Just moments ago, from the comfort of my apartment, I purchased a limited edition Damien Hirst artwork for $21. It took about five minutes and just as many clicks of the mouse.
I downloaded it from [s]edition, a website offering limited edition digital art by the likes of artists Shepard Fairey, Bill Viola and Tracey Emin. The artwork is a high-resolution image for display on your computer screen or mobile device. You could call it a screen print but that might get confusing.
It seems somehow appropriate that I can legitimately own a copy of Hirst’s glorified dots rendered in pixels, those other glorified dots.
It’s also a sign of the times. In recent years, the film, television, publishing and music industries have been radically transformed by the internet. Now, the art market is undergoing its own digital revolution.
The crucial difference here though is that, apart from the e-art on offer at [s]edition, we’re not simply talking about the digitisation of the product. The art market continues, and will continue, to be based on the transaction of physical objects.
Instead, what the art market is seeing more of is its client base shifting their attention away from traditional galleries to online channels, where they can now browse, buy and bid for art.
The virtual art marketplace is abuzz in fact. Online galleries Artspace, Artfinder, Artsy and VIP Art are attracting the kind of traffic its real-world counterpart can only dream about. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have launched online auction platforms, with new online auction houses Artnet Auctions, Artprice and Paddle8 covering the more modest end of the spectrum.
As for the old argument that buyers will want to see the artwork in the flesh before they buy – that’s no longer the case. In this age of ubiquitous e-commerce, buyers are more comfortable than ever with online shopping, and only too willing to purchase clothing, furniture and now art sight unseen. In fact, art collectors prefer it: according to a report published this year by art insurers Hiscox, 71 per cent of buyers surveyed have purchased art over the web, presumably satisfied with their inspection of the digital image.
It’s about time the art world recognised the possibilities of the internet. The range of artworks on show on the infinite wallspace online – at any time of day – is immense. It’s a 24/7 art fair without all the walking. Crucially, there’s also none of the pressure or intimidation of the gallery environment. You don’t need a ticket to Venice. You don’t even need to be wearing pants.
“Artists will always depend on the brick-and-mortar ecosystem to establish authority and context,” says Alexander Gilkes, cofounder of online auction house Paddle8. But the online market, Gilkes says, offers “the democratisation of luxury”.
“The most elite assets are now available to many more consumers. It used to be that blue-chip works were only available to a handful of select collectors with connections to dealers and auction houses; now, the process has become less opaque, and access has increased dramatically.”
Christine Kuan, chief curator at Artsy – a service that connects collectors to sellers online – agrees. “Many of the barriers that prevented people from collecting are being broken down by the internet.
“Not only can more people learn about and fall in love with art, but the web makes it really easy for someone in China to buy a work in Paris or someone in New York to discover a young artist in Brazil.”
Launched last November, Art Pharmacy is one of the most recent galleries to spring up online. It occasionally materialises in the real world for pop-up exhibitions and artist meet-and-greets around Sydney but there’s a sense that the proper way to visit Art Pharmacy is through its website. Judging by the snowballing popularity of the site, it’s a model that suits a lot of Sydney art lovers fine.
“You can shop any time you like,” says founder and director Emilya Colliver. “We all really do lead busy lives, with children or long work hours. People don’t necessarily have the opportunity to come to you. What they can easily do though is go online at home and get something delivered to their door.”
According to the Hiscox report, 26 per cent of collectors have spent more than £50,000 ($82,918) on a single work of art online. But Colliver is less interested in courting hardened collectors than making art accessible and affordable for young, first-time buyers. It’s a demographic, Colliver has realised, that responds strongly to social media. Much of the Art Pharmacy Twitter feed is dedicated to tips on approaching that first art purchase.
“They’re people who’d like to buy something but don’t know where to buy it from,” Colliver says. “People who are starting to nest, who love interior and love design. You can see them at our pop-up shows, usually in couples, 25-to-35 years old. They’ve just started their home and they need to fill a certain space.”
The Art Pharmacy website utilises a very undaunting shopping cart system for purchases, which seems to suggest Art Pharmacy’s guiding philosophy: buying art should be easy – sometimes even easy on the wallet.
“I tell my interns you can start a collection with $200 a year,” says Colliver. “I get annoyed that some people still pick up prints from IKEA. You don’t need a lot of money to start collecting. What Art Pharmacy offers is artworks for that entry-level purchase.”
