This posting is part 2 of a 2 part feature article on The Economics of Art 2013
Galleries, Selling Images, “Affordable Art Market”
The success (profit margin), automation (technology), and therefore ease (appeal) of selling art prints online means there’s a low barrier of entry for just about anyone interested in offering artwork online. Any of the investors, collectors, fans, artists, galleries, and shops that were avoiding it for whatever reason are jumping in. Few are the spaces (though their number is growing at classic contrarian levels) that strive to exist solely offline.
It’s a strange sort of development. There’s a somewhat uncomfortable fusion of an “internet art world” with the art world you recognize in the galleries and spaces in the trendier neighborhoods in your city. All day we follow and peruse art on sites with millions of followers, based in a city we’ve never visited and led by people we don’t know, then maybe leave our computers to see an opening or an exhibition at a physical space, with people, in our own city.
With art prints, the market started offline but is having such a successful e-commerce phase that those who operate only offline have to respond by adjusting their business models a bit to keep up. Whether by allocating parts of their budgets towards building online stores or online advertising, or towards more granular efforts like funding social media presences, videos, and other more involved branding efforts, the barrier of entry is low enough that it’s hard not to feel like anybody selling artwork would be missing out if they ignore the internet completely.
The chronology isn’t entirely clean, but to oversimplify: The offline spaces sold art and were ignored or overtaken by online spaces, only for the offline spaces to realize what they were missing out on and get into that online marketplace as well. It didn’t happen so neatly, of course. Jen Bekman had a gallery of her own before she started 20x200.com. Some galleries transitioned into stores that resemble gift shops more than art galleries to better accommodate their product. Some websites have successful offline iterations. There’s overlap everywhere.
Jen Bekman saw the opportunity that an image-driven online world presented. We have Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and so on valued in the millions or even billions, and which are, essentially, ways to share images. Not so different from what a gallery does. While in their best shape galleries bring people together in spaces filled with art, show art, push people’s thoughts, support artists, and sell work, they’re also (in a disturbing minimization of their roles in society) about presenting images, challenging, inspiring, thought-provoking, entertaining images.
And the advent of the digital print almost completely cut galleries out of what’s being called the affordable art market, where artists can not only offer their work as prints or as objects, but do so for far less than a gallery might, and on a platform in which they have all the tools to sell their work themselves. Plus, not only can artists set their own commissions, entire communities of artists and buyers are now organizing their own shows or conferences, sometimes entirely online, well outside the purview of galleries.
In that way, we’re lucky enough to enjoy access to the creative process, personalities, and work of artists from all over the world more intimately than ever before. But what of the role of galleries who support those artists, give them a platform not only for promotion and sales but also for ideas? Are they irrelevant? What if the art world online needs them more than they know? Maybe galleries’ entrance into e-commerce is more than market competition but something essential for the well-being of art in general?
Or maybe, maybe it’s not so much separation or competition we’re seeing as it is an entirely separate realm and market coming into existence. After all, “fine” art (old and new) isn’t dying or even floundering (as the Christie’s and Sotheby’s people tell us over and over, art has never been bought or sold for as much as it has been in the Hirstian era). But it’s transforming. And “Affordable art,” always an odd term, isn’t a particularly new idea. What’s new is the updated power dynamics in the artist-gallery-collector love triangle.
Artists, who have for at least the last 500 years always been able to find new mediums or middlepersons or markets to sell their art, are perhaps, finally, on the verge of wresting control of the whole paradigm themselves.
Credibility vs. Commercialization
The question is whether that’s actually a good thing, because the problem is that in selling their work beyond the gallerists and web hosts, the new paradigm poses a problem for artists who have to fight to find the right balance between credibility and marketability. No longer protected behind the mystical shroud of Art, cast into the screaming chaos of the mainstream popular consumer market, they’re now faced with inexorable dilemmas that can actually harm the value of their work. Do I desperately snatch up every commercial opportunity online or do I hold out to a few big gallery shows every year? Do I bother everyone on Facebook with standard best e-commerce promotional practices, or do I stay quiet and not do too much self-promotion?
Some artists try to reject the promo, the #Branding work necessary to be a star. The stress of credibility, of social media networking, of the cool, of trying to make a dollar without being too “selly” – it’s enough make you want to give up and go to law school.
