Meet the Argentine Tech Entrepreneur Who Started His Own Emerging-Art Incubator
“Take a group of people from the tech world, and a group of people from the art world,” says Alec Oxenford. “Then mix them all together in one room. You’ll notice that it’s difficult to tell who is who.” The 46-year-old Argentinian internet entrepreneur, collector, and president of arteBA Foundation should know: he’s equally at home in both.
Oxenford’s abode is set high among the treetops in the exclusive Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo Chico, also home to MALBA, the city’s famed modern art museum. And seated on a white sofa in this sleek and sun-drenched apartment, Oxenford himself defies stereotypes. He’s just in from Portugal, but shows no sign of jet lag, his eye trained on the markets in India while he simultaneously finalizes arrangements for the 24th edition of the arteBA art fair, opening next week. One moment, he’s taking a business call, speaking quietly into a wireless headset with his arms crossed and brow furrowed. The next, he’s joking around about Basquiat, explaining his penchant for the color fuchsia, and checking to see if there’s any ice cream left in the freezer. He’s a Harvard M.B.A. with a framed artwork spelling out the words “Why Work?” (a 2012 photograph by Dudu Alcón Quintanilha) hanging above his desk. Proving the point, it appears, that creative people are difficult to categorize.
“It’s not just the physical presentation that strikes me as similar,” Oxenford continues, the sun’s late afternoon rays casting his figure in sharp relief against Cecilia Szalkowicz’s Intuición y método—“my Bauhaus wallpaper,” as Oxenford fondly calls it. “Art people and tech people all have logical minds, in one way or another. They all live on the cutting edge, they innovate, they feel compelled to create beautiful things.”
Oxenford, of course, embodies these same qualities, a fact that’s earned him respect in both fields. Best known as the co-founder and CEO of OLX, a classifieds company with 200 million active monthly users—the largest online marketplace in India and Brazil—Oxenford has also steadily built his reputation in South American art circles since he was appointed president of the Asociación de Amigos del Malba (Friends of MALBA) in 2001. He started collecting on the side. And in 2013, Oxenford was named the president of the arteBA foundation, the nonprofit that organizes the artBA fair.
The annual fair has long been a fixture on the Latin American art scene, bringing in more than 100,000 visitors and featuring works by over 500 artists each year. But arteBA feels fresher and more relevant under Oxenford’s stewardship. Last year, he introduced Photobooth Citi, an exhibition area dedicated to contemporary photography. This year, he’s shepherded in 21 new participating galleries and focused on expanding Barrio Joven Chandon, a section of the fair dedicated to emerging artists—Ana Clara Soler and Mario Scorzelli among them.
It’s a genre that’s close to his heart. Nearly all of the pieces in Oxenford’s considerably sized personal collection—around 250 works by 70 artists, at present—are the work of contemporary Argentinian artists. A great number of them either were considered “emerging” at the time of his acquisition or still are.
“I think it’s more exciting to buy from emerging artists,” says Oxenford, who names Argentinian sculptor Sol Pipkin as a current favorite. “And it’s an easy way to get started collecting. You don’t need a lot of money to buy interesting art—that’s a misconception. Many of the artworks I’ve purchased weren’t very expensive.” He gestures to a large sculpture in the middle of the living room, Fabian Marcaccio’s bold rendering of a massive pile of U.S. dollars blowing away in the breeze. “Money comes, and money goes,” he says with a smile. “It’s good to keep that in mind.”
Both in his direction of arteBA and his selections for his personal collection, Oxenford is putting his money where his mouth is—with Argentina and its emerging artists. “This is a special place,” he says of his native country, and particularly of its capital city, where the theatres, galleries, cultural centers, and museums are famously packed on weekends. “In most parts of the world, you go to art fairs, and you mostly see other collectors. At arteBA, all kinds of people come. The general public is interested in art. And the number of artists working here is a product of that.”
His collection is a who’s who of the scene. In addition to pieces by Liliana Porter, Eduardo Navarro, Martin Legon, and Carlos Huffmann, there’s Constanza Alberione’s pop art-like self-portrait (“this is adorable,” Oxenford says), Claudia Fontes’s miniature sculptures in white porcelain (“incredible detail, right?”), Diego Bianchi’s sculpture of a female figure constructed with Quilmes beer bottles (“beautiful from far away, and dangerous up close, a comment on the fine line between attraction and repulsion”), and Marina De Caro’s ink and pastel swirls in vibrant fuchsia in Sin título (Untitled), 2008—one of Oxenford’s first purchases (“I couldn’t tell if it was finished or not. I love its power and femininity. It’s like a living thing to me.”)
Though Oxenford is quick to credit the curator Inés Katzenstein for her assistance in building his collection, it’s clear he makes decisions intuitively. “I’m not going to buy something I don’t like,” he says simply, remembering one of his first experiences as a collector. “I fell in love with a piece once, and I waited. I thought I had time to think about it. Then someone else bought it.” He leans back against the sofa cushions, the last spoonfuls of ice cream melting in the bowl in front of him. “I like to have fun with art—I have a sense of humor about it. But now I know that if something grabs you, you shouldn’t wait. You’ll miss your chance.”
That sense of immediacy, coupled with his alacrity in passing between the spheres of art and tech, makes Oxenford a natural advocate for Argentina’s rapidly growing art scene. “ArteBA works two ways,” he says. “It’s the window of Argentinian art to the rest of the world, so it’s key to our reputation. But it’s also a way to stimulate and develop the hunger for art we have in this country. And that’s just as important.”