Inside My Collection: Steelo Brim

Aug 1, 2023 5:57PM

For Sterling “Steelo” Brim, collecting art is a means of connecting with artists. An artist himself, Brim is steeped in the creative worlds of film, television, comedy, music, and fashion. He is perhaps best known as a co-host and producer of MTV’s Ridiculousness, though more recently, he’s turned to music, dropping his debut album Eldorado Excursions in 2022 and new singles just this summer. And the multihyphenate’s art collection, which he shares and builds with his fiancée, Alahna Jade, reflects that empathy for what it means to be an artist today—and what it means to be making art that conveys a meaningful message.

“As someone who is more on the talent side than not, I love connecting with the artists,” Brim told Artsy. “I try to always make sure that I let the artists know that I appreciate their works and what they are doing for the space, and to not take that lightly.”

That ethos is central to his growing collection, which is hung across Brim and Jade’s home in Encino, Los Angeles. The couple’s wide-ranging tastes have led them to buy works by emerging and established artists alike, many of whom are some of contemporary art’s leading names, such as Sam Gilliam, Rashid Johnson, Derrick Adams, Joel Mesler, and Amoako Boafo, to name a few.

Brim started buying art in his early twenties, though around a decade later—and particularly since the pandemic—he started collecting in earnest. These days, he avidly pores over the PDF previews that galleries send him; looks for artists and works that tell stories he can connect with; and moves fast when he sees something he likes—a must in the competitive sphere of primary market collecting. “At the end of the day, I have certain artists and pieces that I would love to have in my collection, so when those opportunities arise, I have to be quick, I have to trust myself,” he said.

Earlier this summer, we caught up with Brim at his home to learn more about his journey into collecting, from the first work he bought (which happened to be purchased online via Artsy); the mentors that have helped him along the way; artists he’s excited about now; and what it means to be an art collector today.

Todd James, installation view of Tumblr1, 2018. Photo by Tracy Nguyen for Artsy.

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Casey Lesser: You actually bought your first piece on Artsy. Can you tell us about purchasing that first work?

Steelo Brim: Yeah, that was the very first piece I bought when I was starting to get somewhat serious, but before I actually dove head-first into collecting. I was doing all the due diligence on my own and seeing how things were shaking. I was young, in my early twenties, and I bought a Todd James piece from The Hole in New York through Artsy. I still have it in the rotation today. It feels like a full-circle moment for us to even be talking now.

C.L.: It still hangs in your house today?

S.B.: Yes, downstairs in my basement, among a lot of other things. It still sits there proudly.

C.L.: How did you find it?

S.B.: I was spending a lot of time on Artsy if I’m being honest; studying artworks, studying the market, seeing different artists I like, things I gravitated towards, and I thought it was really cool. At that time, in my young twenties, I was probably more brash and more out there than I am today, but it was something that resonated with me. So I was like, “You know what, I’m gonna pull the trigger on this.” And yeah, it wasn’t a bad get.

Installation view of work by Sam Gilliam. Photo by Tracy Nguyen for Artsy.

Installation view of work by Rashid Johnson. Photo by Tracy Nguyen for Artsy.

C.L.: You mentioned that that was before you really got serious with collecting—is there another piece that feels like the beginning of when you started collecting in earnest?

S.B.: I’d say my Sam Gilliam, which I got through David Kordansky. It’s an abstract piece that’s layered on a cloth material. Sam is famous for his drapery works, and it’s like one of those pieces but smaller.

It was my first piece where I was really taking that leap of faith, not only as a dude from the west side of Chicago who didn’t grow up with the means to even be in the space, but it was something that let me know that I was serious. Anytime you invest in something, you buy into something, there’s a seriousness that you have to approach it with. Sam Gilliam, obviously with his story and his background, made it easy to do so.

That was in 2019 or 2020. Since the pandemic, I’ve really upped it a lot as far as being more aggressive in my collecting. The art space is super overwhelming at times—it’s oversaturated, there are a lot of people collecting, and you have to act quickly. And that was one of the first things I really jumped on.

