I Have Seen the Death of Culture, and It Was Anna Delvey's Art ShowMay 20, 2022
“Welcome to my partyyyyyy,” a vaguely Eastern European-accented voice drones, as a crowd of reporters, influencers, and hangers-on whip out their phones to capture the magic. “Shut up! I’m a masterpiece. I’m a masterpiece. I am Annaaaaaaa. Am I gorgeous or what? And don’t you worry. The wire money is coming. The wire money is coming, baby.”
The voice on the loudspeaker is from an Anna Delvey impersonator, but a few minutes later, the real Anna speaks in a prerecorded message. “You’ve heard so many voices already, but this is just the beginning of me telling my story, my narrative, from my perspective,” she concludes, with whoops of approval from the crowd. Immediately, Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” blares over the loudspeaker as a bevy of swan-necked models in black BDSM masks parade down a narrow corridor carrying various crudely drawn sketches. There’s an image of inmates swanning around in Hermes and Bottega Veneta on the stairs of a penitentiary, with the caption “Corrections Collection”; a paper doll showing a female figure’s transformation from donning Sally Hershberger highlights and a Dries van Noten jacket to a prison-instituted sweatsuit and Amazon panties; and an image of a woman in thick, black-rimmed glasses confronting a harried desk clerk, with the bubble, “This is a club card. Run it on my card. Run it again!” No one, except for the models, was wearing a mask.
Dozens of photographers clamor to shoot the models holding the art, even though no one else in the room is paying much attention to it. All of the works are signed, in highly stylized, curlicue font, looking much fancier than the chicken-scratched, color-penciled images themselves, “Anna Delvey.”
The audience seems a little baffled by the display; or at least, the audience members who are paying attention to it in the first place, and not just checking how many people have viewed it on their Instagram stories. One attendee later refers to it as “like a Kanye video when he’s off his meds.” “I think she’s making some sort of big statement,” I overhear the woman behind me saying, but she doesn’t really elaborate on what that statement might be.
Anna Delvey is a convicted criminal and scam artist who, in pretending to be a Bavarian heiress raising venture capital for an arts space, humiliated and ruined the lives of innumerable people. But in pretending to be an iconic New York City heiress, she has also, improbably, remade herself as an iconic New York City success story. In 2017, she was arrested after raising the alarm of numerous big banks and failing to pay her hotel bills. In 2020, she was convicted of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from friends and various businesses in New York. Having been released early on good behavior following a jail sentence for multiple counts of grand larceny and theft of services, she is now currently at an ICE detainment center in Orange County, New York for overstaying her visa and is awaiting deportation to Germany.
Anna Delvey launched her solo art exhibit titled, “Allegedly” at the Public Hotel in New York City on May 19, 2022
John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx/AP
Despite her myriad crimes — chief among them failing to pull off a consistent Bavarian accent — Delvey has attracted a bevy of devotees, largely due to Julia Garner’s objectively excellent portrayal of her in the objectively terrible Netflix series Inventing Anna. On her Instagram, where she has one million followers, she regularly attracts approving comments from her fans, millennial women and gay men bottle-fed a steady diet of true crime, slickly shot scammer narratives, and yasskweenslay white feminism that teaches us that committing any number of white-collar crimes can be totally empowering for women, provided they talk funny or wear Miu Miu while doing so.
At “Allegedly” — Delvey’s first solo show, which was held at the Public Hotel on the Lower East Side — these stans were out in full force, painting Anna Delvey as a modern-day Robin Hood subject to the brutal capitalistic forces of the patriarchy. “Anna Delvey is the people’s chick,” Stephen James The Artist, a Zack Morris lookalike clad head-to-toe in a tie-dye sweatsuit he identified as “Lenny Vuitton,” proudly proclaimed. “She’s doing everything everyone else really wants to do, which I think is really exciting,” says perfume designer Ryan Richmond (whose product is named, appropriately enough, “Rich Mess.) “Going to New York, getting more popular, going to the right events, getting into the seat of things. She figured out her dream along the way…I don’t know the moral of it or anything, but parts of it are definitely inspiring.”
“I think she’s such a pioneer in the age of the scam,” says Taylor Greist, an aspiring screenwriter and Catskills lodge worker. “She’s very talented and had her hands in so many different things. It’s good to see her apply herself in a creative way. There’s an art to the scam, but I’d like to see her doing art itself.”
