Will Tech Moguls Save the Art World?

This week’s unveiling of Leo Villareal’s The Bay Lights (shown above), the world’s largest LED sculpture running along 1.8 miles of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, shone a light on more than just the waters between San Fran and Oakland. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal profiled several “Silicon Valley power players” patronizing Villareal’s $8 million USD light show as well as making other forays into the art world. Since the Medici during the Renaissance, high finance and fine art have always found some partnership that was mutually beneficial. Just as some argue that Medici money was a mixed blessing for art, will the same be said after tech moguls have put their stamp financially on contemporary art? Silicon Valley may save the art world, but what will that art world look like afterwards?


Villareal’s The Bay Lights epitomizes what large-scale contemporary art will look like in the near future. Villareal, a researcher in Microsoft’s think tank back in the early 1990s, embodies the techie artist working today. The Bay Lights’ 25,000 white LED lights hope to twinkle in a never-repeated pattern commemorating the Bay Bridge’s 75th Anniversary from dusk to 2 am now through 2015, assuming that the $8 million USD funding goal is reached. The image above doesn’t do the dazzling display justice, but, fortunately, you can watch a livestream from the project’s homepage, where you can also keep up to date on proceedings through their social media page. If you’re really into the project and want to contribute to close the current $2 million USD funding gap, you can give “The Gift of Light” by personalizing one of those 25,000 white LED lights for yourself or a loved one. Depending on your donation level, you will also receive a laser-cut card signed by the artist, a tote bag with the Bay Lights logo (complete with an inside pocket for your iPad), or other gifts.

In Ellen Gammerman’s WSJ piece, titled “The New High-Tech Patrons,” she singles out Yahoo President and CEO (and former Google executive) Marissa Mayer and “Internet power couple” Zynga CEO Mark Pincus and his wife, Alison, as major donors to The Bay Lights. Gammerman calls Villareal “emblematic of a new breed of artist that is especially attractive to wealthy technology executives.” Gammerman characterizes this new phenomenon as a sign of the once-youthful techie crowd growing up. “Around San Francisco, tech entrepreneurs who spent years building businesses and accumulating wealth are starting to peer out from under their hoodies and explore the art world,” she explains. “As the Internet industry matures, the people who helped make it happen are having children, buying houses and taking tentative steps into philanthropy—and now the art world. It's a lucrative emerging market that is gaining the attention of museums, dealers, consultants and other art-world heavyweights.”

The piece tries to capture how this tech invasion of art patronage differs from previous art investment waves. Gammerman quotes Trevor Traina, a 44-year-old photography collector who sold his first tech company to Microsoft for more than $100 million, as saying that “[a]n engineer will look at a photograph or video art in a way a banker couldn't—we think in ones and zeros, we think in terms of screens." Another difference from bankers, according to Gammerman, is that “[u]nlike on Wall Street, where a trophy canvas can work as a passport to highflying social circles, flaunting isn’t part of the tech culture.” “[I]t’s all about just being cool," Gammerman quotes a San Francisco area dealer specializing in tech clients. Specific tech art patrons act “cool” with varying tastes: Mosaic and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen collects Robert Rauschenberg, among others; venture capitalist Matt Cohler likes contemporary photography; venture capitalist Jim Breyer (also a board member of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) owns work by emerging Chinese and Brazilian artists; Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison buys classic Japanese art; Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang purchases Chinese calligraphy; and Microsoft’s Paul Allen collects big names such as Vincent van Gogh and Mark Rothko. Gammerman also cites a pervasive tech taste for the work of Gerhard Richter, perhaps the top artist working today.

One of the heartening parts of Gammerman’s article is the variety of art that these tech figures are buying, which crosses both time periods and cultures. If all these executives and computer wizards enjoyed were computer-based art, such as Villareal’s The Bay Lights, which the artist himself calls “a whole I.T. job, which you wouldn't associate with a monumental piece of public art,” then there might be a risk that such investments might have undue influence over what kinds of art get money to thrive and what kinds don’t. Even if technology-based art is the wave of the near future, there’s no need for it to drown all other media. It’s also nice to see that some of this patronage acts as a way of giving back. In addition to helping struggling museums, projects such as The Bay Lights help the surrounding area. “By conservative estimates, $97 million dollars will be added to the local economy,” says the project’s website, and I hope they’re right.

When looking at these modern “Microsoft Medici,” it’s important to remember that works such as Michelangelo’s David began as public works of art funded by patronage for the good of the community. David stood tall and proud as an oversized symbol of the city of Florence. The Bay Lights now stand as a symbol not only of the Bay Area itself, but also of the power of Silicon Valley to contribute more to our culture than the latest gadget and app. With economic pressures threatening to cut American society to the cultureless bone, the technology sector’s financial winners might be the last, best hope for art’s survival.

[Image: Leo Villareal. The Bay Lights, 2013.]

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

How to flirt: 7 tips backed by science

When it comes to flirting, love meters have nothing on these researchers' findings.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
Sex & Relationships
  • Flirting is an important part of life. It can be a fun, adventurous way to meet others and develop intimate relationships.
  • Many people find flirting to be an anxiety-ridden experience, but science can help us discover principles to be more relaxed while flirting.
  • Smiling and eye contact are proven winners, while pick-up lines are a flirty fallacy.
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.