This Collective Uses Instagram and YouTube to Demystify Art Collecting
Installation view, from left to right, of works by George Condo, Baldur Helgason, Kenny Scharf, Yang Hyun Jun, Javier Calleja, and KAWS in Jonathan Montalvo’s home. Courtesy of Jonathan Montalvo.
Picture yourself scrolling through an Instagram page featuring photographs of immaculate interiors outfitted with bold contemporary artworks such as Takashi Murakami’s multicolored pillows; Hajime Sorayama’s shiny, metallic sculptures; and Emily Mae Smith’s trippy, surrealistic paintings. Though such spaces may seem unattainable to many of us, the founders of the League of Their Own (or League OTO, for short)—an art and lifestyle collective that seeks to educate and encourage young collectors and creators—live with these pieces and use their social media channels to share their collections with others.
“Our whole mission is basically to make [collecting] inclusive for everybody,” said League co-founder Gambriel Wills, a computer programmer and art collectorwho manages the group’s Instagram page. “[Collecting is often] looked at as this just thing over here, and people say, ‘This is what rich people do.’ And most people don’t really tell you how they get there. They want you to admire what they’re doing, but they won’t give you the knowledge.”
Portrait of Gambriel Wills with works, from left to right and top to bottom, by Daniel Arsham, Patrick Alston, Adam Parker Smith, and Takashi Murakami, 2021. Courtesy of Gambriel Wills.
Kathryn Mecca, installation view in Jason Lee’s home. Courtesy of Jason Lee.
The group was founded in 2016 after its members—Wills; Demetrius Butler, who co-owns a clothing store in Washington, D.C., called The Museum; Jay Montalvo, who runs the building maintenance department of a high-rise building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; and Jason Lee, who is the president of an advertising agency—met over Instagram. Now, League OTO’s founding members, who are all men of color, are hoping to make art more accessible with their new platform.
“Me and [Demetrius], we went to high school together in D.C.,” said Wills. “So we already kind of knew each other before everybody. I met [Jason and Jay] on Instagram.”
The four men used group chats to bond over their shared interests in street art, music, and culture. (Both Wills and Butler are based in D.C., whereas Lee and Montalvo are based in New York City.) After months of sending messages, they decided to meet in real life on October 20, 2016, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for the opening of KAWS’s exhibition “Where the End Starts.” Once they met, the group found that they got along in person just as well as they did online, so they began attending exhibitions together.
Installation view, from left to right, of works by Evgen Copi Gorisek and Javier Calleja in Jonathan Montalvo’s home. Courtesy of Jonathan Montalvo.
“We started to go to these museums and places, and people just kind of knew us as a group,” said Wills. “It was like a boy band almost. [People recognized us] because we kind of dress differently.”
And so League OTO was born. At first, some of the members were interested in collecting artists like Murakami—who designed Kanye West’s Graduation album cover—and KAWS—who designed another cover for West, for the 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak—because they were excited by the ways in which art intersected with contemporary music.
“That’s when I first realized [who Murakami was],” Butler recalled, “from Kanye.”
Baldur Helgason, installation view in Demetrius Butler’s home. Courtesy of Demetrius Butler.
Installation view, from left to right, of works by Hilda Palafox (Poni) and James Ullmer in Demetrius Butler’s home. Courtesy of Demetrius Butler.
The members found it easier to collect works by high-demand artists as a group, because as a team they could work together to reach out to more artists and galleries, which, in turn, helped them acquire more pieces. Though each of the members makes purchases individually, they usually consult one another before buying a work.And if an individual member spots an artist they love, they always try to make sure other members of the League will also be able to obtain pieces by that artist.
Working together was especially important because the group had neither financial backing, nor partnerships, nor formal training. Collecting collectively has also been easy because the members have overlapping tastes. It usually isn’t difficult for them to decide what to purchase and what not to. Collaborating helps them share their collections, allowing members to exchange pieces among themselves and amass a larger collection as a group than any of them would have on their own.