C.L.: How did you come to buy that work?

S.B.: A friend of mine who was definitely more versed than me saw me collecting and doing my own thing and he said, “Let me put you in contact with some people to really get you going.” He put me in touch with Kordansky, and they sent over a PDF with the work. I was definitely still early on in my collecting, so it was something where I was coached and talked through it a lot.

C.L.: Taking a step back, what were your earliest experiences with art?

S.B.: To me, art is all over the place. I have a background in television, film, and music as well. But I used to draw and paint as a kid, probably when I was around five, six, or seven, and I took it seriously until probably my mid-teens. I always gravitated toward art in general. I look at myself as a creative, as an artist. When you work in television and film, in these different spaces, they’re all art. This is just a different canvas before you.

Installation view, from left to right, of works by Jerrell Gibbs and Cornelius Annor. Photo by Tracy Nguyen for Artsy.

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C.L.: Are there any artists that you encountered at a young age that have really stuck with you?

S.B.: No. Not at all if I’m being real. I wasn’t around art. I’m from the west side of Chicago, which is the hood. There was access, obviously, to beautiful museums, but as a child, you’re not necessarily moving around the city by yourself. My parents were not necessarily into art, and art gets this kind of uptight mentality at times. I don’t know that we would feel like we belonged, so I had to kind of naturally teach myself.

C.L.: What led you to start building your own collection?

S.B.: I started collecting early on in my twenties, but it wasn’t as meaningful to me. I started seeing the market, seeing my friends who were doing a lot of collecting, and it was very interesting to me. As I got into the art space and saw the actual industry of it and learned the ins and outs of it, collecting became more serious for me.

I connect to art as I connect to my work: I connect to messaging. We are collecting right now I would say around 90 percent Black, so a lot of the art resonates with me from a very personal place.

C.L.: Are there particular friends who have been mentors or who have been especially inspiring to you as a collector?

S.B.: Yeah, there are a lot of collectors I look up to. Swizz Beatz is one of them. I had the privilege of having him on Ridiculousness. When he came on, we spoke about art for a long time. And then we became kind of cool. So we go back and forth now, vibing, asking questions, I pick his brain. He’s someone who’s been very passionate about the space, and as someone who looks like me, he was someone I looked up to.

Another friend is Easy Otabor, who owns Anthony Gallery in Chicago. He’s also very passionate and is somebody I first knew outside of art. He works in music as well, he is from Chicago, and he was one of the first people at RSVP Gallery; it was just kind of this cultural connection that we had. So those two dudes, and then I’ll also say my art advisor Clay Rochemont. He’s probably the most well-versed person I know in the art space, so I lean on him a lot as well.

Derrick Adams, installation view of Floater 58 (two rafts), 2017. Photo by Tracy Nguyen for Artsy.

C.L.: How do you describe your collection now? You were saying that 90 percent of the works are by Black artists?

S.B.: Yeah, I mean, that’s not necessarily how we go about collecting, but yes, it’s gotten there. As you probably know, the messaging and the connections that we have with the pieces are from seeing Black liberation, Black happiness, and Black struggle. I think that our collection is kind of, I don’t want to say all over the place, but it’s very strong. We try to mimic it after our personal stories and have a real connection to each piece.

C.L.: Are there thematic threads that run through the collection? Is there anything in particular that you look for when adding new works?

S.B.: I think the things that just relate or resonate with me in general as a Black man in America—the different struggles or the things we may go through in life. When I look at a piece, I want to feel something. That’s how I kind of approach each piece. And sometimes you don’t even know why you feel, you just are moved by it. And that’s what we try to do whenever we collect—me and my fiancée, we try to make sure we’re moved by the piece.

C.L.: And so you collect together with your fiancée? Do you always agree on what to collect?

