Will commercial art galleries soon become a thing of the past, like rotary phones? E-commerce domination of the art world is no longer mere speculation.
According to the BBC, the famous Saatchi Gallery in London was already selling more contemporary art in a month online in 2013 than most top-end bricks and mortar galleries did in a year.
“I would question that,” says Christina Parker of the venerable Saint John’s, N.L. art gallery that bears her name. “That’s very easy to say and difficult to substantiate.”
Parker still believes that in order to advance the careers of the artists with whom she has exclusive contracts, her clients and collectors must see the work. “The challenge of my business has not changed in over 30 years: to find collectors for my artists. The collectors and curators I work with are very discerning and they are still interested in having a physical experience of the art.”
Nevertheless, many art collectors around the world have joined millions of shoe shoppers in indulging their passion for art investment with a mere click of the mouse. Buying art without ever seeing the work itself is becoming an industry norm and gallery owners around the world are adjusting.
Victoria Page of Gallery Page and Strange, once one of the most popular contemporary art galleries in Halifax, permanently closed her gallery’s doors this fall after 12 successful years in business. This could be a sign of the times.
“I was not happy to hear about Page and Strange closing,” says Deborah Carver of Studio 21. “It’s better for all of us to have more galleries in the city.”
Carver does, however, admit that only 50 per cent of her total sales come from walk-in buyers, or from local businesses that invite her to bring work to their offices for potential corporate sales.
“Without opportunities to see the work elsewhere, the gallery wouldn’t work. Currently, we’re experimenting with art fairs.”
In North America, most serious galleries cannot afford to miss a season at one or more of the art fairs in Toronto, New York or Miami, and must budget accordingly. Large and small galleries spend thousands each year on art fairs to attract collectors who spend big bucks at these high-pressure events.
“It’s very financially risky,” says Carver from Studio 21, “but some of our risk this year was ameliorated by a provincial grant from the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. We are exporting a cultural product while creating business for myself and my artists. Attending these art fairs is an economic generator, and because we’re good ambassadors, it’s good profile for the province.”
Studio 21 staff now pay more attention to social media. The gallery has also invested in an improved website for direct online sales, and they are signed up for third-party art sales. Carver is referring to the internationally connected art sales site Artsy, where her gallery pays a fee of approximately US$500 per month for services that have the potential to massively expand her gallery’s digital reach. Any artist or gallery can become a member of the Artsy network, and receive collector introductions and get broader brand recognition with zero commission on art sales.
Artsy puts the buyer in touch with the gallery directly and the deal is made between them. This seems like a small price to pay for international reach. Carver, who currently employs two staff members, admits she “doesn’t know where everything is going. We’re not sure when it will all settle down, so we’re trying different things.”
Christina Parker tried Artsy, but found it too time-consuming. “I’d need a dedicated staff person attending to the site to make it work for me and with only two of us, I can’t do that. Besides, she adds, “it does nothing to advance the careers of my artists.” Parker relies upon her excellent website to expand the art conversation with her collectors and to educate them about the work being done. That said, Parker has attended the Toronto Art Fair on her gallery’s dime for the past seven years, which she credits as having furthered the reputations and marketability of those on her roster.
A similar site to Artsy is 1stdibs.com. It operates as more of a high-end digital supermarket, offering direct sales on everything from exclusive one-of-a-kind jewelry to antique furniture and art. It is very popular with designers but is all about selling the object, with no concern for the CV of the artist who made the work. 1stdibs charges a comparable membership fee to Artsy, plus deducts a percentage of the total sale price.
Artbombdaily.com is another art sales option, a curated, subscriber-based, daily online auction that sells original contemporary art at a wide price point. Launched in 2011 by former Art Gallery of Ontario employee, Carrie Shibinsky, ArtBomb has regional curators all over the country who hunt down the “best” original work made by artists in their region.
Vanessa Lentz, a commercial photographer by trade, is the East Coast curator, who selects work in all genres that she feels will appeal to thousands of ArtBomb clients. She photographs the selected works, organizes the online auctions, and packages then ships the sold art work to the new owner at their expense.
“Artists in Atlantic Canada are not charged an upfront fee for putting their work in our online auctions,” she claims, “unlike in central Canada where we are so over-subscribed. On average, we sell the most work at about the $600 to $700 range, with Artbomb keeping a 50 per cent commission.”
Lentz goes on to add, “The auction operates similarly to eBay. Artists can determine their minimum acceptable price, the reserve bid for their work. If it doesn’t sell, they pick it up. If it does sell, we cut them a cheque.”
Individual artists without gallery representation reply heavily upon individual websites and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to sell work directly to the consumer, or self-produced shows at rental galleries or in pop-up situations. Local artist Shelley Mansell recently invited 20 buyers — friends or friends of friends — to a private showing of 40 new works.
“Everyone coming is going to buy some work,” she confidently claims. Selling your own work means more time away from the studio but these artist-entrepeneurs get to keep 100 per cent of the sales price. It’s always a trade-off.
With more media-savvy artists graduating from art schools each year, the conventional hunt for a dealer has been replaced by ingenuity and hustle. Selling art is like online dating; it doesn’t really matter how the art meets the buyer.
All that matters is that the deal gets sealed.