“It’s rare that we buy something solo, especially me, [Demetrius and Jason],” Wills said. “I can’t really think of anything that we bought in the last couple years that we were literally one person.”
Portrait of Demetrius Butler with works, from left to right, by Reen Barrera and Susmu Kamijo, 2021. Courtesy of Demetrius Butler.
Portrait of Jason Lee with works, from left to right, by Willem Hoeffnagel and Julia De Ruvo, 2021. Courtesy of Jason Lee.
This novel collecting model has been useful for the League, but it was initially difficult to convince galleries that this approach was feasible, especially in instances when the group wanted four works by an artist instead of just one. In order to further facilitate their collecting endeavors, the League decided to publicize their work on social media, launching their Instagram page on July 19, 2017. In the beginning, the page struggled to gain followers, but in 2018 more people began to notice it, attracting the attention of celebrities like Pharrell Williams and platforms like Hypebeast.
Now, League OTO has more than 86,000 Instagram followers, and the members use their platform to promote the work of artists they love, collectors they admire, and the art institutions they visit. The collective even hosts weekly events like Artist Day—when members of the League promote the artists they’re interested in, like Paul Anthony Smith—and Museum Monday, in which the League features photographs of art exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world, and shows works by artists including George Condo and Keith Haring.
LY, installation view in Demetrius Butler’s home. Courtesy of Demetrius Butler.
The group also educates their followers through a YouTube channel, where they share informative videos about artists and highlights of their collections. For instance, last September, Montalvo posted an unboxing video in which he opened a number of KAWS toys. In another video, Lee interviews artist Steven Harrington about his practice.
Over the years, members of the League have broadened their palates beyond KAWS and Murakami. Now, their collection includes artists like Patrick Alston, a noted abstract artist who creates canvases with beautiful swathes of bright colors; Sarah Slappey, a virtuosic painter known for her bizarre portrayals of the female body; and Susumu Kamijo, an artist who creates fun and vibrant depictions of dogs. The League’s tastes may have changed, but their philosophy hasn’t: They still want to demystify art collecting. This mission is especially important to members of the League because they didn’t necessarily come from backgrounds where conversations about art and the role of the collector were the norm.
Portrait of Jonathan Montalvo with a work by Kenny Scharf, 2021. Courtesy of Jonathan Montalvo.
Installation view, from left to right and top to bottom, of works by Marcus Brutus, Evgen Copi Gorisek, and Baldur Helgason in Gambriel Wills’s home. Courtesy of Gambriel Wills.
“Because I think [Demetrius and I] have grown up in the inner city, you’ll never really think about [art],” said Wills. “Even my mom today thinks I’m a genius. It blows her mind that I’m an art collector. So we live in the city collecting art, and when she sees my house it blows her mind. You really collect artifacts [which is] just something that we didn’t conceive of doing.”
Members of League OTO hope they can set an example for other aspiring collectors who don’t have any similar role models.To make their collection even more accessible, in 2020 the League held an exhibition at Padre Gallery that included works by KAWS, Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, Javier Calleja, Joyce Pensato, Maja Djordjevic, and others.
Javier Calleja, installation view in Jason Lee’s home. Courtesy of Jason Lee.
“While we do love to show our art in our homes, we’re not inviting you in the home because that’s dangerous,” Wills said. “So we wanted to take some of our art out of our homes, put it in a gallery, and have people come enjoy it.”
The League is planning a number of similar projects this year, such as another exhibition with Padre Gallery’s Pablo Villazan and their first collaboration with an artist, Slovenian painter Evgen Čopi Gorïšek, which will debut this summer. The members hope their platform and exhibitions will further democratize the art world and make it accessible to those who have historically been excluded from it.
“It’s just an equalizer that can really help the world,” Butler said. “That’s just our mission, to make sure everybody has the knowledge and the tools to get into our world.”