S.B.: Always agree? You know, I’m in a relationship, we don’t always agree. [laughs] But yeah, we definitely try to make sure we compromise and I respect her opinion. She does a lot of the actual lifting for us at times—she’s one that stays on the aspiring artists more than I can at times with my schedule, so she’ll send me over PDFs and say, “Have you seen this artist? And there’s this show over here.” So yeah, we don’t always agree, but definitely, as we build our lives together, this collection is also something we’re building together.

Installation view, from top to bottom, of work by Hank Willis Thomas; and Richard Prince, Untitled (Respect), 2020. Photo by Tracy Nguyen for Artsy.

C.L.: Are there other works in the collection that are especially meaningful to you?

S.B.: I think we try to only buy things that are meaningful to us. But yeah, a piece of that means a lot to me, as someone that has anxiety at times, is the Rashid Johnson. It speaks to me, the emotions that he puts in each piece, and it kind of shows that he goes through that as well; it’s one of our smaller pieces, but one of my favorites.

I also really love the Hank Willis Thomas, the Joel Mesler, and we just got a Richard Prince. As someone that is in the comedy space as well, Richard Prince took some pieces from the Rodney Dangerfield Estate and if you look closely enough, you can see some scripts, some checks, all these different things. And that piece also resonates with me because it has my dad’s name, Frank. There were all these things that really resonated with me right away, where I was like, “I can’t miss this opportunity to have this blue-chip piece in the collection.”

C.L.: Are there any pieces that people are often drawn to or ask questions about?

S.B.: Yeah, I think the Ronald Jackson by the door; it’s the first thing that you see when you walk in the house and it really demands your attention. The Sam Gilliam is a favorite of the artists that come through. They can appreciate him and they know his struggle and what he went through as an artist.

The Hank Willis Thomas is something that people gravitate to. When you put a flash or any natural light on it, you get a completely different feel and picture, which is super cool. The Jammie Holmes, also. As the collection is constantly growing, we’re moving things into storage, and it’s been rotating. It’s been beautiful.

C.L.: What would you say is the most important information that helps you decide to buy something or not?

S.B.: The message. As someone that works in television and film, it’s so much easier for me to use those analogies: I don’t want to watch a movie that has a shady message. So with any piece, I think, what’s the artist trying to say? And if that connects with me, the conversation can start on if this fits the collection in terms of the way it makes you feel, the colors, and so on. But it definitely starts with the messaging of the artist and what they’re trying to convey.

Installation view, from left to right, of Ronald Jackson, Angel of God, 2021; and Nina Chanel Abney, Two Years and Counting, 2018. Photo by Tracy Nguyen for Artsy.

C.L.: And it sounds like you’ve become comfortable buying work online or through the PDFs without seeing them in person first?

S.B.: Yeah. Of course, I would love to always see them in person, but our schedules only permit so much and we have to move quickly on things, so I don’t always get the opportunity. Sometimes I have to go with my eye and trust the gallery or my advisor, as long as our condition report comes back that the piece is in good shape.

C.L.: Have you ever had works arrive and been surprised to see what they’re like in person?

S.B.: Do you have Amazon? Have you ever ordered something and said “Even though I know I bought this, this is a surprise.” [laughs]

But with art, it’s always like a birthday. That’s one thing I will say—that I know that we’re in the right space because no matter what, when those deliveries come in, when something is arriving, I’m like a kid in a candy shop. I’m just smiling from ear to ear like “Oh my god, this is so good. This is so fun!” And you don’t know if everyone else feels the exact same way around you, but you know at least you’re in the right space.

C.L.: How do you discover new artists these days?

S.B.: The galleries are sending the PDFs, but even beyond the galleries, the streets! Always the streets, baby! [laughs] You know on social media, there’s so much access to so much art.

But I trust not only the galleries, I trust my friends and different people who are in the space. I’ve actually bought a couple of pieces just from friends of mine, telling me, “Hey Sterling, I know you’re serious in the space. I believe my friend is actually really good.” And you know, you may go into that skeptical, but you’ll see those pieces and be like, “You know what, this person actually is pretty good.” It’s probably one in every twenty or thirty, but still, all you need is one.

