lewis, in a nod to the value the UTA brand can bring to Atlanta’s booming music, film and sports culture — plus all of the green that goes with it.

Joining Lewis at UTA Artist Space are former NBA player Virgil “Tony” Parker acting as sales director and Bridgette Baldo, a longtime UTA employee in its fine arts group, who will manage the gallery space.

On one of his recent visits to the city, Lewis says he knew Atlanta was his kind of vibe when he watched a band performing in garbage bags for an eclectic crowd at Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall on the Beltline.

“There were dogs in the bar, everyone sat at a picnic table; young and old, Black and white. I’m like, ‘Oh my god. This is so Atlanta.’”

Lewis’ return to Atlanta might also be a chance to recapture some of the excitement and promise of his first go-round in the city, as an undergrad studying political science (“Can you imagine?” he jokes.) at Morehouse College.

Originally from New Orleans, Lewis says he never really felt like he lived in the South until he arrived in Atlanta where, during his first year at Morehouse, Spike Lee was on campus filming his tribute to HBCU life, “School Daze.” Atlanta, he says, was “a big cultural awakening.”

“I truly made lifelong friends for the first time in my life,” he says. “We were young and spoiled rotten and slightly broke but found ourselves in Lenox Mall shopping. I think for us ‘80s babies, it was a time of amazing music and great bands.”

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One of the works in Arthur Lewis's personal collection is Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo's "Boy with Flower Earring" (2019). (Courtesy of Jeff McLane)

Credit: Photo by Jeff McLane

One of the works in Arthur Lewis's personal collection is Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo's "Boy with Flower Earring" (2019). 
(Courtesy of Jeff McLane)

Credit: Photo by Jeff McLane

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One of the works in Arthur Lewis's personal collection is Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo's "Boy with Flower Earring" (2019). (Courtesy of Jeff McLane)

Credit: Photo by Jeff McLane

Credit: Photo by Jeff McLane

Lounge hangout spot

Just a block from the High Museum of Art at 1401 Peachtree St., UTA Fine Art will feature a lobby at street level made to feel more like a lounge. Below that will be the UTA Artist Space, a 2,500-square-foot gallery designed by Hastings Architecture, the firm that created UTA’s Nashville office as well as the Microsoft and Sony Music headquarters there. On the fourth floor are the UTA offices.

Lewis imagines the lobby to be a social space where people will grab a cocktail or a latte before checking out the art.

“So you will actually walk in to what feels like a really inviting lounge hangout spot where anyone and everyone can come and gather,” he says. “You can be watching a sports game, you can be sitting at the coffee bar, and then the gallery will be immediately below that space.”

Lewis has the infectious energy, the giddy laugh and the proselytizing zeal that makes you believe it can happen. And it carries over when he talks about building relationships with Atlanta talent like new Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts director Liz Andrews and painter Alfred Conteh.

“I want to connect dots,” he says of his mission at UTA. “I want to connect communities, I want to connect artists’ stories with the world around them, and then find a new audience to see it, to explore who they are and discover it and share it.”

There are certain to be hurdles. UTA Artist Space will open in a city that lacks a centralized gallery neighborhood, says Baldo, the UTA Artist Space manager. Plus, “in Atlanta you need to be more intentional about knowing when the openings or events are taking place — the art scene is not yet as widely known or accessible to the larger community,” she says.

And with few nationally known galleries, “UTA Artist Space will be one of the biggest players in town,” reported The Art Newspaper.

Baldo says the gallery will follow the same model as the Beverly Hills UTA Artist Space in featuring artists, “who we directly represent and others whose work we love and want to provide a platform for them to showcase their art.”

Lewis is already planning shows featuring Atlanta-born painter Antonio Scott Nichols. “No one’s really heard of him yet,” Lewis confides. “Man I can’t wait to do the show with this kid. He’s incredible.”

An influential connector between the worlds of entertainment and fine art, Lewis has the potential to be a conduit between artists and well-heeled athletes and entertainers in Atlanta who may be their next collectors. He also adds value as a prolific art collector on his own merit, especially of work by Black women artists. Lewis and his partner Hau Nguyen, owner of boutique hair salons, have had their extensive collection featured in CNN, ARTnews and The New York Times.

In preparation for his role at UTA’s Midtown space, Lewis has located new digs in the West End, which means even more room for his collection that has recently grown with additions of pieces by Delphine Desane, Rachel Eulena Williams and Jennie C. Jones.

Earlier in his career, Lewis was schooled by Joy Simmons, an influential collector of African American art, to turn his collector’s eye away from works by big name artists and toward emerging and mid-career artists of color like Genevieve Gaignard or Torkwase Dyson where he could have more impact. Now he’s here to spread the gospel in Atlanta, and he relishes the prospect.

“There’s nothing more exciting than watching someone buy their first piece of artwork,” he says.

ART PREVIEW

UTA Artist Space pop-ups: “Mario Joyce: A Stranger’s House That Is Our Own,” Aug. 26-Sept. 24. “James Bester,” Sept. 30-Oct. 29. Historic Rail Park at Pullman Yards, 225 Rogers St. NE, Atlanta. utaartistspace.com, www.pullmanyards.com.