Whatever Colliver’s target demographic, online shopping for art has appeal across the board. One of Art Pharmacy’s return customers, Sydney software developer Christopher Hughes-Gage is in his 60s and has been buying art with his partner for 12 years. He still visits real-world galleries, but finds the online experience convenient and genuinely enjoyable. He visits the Art Pharmacy website to search for work by a particular artist or just browse – occasionally printing out pictures of artworks to figure out where to hang them – and comes back often.
“I constantly return to review new pieces and collections,” Hughes-Gage says. “There’s a greater source of works online than what is normally available in conventional galleries.”
One dealer who understands that art-browsing habits have changed is Michael Reid. His galleries – one tucked in a Victorian terrace in Elizabeth Bay and another in a converted 19th century convict barracks in the Upper Hunter Valley – are pleasant places to visit. Nevertheless, many collectors now prefer to view the art on screen, says Reid.
“Once upon a time, collectors took the opportunity to stroll around the galleries on a Saturday. Your classic art-interested couple would drop the kids off at sport and visit five galleries for a browsing view on the day. All has changed. That couple now browse online and decide which of say 20 galleries they will actually visit. If at all.”
The industry as a whole has failed to come to terms with this reality, Reid says.
“The arts industry has been slow to ride the waves of change,” says Reid. “In fact I would state that, for generally well educated people that work on the coal face of cutting edge contemporary art and with new ideas, I have never been so surrounded before by such a group of innately conservative people.
“Very few of my colleagues have their eyes raised above their art shops, scanning the horizon, looking towards a new world.”
Reid, though, has got his digital act together. He’s active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. His galleries website features image previews of current exhibitions, art slideshows and video interviews. In addition, there are regular online-only exhibitions, usually of works under $1,000 – Pop-Ups, Reid calls them – which he aims to treat with as much importance and weight as the physical exhibitions. There’s an iPhone app and, outlined in the online strategy Reid is only too pleased to share with me, an iPad app on the way.
Reid’s cyber-savvy strategy would put a lot of dealers to shame. It’s telling, too, that he says he has no specific interest in technology – just a commitment to customers and art-interested folk in general.
“In essence, it allows people to engage with my galleries on any number of levels – creating an arts interested ecosystem for everyone – irrespective of whether you can afford to acquire the art the gallery positions or not.”
For some artists, the internet offers a way of bypassing the traditional gallery system altogether. Artist Hazel Dooney made considerable waves in the industry when she abandoned the “bricks and mortar and middlemen” to go it alone in her career, marketing and selling her work online herself.
Dooney had been disenchanted with the system for a long time. “I found myself at the mercy of unscrupulous, manipulative dealers and the inflated egos – and simpering social sensitivities – of institutional curators,” she says. “I felt increasingly disconnected from those most interested in my work – the people who actually collected it.
“The gallery system is going the way of the record company and the newspaper. It’s not a question of whether it will survive but rather when it will finally keel over and die. It’s doomed, and already irrelevant.”
Online, Dooney has reclaimed a voice and visibility the gallery system didn’t allow her. Through social media, she broadcasts her thoughts, her inspirations and the intimate details of her personal life to a legion of followers. She provides unfiltered access into her life, uploading photos of herself painting, shaving her head and having sex.
This direct, uninhibited communication, Dooney explains, has translated into huge interest in her art. Indeed, since setting out on her own, the value of Dooney’s work, and her income, has risen exponentially. It’s a potential game-changing case study for other artists, with serious repercussions for the dealers who would come between the artist and the consumer.
“The artist has to welcome this as an opportunity, not just to sell art but to help the audience to better understand and appreciate what they are attempting in their work.
“The audience is now connected directly to the artist, and it will at best suspect, but more probably, resent any attempt to filter or control it, or worse, manipulate it.”
For the foreseeable future, the art market is immune from the scourge devastating most other industries: the public’s overwhelming desire to get stuff without paying for it. It’s not that art lovers are any more morally upstanding than most; no one’s invented a way to illegally download an artwork straight to your living room wall.
But as the online art market gains prominence over traditional galleries, the metaphor presents itself: those unable to think outside the box will be left behind.
Having said all that, there’s one fundamental art world experience that the internet has failed to recreate.
There is, so far, no online equivalent to a real-life gallery exhibition opening, with its artfully dressed art scenesters pecking at cheese platters, quaffing champagne, schmoozing, dropping names and broadcasting their opinions of the work on display…
You know, come to think of it, I think I’ll stay home.
This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2013.