C.L.: Totally. Who are some artists that you’re especially excited about now? Artists whose works you’ve collected recently?

S.B.: A work by Derrick Adams just arrived today, actually. Bambo Sibiya was a huge recent addition. A new Nina Chanel Abney should be arriving in the next couple of weeks. I’m excited to get that installed. We also acquired some works from En Iwamura, a ceramic piece and a painting. Jacob Rochester is an up-and-coming aspiring artist who’s one of my friends. He’s great and I’ve bought multiple pieces from him.

Installation view of work by Joel Mesler. Photo by Tracy Nguyen for Artsy.

Jacob Rochester, installation view of Bamboo Turbo, 2022. Photo by Tracy Nguyen for Artsy.

C.L.: Anyone else whose works are not yet in your collection?

S.B.: Toyin Ojih Odutola is amazing; her works are just impeccable—the way that she really makes Black skin move throughout her works. I’d be thrilled to get a piece of Toyin’s soon. I of course, like everyone else with a wish list, would love a Kerry James Marshall one day. It’s my dream.

Theaster Gates is someone who I talk to often, a Chicago guy. I don’t know if you know this about Chicago, but we are very much tight-knit. We meet people and just by being from the city, there’s this automatic love, and Theaster really embodies that—not only in his work, but also in his community efforts within Chicago. Derek Fordjour is someone that I admire greatly; we also talk. I try to always make sure that I let the artists know that I appreciate their works and what they are doing for the space, and to not take that lightly.

C.L.: How has collecting art influenced the rest of your life or career? Have you gotten friends into collecting?

S.B.: Yeah, when I got into it, I also wanted to be a liaison between certain communities in the art space. I don’t feel like there are a lot of people like me within the space, so yes, I’ve gotten my friends into collecting. I’m definitely the guy that’s always preaching and pushing the art.

C.L.: Was there a particular moment when you really started feeling like a collector or did it come over time?

S.B.: Me and my advisor have this joke, every piece I buy I tell him, “I’m a real collector now!” because every piece makes me feel that way. I know that having that opportunity to even have these things in my collection is a blessing. So each time I feel like, “Oh man, this is a monumental work for the thing we’re trying to build.” Each time we’re adding to the collection, I feel as though that work is a missing puzzle piece to what we’re ultimately trying to do here.

C.L.: In your opinion, what goes into being a collector beyond just buying work? What does it mean to you to be a collector?

S.B.: In general, I like being a representation of what we can do in this space. I would love other little young Black kids to look at me and be like, “Oh, I didn’t even know that was going on. I didn’t even know that was a side of the world.” So I think just representing.

I had a dude maybe three weeks back come up to me and say, “Hey, man, you don’t know me but I started collecting art because of you.” Those little stories, every time I’m like, wow. I don’t want to say you don’t believe you have influence, but you don’t necessarily know the magnitude of your influence, or that people even give a shit.

You may have walked into an art gallery as a young kid and felt like you did not belong. I want to make sure that I make others feel like they belong.

C.L.: And what do you enjoy most about being a collector?

S.B.: The art! Living in our home and just getting to wake up to beautiful art every day is truly inspiring. It looks way better than blank walls. And it’s the people that you meet within the art space, from all different walks of life. As it is such a big space, everyone is so different; the reason that people collect is so different; what people are trying to collect is so different.

C.L.: Finally, where would you advise a new collector to begin?

S.B.: Artsy! I got my first piece off of Artsy and I really would advise—this is not propaganda when you read this, people—that you go to Artsy. It’s a great place to start and it’s a great place if you’re not comfortable yet with being in those spaces. You can build your own space and your own gallery, just with Artsy. It helped me to take that leap into collecting and say that I’m actually ready to jump out there.

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Casey Lesser

Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.

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