One woman who declined to be named (many attendees declined to go on the record, perhaps correctly estimating that prospective employers may not look kindly on full-throated defenses of convicted felons) framed Delvey as a feminist icon: “She is absolutely not a scammer. She’s a woman who was trying to start a company and raise capital. This would never have happened to a man… How many men have pre-seed ideas or pre-launch ideas and get funded and either they execute it or they don’t? For some reason this woman got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.” (To date, Delvey is the only person who has been charged in connection to her scams.)
I had been reluctant to attend the show, to say the least. I am heavily pregnant, and the prospect of lumbering around soberly making conversation with underpaid New York Magazine interns, Marymount kids who could not get into Tisch, and aspiring influencers who would later lobby to fuck Cousin Greg at Ray’s down the street, did not appeal to me. The art show struck me as the type of naked press grab common among former tabloid mainstays who suspect they may be losing their grip in the zeitgeist, and judging by the fact that almost everyone I spoke to at the show was either a reporter, a publicist, or a friend of either, this assessment turned out to be correct.
Further, and perhaps more to the point, I knew from having reported on the trial that Anna Delvey had made more than $300,000 selling her life rights to Netflix for Inventing Anna, before the New York State attorney’s office sued her under the Son of Sam laws, preventing her from directly profiting off her crime. Though she got to keep some of the funds, she was reportedly making much more money off of this art show, with the collection estimated at $400,000-$500,000. The goal of the show, she said, was to sell 48 percent of the collection, and Anna would presumably be turning a profit; even though she had served her time, the idea of her profiting further off the notoriety her crimes struck me as unsavory, to say the least. But the prospect of interviewing a convicted art world scammer who had found a way to continue the scam behind bars was intriguing to me, so I got a sitter, invited my artist husband as a plus-one, and grudgingly trudged up the escalator to the Public Hotel’s packed bar.
“It’s important to bear witness,” he said over his shoulder as he snapped photos of the ectomorphs parading in. “Somebody needs to be here to show the world what’s going on with people’s brains.”
In any event, the art, clearly, was not the main attraction here. With her childlike, faceless sketches, Delvey shows far less promise as an artist than as a canny cultural critic, with her work often alluding to the media circus around herself and her trial. One sketch depicts Delvey and a barely recognizable Julia Garner meeting for the first time at a swanky NYC hotel; another shows a newspaper titled The Delvey Crimes showing a woman lounging on a chaise, with the headline, “ADA: Instead of Getting a Job She Was Busy Getting a Blowout.” The company handling the sales of Delvey’s work is called Founders Art Club, and when I spoke to cofounder Patrick J. Peters, he claimed, somewhat improbably, that when he first saw her work, he deemed her “the real deal.”
Currently, Founders Art Club only has two publicly listed clients: Delvey and fellow convicted criminal/Delvey’s former artistic collaborator Alfredo Martinez, who was incarcerated for forging fake Basquiats. (Martinez curated Delvey’s first show back in March, which featured five of her works.) To create the works, they helped transport rudimentary supplies such as colored pencils and paper into the prison, as acrilycs and paintbrushes were declined by security; to actually transport the works themselves, they had to use Delvey’s lawyer to get them in and out of the prison, which cost nearly $5,000 per trip.
“She did something wrong. She served her time,” says Founders Art Club cofounder Chris Martine, when I spoke with him the day after the show. “This is an opportunity for her to voice herself in a more permanent way and enter the world she tried to enter the wrong way the first time.”
Neither Peters nor Martine revealed exactly how much money Delvey had been paid for her art, only saying it involved a flat rate and royalties. They also did not reveal how many people had expressed interest in buying a stake of the works, or from which art houses, though Martine did say that many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs — weirdly, among the very people Delvey had tried to grift — had expressed interest. “They understand the grind and hustle that it really takes to make it. The mantra, fake it till you make it, there’s elements to grasp when you’re trying to start a company,” Martine says. “Obviously, forging documents is not something you should do, but building your vision, seeing what you can accomplish, that’s what they resonate with.”
Founders Art Club said that while a percentage of the proceeds of Delvey’s print sales — there are currently 4,000 prints of her works available, at a tiered system starting at $250 a pop – will go to an organization benefitting immigration reform, the group did not specify which one. They also did not address whether any of the money Delvey had made would go to her victims: “That is not something we’re privy to,” says Martine. “To our best knowledge she has paid all of her restitution for everything outstanding.” I later called Kacey Duke, Delvey’s former personal trainer who was portrayed by Laverne Cox in Inventing Anna, who said Anna still owed her money, though it was a relatively small amount; Rachel Deloache Williams, another of Anna’s victims, also says on her website that Anna never paid her back.
