Steve Cohen and Mets are 'democratizing' art this season by fusing it with baseball

One day during the 2022 season, Steve Cohen had a suggestion for his intellectually curious shortstop, Francisco Lindor: Why not venture together to auction houses in the city, where Lindor could view and learn about art?

The Mets’ owner is one of America’s top collectors of contemporary, modern and precious arts, and saw in Lindor another baseball devotee who might enjoy that world.

“He loved it,” Cohen says. “Francisco is a smart dude. He was sucking that up. He’s stylish. He has a good eye. And this is of that ilk.”

This was an early foray for Cohen -- who, along with his wife and Mets co-owner Alex Cohen, collects Picasso, Giacometti, Pollock, Koons, de Kooning and many others -- into the melding of two of his worlds. Over the past few years, Cohen has entertained passing thoughts about other ways to merge art and baseball, including a sculpture garden near Citi Field and work hanging inside it.

Then, last summer, Cohen was part of a conversation that led the Mets to take their first major step into this cultural space: this season’s Artists Series of promotional giveaways featuring the work of highly-regarded contemporary artists.

On a calendar typically filled with bobbleheads and t-shirts, this promotion stands out as unusually attuned to a different rhythm of the city -- that of the many artists, writers, musicians and creative folks who also love the game.

The idea arose in Cohen’s suite at the ballpark, where he was hosting a group of artists for a game. His daughter, Sophie Cohen, who works with artists and collectors, was also there.

“We just started talking,” Cohen says. “We’re all baseball fans. [We said] ‘Wouldn't it be cool if we did something or made something that we could give to the fans? What can artists do that interact with the baseball team and the fans? Each artist could put their own imprint on it.’”

Two of the artists in attendance, Rashid Johnson and Joel Mesler, were soon involved. Cohen brought in Sophie and the team’s chief marketing officer, Andy Goldberg. Johnson and Mesler came up with ideas for a bucket hat and a tote bag, respectively, and the Mets decided to produce them.

When the team released its 2024 promotional schedule last month, the Artist Series received scant attention compared with earlier Saturday start times. But this innovation has a chance to be highly impactful in a different way, connecting the Mets to a non-traditional but real segment of the baseball fan base.

“It’s an interaction of art and popular culture and sports -- and why can’t that be?” Cohen says. “We just saw it in the NFL with Taylor [Swift]. It’s a marriage of different subcultures in a way that’s fun and interesting and educational.”

Mesler’s tote bag is up first; the first 15,000 fans in attendance at the May 25 game against San Francisco will receive it. On July 13, the Mets will roll out Johnson’s bucket hat for a game against Colorado.

Though not yet announced, the acclaimed artist Sarah Sze will be next up on the Artist Series, later in the season.

Mesler, Johnson and Sze are active, contemporary artists, which marks the promotion as even edgier and more interesting than the Brooklyn Nets’ recent Jean-Michel Basquiat-inspired jerseys.

That, too, was an innovation in the sports/culture space, but Basquiat is as close to a mainstream, household name as perhaps any visual artist of the past four decades. Plus, he died in 1988. The three artists featured at Mets games this season are working in the current moment, and popular among collectors and art fans.

The giveaways will make their work accessible to an entirely new socioeconomic demographic.

“It’s like democratizing art, to some degree,” Cohen says. “Maybe you can’t afford a painting from this artist, but you can afford to come to a game.”

And maybe those who attended on those days will walk around town in their bucket hats or carrying their tote bags, pushing the Mets still deeper into the bloodstream of a city in which passion for them already runs hot.

“Maybe our fans will like it,” Cohen says. “It’s an experiment.”