Is this feeling among (especially younger and older) “finer artists” a tacit rejection of the current realities of the commercialized art economy? If yes, is it not a tragedy that some of the most talented creators of our generation are refusing to play the game, even if it may lead to optimal visibility and chance for success?
Maybe it’s tragic only to the people that think the art market is going to last like it is. It might take another generation of artists and art world people figuring it out, but the internet has given a lot of the selling power back to artists. Paypal and Kickstarter, just to name two outlets, have made it possible to donate to a project across the world. And to artists that aren't interested in selling, the new paradigm has given them a possibility that is endless, a possibility of ways to not only share their work and ideas, but the possibility to make new work and new ideas with new people around the world.
There’s risk, too. If you do play the game, if you do commercialize, don’t forget the pacey fluency to everything in e-commerce. You are either the first to do a certain product, the first to do it that big, the first to put it on that medium, the first to do it on that medium with this kind of art – or you’re in danger of becoming irrelevant. That e-commerce race leads to a lot of garbage, like a lot of e-commerce in general, as everyone tries to jump on anything that might go viral, that hasn’t been done before, or crazy mashups of things tried previously. Page views, Facebook likes, reblogs – is this our new patron system?
But not all artists refuse to play. Some work to marry marketability and credibility with a consistent, instantly recognizable style they can put on everything from wood to candy. Some street artists’ work, for example, is immediately recognizable no longer just on walls, but also on t-shirts and stickers and backpacks and watches, all of which is available not just in a select number of galleries, but online and therefore across the globe.
In other words, the commercial art that artists from Warhol to Keith Haring pushed is fulfilling its destiny.
Take the “Art Toy” movement, which was barely more than a hardcore sub group ten years ago. It’s now a venerable art market force of its own, and like every subgroup that pokes its head through the crust and into the mainstream, it has its own spaces and legends and underground heroes and sellouts. It’s made a historic difference in terms of making commercialized art palatable in a post-quasi-meta-post-modern sort of way.
As Douglas Rushkoff said in the preface to Brian McCarty’s seminal book of art toy photos, the revolution is here to stay:
[The art toy movement] affirms the ever-present and indefatigable drive of artists to create inspiring and critically dimensional works no matter the medium, and whatever institutional forces appear to control them.
Basically, the struggle between credibility and the insistent pull of digital commercialization is just one aspect of the new, e-art-commerce renaissance. There are a lot of positive parts to it. Because in the digital economy outside of art, we demand so much transparency and openness and slaughtering of middlemen – at least enough to put bookstores out of business – and yet the “high” art economy for so long has subsisted on the inflation and murkiness that big galleries and auction houses sow into value.
The Economics of Art 2013
That’s what we tried to do in our show The Economics of Art 2013 at Vertical Gallery in August 2013. We tried to cut through the murkiness in the meeting of the e-art print world and the IRL gallery world. We hung originals next to screen printed reproductions of the originals next to limited edition digital prints, hand painted multiples, open editions and so on. Everything was for sale, from original work in the thousands to open edition limited prints for less than $40.
The speed of the art market has caught up with the speed of the rest of the e-world, and all the chaos that comes with it. This nebulous explosion asteroid thing that we now know as the internet art market – it’s here, so start changing your expectations.
Whether it’s “good” or “bad” for the creative world is too big a judgment, but it’s time we all accept what we’ve created, a marketplace where, as Hickey said, the market is everything.
Anyway, if the new art reality leads to a wider audience, more accessibility, less business or gallery interference, that can be a great thing for artists. It could be artists’ In Rainbows moment. But if in the end, like what we’ve seen in some cases with Amazon and iTunes, art is centralized online, with powerful gatekeepers, then the commercialization could mean a tyrannical turn for the democratization of the art market.
One cannot shake the feeling of the inevitability of change in this digital age, even when we don't know what exactly is inevitable, just that it is.
[Clare Vernon contributed to earlier drafts of this essay.]
The Economics of Art 2013 by Ben Schuman-Stoler
Artwork from the exhibition available at: http://verticalgallery.com/collections/the-economics-of-art-2013