The ethical morass of profiting off or exploiting a convicted felon without donating any proceeds to victims seems to have occurred to the founders of Founders Art club, though not in a material way. “Everyone feels for victims who have been wronged in this case or any case. For us, it’s not our place to determine the way those people, through the legal system, will be compensated,” says Martine. “I think it’s a good point,” Peters says when I ask if what he and Delvey are doing is exploitative of her victims, in a manner that suggests he does not think my question is a good point. “But at the end of the day, people have the ability for redemption.”
Though Delvey’s comeback career as an outsider artist has certainly set the stage for a redemption arc of sorts, redemption implies undergoing some form of moral evolution, and Delvey has barely expressed anything akin to remorse for the harm she did. “The thing is, I’m not sorry,” she told the New York Times in 2019. She later changed her tune in front of a parole board, saying, “I completely understand that a lot of people suffered when I thought I was not doing anything wrong.” But in the past, her attitude towards her victims has bordered on contempt, and her most ardent stans do not seem to harbor much sympathy for Delvey’s victims, either.
“I think what she did was ultimately wrong and dishonest, [but] I’m surprised people didn’t probe into her more,” says Steven, who identified himself as a fan of Inventing Anna. “There were so many questions with the accent, the backstory. People just didn’t do their research.”
“People who get screwed over tend to exaggerate,” says James, who says he knew a mutual friend of one of Delvey’s victims (he declined to say who) who was irate with him for attending the event. “But I don’t know. It’s not my problem.” He then requested to follow me on Instagram so he could pitch me about his music.
Since none of the partygoers had any apparent empathy for Anna’s victims, I wanted to talk to someone who would: Duke, who had not been invited to the party, and was hosting her own event for a friend that evening. But when I called her, she was surprisingly sanguine about Delvey profiting off her time scamming people like her and other members of the New York glitterati.
“I say good for her,” Duke says. “She did the crime, she did the time. She should be able to express herself. There are lots of snake oil people out there. If this is a creative outlet that lets her put her energy in something other than conning people, I think that’s fine.”
Though Duke harbors no bitterness toward Delvey herself, she did express some consternation towards Delvey’s stans. “Part of me says, are you kidding me? People are making her out like she’s a hero. And there is something weird about that,” she says. “If someone is buying her work to look up to her or to be a con, that’s the kind of energy you don’t want.” But she also acknowledges the inherent appeal of Delvey’s story: that someone with basically nothing could remake herself from the ground up, and then, having spectacularly failed to do so, do it all over again via seemingly more legitimate means.
“If people admire her because they see that you can make yourself anything you want, they’re saying, the system is kinda messed up, so I’m gonna do what I need to do,” she says. “There is a point where you have to believe in yourself. That’s what I taught her in my life coaching….if you’re looking at somebody who’s taking lemons and has a creative outlet to make lemonade, that’s a good thing.”
Later in the evening, Founders Art Club moved the party to the Public Hotel’s glittering rooftop, where they displayed Delvey’s works sans models and later patched in Delvey for an interview with podcaster Niki Takesh, who cohosts Forbidden Fruit with Julia Fox (who has expressed interest in a Delvey collaboration). As I watched the crowd break into spontaneous chants of #FreeAnna, with Takesh imploring Delvey to do an “outfit reveal” by giving us a twirl in her prison uniform, I considered that there was indeed something inspiring about Delvey’s trajectory. She had done absolutely everything wrong, and somehow, in doing so, had gotten absolutely everything she wanted. She had won the adoration of the wealthy and flawlessly dressed. She had dozens of press outlets clamoring to tell her story, a fact often remarked upon by Takesh (“love Page Six,” she purred in her interview, to cheers from the crowd). She was being feted, in spectacularly decadent fashion, by the very world she had fucked over, whose respectability she had so desperately craved.
I was not the only person to reflect on the fact that Delvey was proof that, by breaking countless laws and hurting countless people, she had managed to achieve a degree of success beyond what she could have imagined. “That would be the great irony in this story, right?” Steven, the Inventing Anna fan, said. “She goes to jail and makes sketches and possibly becomes an artist. That was never her plan. But it would be a great irony if this was her way to make lots of money now.”
“Dreams come true,” I said hollowly in response.
“Yes, exactly,” Steven said, sounding somewhat more enthused. “They do.”
Despite doing my journalistic penance by spending three and a half hours sober at the event, and despite a few emails exchanged back and forth with the show’s publicist, I never did manage to speak with Delvey. I suppose the word I would use to describe my feelings about that is “scammed.”
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