The world wide web is frequently cast as the great enemy of traditional culture, undermining the music industry, the film industry and publishing. Yet one form of art has now found a way through – perhaps even a way to thrive – and provide careers for artists of the future. The visual arts are booming online.
This is the claim of a growing number of virtual art galleries, backed this spring by an annual survey of the fine art market. The survey shows the value of the online trade is now around £1.57bn and is likely to more than double by 2018. Experienced art collectors and newcomers are both increasingly using websites to find original contemporary works and ordering them for delivery like furniture.
“We have reached a tipping point,” said Osman Khan, co-founder of New York-based Paddle8 online auction site. “People feel more comfortable with the experience of buying expensive things online.” In January, Rebecca Wilson, chief curator and director of artist development for Saatchi Art, moved to Los Angeles from London to work full time on the website’s projects. She agrees that the business has taken off.
“We have been playing around with this and now seems the right time,” she said. “Young people have a sense they can be involved in a world that even five years ago would have seemed pretty intimidating. I find it intimidating to go into some galleries and I have worked in the art world for 10 years. So if you can find a site with the right environment with a name you can trust, it is very appealing.”
Online galleries are also an easier way to spot emerging talent. “There was a tremendous amount of great new art being sold at charity auctions, but unless you were on that small circuit of buyers invited to those events you were never going to see it,” said Khan, who runs regular online charity auctions.
The research, by the British fine art insurer Hiscox, found that while traditional galleries will survive, younger and first-time buyers are drawn to online sites. The report, based on a survey of 506 international art buyers, pinpointed limited edition prints as a common first purchase, while almost half the buyers surveyed had spent more than £10,000 collecting online.
Key sites include ArtFinder, Art Space, Counter Editions, Artsy, Art Gallery, New Blood Art and Eyestorm, while London auction house Christie’s also has an online auction site. A new gallery on the virtual block, Artful, has been set up by Joshua Blackburn and curator Rachel Hotchkiss to offer web browsers the chance to buy photographic art.
“The idea is to make great art available to a far broader audience,” said Blackburn. “I get so excited about the different ways in which this works. “Ours is the kind of place you could spend £75, as you might once have done in John Lewis or at Ikea, yet get something original. In publishing and in music there is a concern the web will rip the bottom out of the market, but art can’t lose value in that way. The web is taking art to a new market and change is happening at the top and at the bottom ends of the price spectrum.”
Independent art adviser and academic Lisa Schiff acknowledges that the art world has entered a new era, but believes there are certain things the online experience can never deliver: “I don’t think it is ever going to take away the traditional gallery market because buyers need context. A few pieces have sold online at very high prices, but we are not robots and still need to see each other and talk about big purchases.”
Yet, according to Wilson, the limited, privileged cocoon of the international art market has been cracked open. “Historically the art world has catered for a very small number of people,” she said. “It has been run in their own interest to a certain extent. They knew the more people who were in that world, the more difficult it would be to keep control.” Saatchi’s online gallery now features artists from 100 countries and has collectors in 80 countries.
Wilson and Blackburn both agree that the transformation is not only broadening the art market geographically, it is creating a new path for artists. “When I was last in London I had an artist crying with joy because he had given up his last part-time job to concentrate on his art,” said Wilson. “We are giving new artists the chance to earn a living. Some can even earn up to £100,000 a year.”
“It is really exciting for the artists,” said Blackburn. “Twenty years ago they simply could not sell anything. Now they have a route to the market that bypasses all that.”
Last year Amazon launched its own art portal and eBay now has a rival platform. Large contemporary art galleries are beginning to sell smaller works and limited editions online, with Gagosian offering a “click and buy” option and Hauser & Wirth setting up a shop webpage, which redirects you to a conventional gallery hotline. White Cube, the home of Damien Hirst’s work, has had a similar online “shop” for some time.
Innovative approaches are multiplying. Last month the online gallery Light Space & Time announced one of its regular monthly online art competitions, inviting for the fourth time all artists working in 2D to offer up their “landscapes” for judging this month. The 10 finalists will be exhibited online in June.
Also announced last month was the birth of a new investment opportunity for art lovers. My Art Invest, based in Shoreditch, east London, is among the first in the world to offer visitors to its real world gallery a chance to buy shares online as they look at the work on the walls. Customers are handed an iPad as they arrive and can check the value of any shares they buy and trade with other people. Those who invest in a quarter of the shares of an artwork will be allowed to take it home for three months to hang on their own wall. Works on display at the opening included Banksy’s Heavy Weaponry, at £120 a share.