Buyers and Sellers's global ambitions

We all know the image. The wild-eyed visionary frenziedly splashes his soul onto canvas while the rain streams down his rattling garret windows and his unpaid landlord hammers irately on the front door. The air is so cold that he is forced to wear fingerless gloves to prevent his painting hand from becoming entirely numb, while his long-suffering model and mistress shivers miserably before him.

Indeed, such is the centrality of such images to the popular conception of the artist that they are almost hackneyed. Yet they remain cherished by art lovers the world over. There is still a great deal of artistic kudos to poverty and obscurity. Artists are frequently credited with doing their best work when at their lowest worldly ebb, while wealthy and successful artists, paradoxically, cut rather incongruous figures as they merge into the crowds of well-dressed bourgeois who flock to exhibitions of their work. The power of fashion sustains such artists, yet we can’t help feeling that their success somehow diminishes their otherworldly status—and, correspondingly, detracts from their artistic vision. Even Picasso, for all his wit, seemed to slip from the artistic high ground when he answered a buyer’s question about the meaning of one of his paintings by saying, “To you it means a Picasso, and to me it means $50,000.” The worlds of the artist and the businessman are supposed to be in different solar systems. The artist-businessman is an oxymoron (or just plain moron). A genuine artist should conform as closely to the Van Gogh exemplar as possible: poor, unacknowledged, and afflicted with a myriad of inner demons.

Yet while there might sometimes be a certain truth to the old equation of great art with suffering, it seems ridiculous to suggest that an artist can never produce anything of worth without this distasteful ingredient. At best, such an assertion would be ridiculously romantic. At worst, if combined with a studied refusal to aid the plight of the impoverished artist, it would be downright cruel. Hence, it seems to me that we ought to welcome any development that promises to improve the financial plights of artists. But what developments could there possibly be? State subsidies for struggling artists? Don’t make me crack my oil paint.

Yet maybe there is hope after all. The company, inc., which launched its Web site in June of 2000, boldly declares its aim “to make the artist successful.” The company’s strategy for doing so consists of building an Internet hub designed to bring together the fractured global communities of art buyers and sellers for purposes of both community and, more importantly, commerce. For fees ranging from $100 to $1,000, any artist can list for sale from five to seventy-five artworks on the site, each listing accompanied by a digital image of the work in question. If the works are sold (either by auction or by someone meeting the asking price), art-exchange takes a further cut of 10% of the price, but the rest of the fee goes directly to the seller. The company, then, aims to drag the art market into the Twenty-First Century and become a kind of NASDAQ of the art world.

But how, exactly, does this all fulfil art-exchange’s promise to “change an artist’s world” and deliver to him “a new type of economic power”? The answer, according to Chief Executive Officer, President, and Founding Director Richard A. Gipe, is that the site offers every artist, for a modest fee, convenient “24/7” exposure to art buyers all across the world. Of course, many buyers will use the site’s elaborate search engine to zoom in on (and enrich) already successful, well-known artists. Yet other buyers might run a search on the basis of a work’s intrinsic qualities, in which case the search engine will pull up every work that fulfils the criteria regardless of who made it. Still others will simply want to browse the works, like taking a stroll through a gallery. Moreover, as Gipe points out, “It is a fact in the art business that buyers seldom buy the piece they started out looking for because, along the way, something else caught their eye.” All of this will potentially have what Gipe calls a “leveling effect,” spreading buyers’ money more evenly around the community of artists, and thus allowing some to sustain their careers who might otherwise have been forced to give in to their parents’ pleas to throw away their easels and get a “proper” job.

One is tempted to speculate that the art-exchange site might even facilitate the critical “discovery” of new artists, and gain for them their first gallery exhibitions. One can imagine art students saving every penny from their bar jobs to get their final-year projects before the eyes of the world online. However, while the galleries who have the power to make an artist’s reputation are included on the list of art-exchange’s target audience, its “aggressive marketing organization” seems more focused on such bulk buyers as interior decorators, commercial designers, architects, frame shops, and dealers. Such professions are courted by the offer of a wide, easily searchable selection of contemporary art that they can view without even leaving their offices. It is for them that the search engine offers the options of searching according to an artwork’s size or (primary or secondary) color, so as to facilitate matching them to a particular space on a wall that needs to be filled. And it is to them that the special wholesale prices are offered—for an annual membership fee ranging from $500 to $1,000.

