Monday, October 16, 2006

Selling art on the Internet

I come out of both the Internet and art worlds. In '99 I sold my Internet company to CNET. After that I opened an art gallery, first in San Francisco and then in New York.

For quite awhile I've been thinking about why fine art has not taken off as a product category on the Internet. I should specify that by "art" I am referring specifically to contemporary art in a variety of mediums: painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, installation, etc., and not to posters or other mass-produced art-related products.

On the face of it, art seems like an ideal candidate for selling via the web:
  • art is a visual medium, making it easy to be displayed on a screen
  • buying art requires a large amount of background information in order to properly value and appreciate it, for which the web is well suited
  • maintaining a retail space is often the single largest cost for a gallery. Certainly galleries would be economically motivated to move their operations out of a brick and morter retail context.
However, after being in the business of selling art (or, more specifically, trying to sell art) for three years, I now have some insights on why art doesn't sell on the Internet:
  • buying art is a social process. Most collectors buy art not for purely aesthetic reasons, but rather for social ones: which artist is "hot"? which artwork did their friend buy? which piece of art will provide the most prestige or avant-garde edge? This may sound cynical, but for many of the biggest collectors there is definitely some social component to why they buy art, and this can't be replicated over the Internet.
  • a gallery provides a necessary context that the Internet cannot. The way a gallery looks, where it is located, what press it has received - all these play into how much a piece of art that the gallery exhibits is valued. With so few widely accepted standards for judging and valuing contemporary art, the physical presence of the gallery becomes paramount. This is why so many dealers go to so much trouble to maintain an aura of exclusivity - it's the only way to make buyers perceive the art as being valuable.
So the very strengths of the Internet - transparency, full information, levelling of the playing field - are what works against it when attempting to sell art.

We'll see if anyone figures out how to bridge this gap and make the Internet a viable way to sell art.

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