After all, although art-exchange evolved more or less organically out of a previous retail art gallery business, art-exchange is still a dot-com: a high-risk shot at the financial big time by an ambitious group of directors and investors. Its ultimate raison d’être is to corner as much of the estimated $100 billion world art market as possible. And that means volume, volume, volume—amassing as many art listings as possible (the company’s long-term aim is for one million) and shifting as large a percentage of it as they can as quickly as possible before, potentially, being bought out by a larger company (although Gipe is keen to point out that the company is neither “counting on nor seeking to be acquired”). Hence, every modern “business solution” is employed by art-exchange, including the dreaded telemarketing and the inevitable tie-up with regarding art books.

Yet, despite my above comments regarding an artist’s legitimate claim on a decent income, one can’t help feeling that art-exchange rather overstates the case in claiming that exposure to design industry bulk buyers “is what every artist needs most.” Holiday Inn’s money may be as good as Solomon R. Guggenheim’s to the venture capitalists funding art-exchange, but one doubts that the artists themselves who sign up with art-exchange feel the same way. For surely there is more to artistic success than selling a yachtful of oily canvasses; surely the values of the art and business worlds do not entirely coincide.

Indeed, there are a whole host of snooty complaints one could make here about philistine decorators buying art by the yard—choosing paintings like wallpaper in order to fill standardized, pastel-toned spaces in saccharine, mass-market hotel rooms. Nor do Gipe’s claims that most art sales are influenced by such buyers seem to me to ring true. Nevertheless, if exposure on art-exchange is unlikely to gain much critical attention for a previously unknown artist (or “brand” him, as Gipe’s business-speak would have it), we ought not to turn our noses up at the increased opportunity it offers such artists to pay their rent by selling a work that just happens to fulfil an interior designer’s need for a four-foot square, predominantly crimson still-life. Of course, this will be of little comfort to the more avant-garde artists whose challenging or controversial works do not appeal to the average frame shop buyer. But nor, on the other hand, will it leave them in any worse predicament than before.

Moreover, as Gipe points out, although art-exchange is designed to serve the needs of industry “professionals,” this does not exclude the individual gallery owners or collectors who have the power to make artistic reputations and who might view “difficult” works more favorably. Indeed, such buyers could also be expected to prefer the convenience and scope of art-exchange’s catalog to the time-consuming bother of attending conventional auctions. After all, there is nothing off-puttingly commercial about the site itself—no lurid banner ads (so far at least) for Yahoo! or Expedia; just a crisp, clear, green-and-white layout of options. Gipe even predicts that the advent of art-exchange will give birth to a whole new group of art buyers: those currently too lazy or busy or intimidated to enter galleries and talk to gallery owners. And this new group, unburdened by considerations of artistic fashion, might initiate a significant diversification in the kinds of art bought. Well, you never know.

It is also worth noting that there would be a wider cultural benefit if art-exchange were to live up to its aim of becoming “simply the best place on earth to buy and sell art”—the wealth of easily-catalogued information it would generate regarding artworks’ provenance, information that might be of considerable interest to future scholars. In this context, art-exchange’s recently-announced industry alliance with the International Registry of Artists and Artwork (IRAA), an unbiased online system that establishes comprehensive records of artists and artworks, seems particularly valuable. Of course, however successful art-exchange turns out to be in fulfilling its aim of creating a feeling of community among artists, there will always be those who struggle to survive whilst others acquire fame and riches out of all proportion with their talent. But if this new way of buying and selling art results in even a small number of those strugglers being able to hang on for a little longer, then surely that is reason enough to hope that art-exchange succeeds. After all, whatever the auctioneers have to say on the matter, don’t we all know in our hearts that every work of art is ultimately priceless? Just ask all those out-of-work, spiritually reborn dot-commers currently taking art classes in California…