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How Artsy finally convinced galleries to sell fine art online
For 13 years, the Mike Weiss Gallery was a thriving member of the Chelsea art world, hosting over 100 exhibitions and participating in local group shows. But in October of last year, Weiss and his wife Virginia Martinsen decided to shutter their physical location. Rent was rising, nearby construction was becoming a major headache, and the ever-expanding number of art fairs was drawing attention and customers away from galleries. The woes of the Weiss Gallery are widespread. From London to Los Angeles, galleries that survived the decades of market crashes and changing tastes have gone out of business in the last few years.
Lingering contractions from the economic crisis of 2009 means the traditional art market, especially smaller galleries, has seen precious little growth over the last decade. But just as importantly, Weiss says, they felt the way in which people discovered and purchased art had shifted. “We used to get a thousand people on a Saturday,” said Weiss. “The walk-in traffic dropped off.” The ascendancy of the internet, the couple believed, had transformed buyers’ behavior. “It used to be unthinkable that a collector would buy a work without seeing it in person,” said Martinsen. “Over the last few years it was almost the opposite. People would buy work from the gallery online and not come in for the show.” While the growth in the traditional art market has been flat, the world of online art sales is booming.
Just five years ago, many gallery owners and auction houses were still skeptical of bringing collections online. “There [are] many sites like Artsy that want to take your inventory and put it online. In an older period, that would be called ‘burning your inventory,’” wrote veteran art critic Anthony Haden-Guest in 2014. The value of a painting or sculpture is often tied to its singularity — a unique object that is inaccessible to all but its owner. Creating a digital version anyone could copy or distribute undercut your control.
Nathan Ritterpusch, who has been making a living as a painter for the last two decades, agrees. His work hangs in galleries and is sold by major auction houses. For many years, he kept it offline. "The fear was that putting my art online would devalue the work. That was certainly the case with Facebook. And I was told by the gallery that I worked with at the time not to,” says Ritterpusch. “There is a very specific way in which you introduce work, and you have to convey a sense of privilege to certain people. Maintaining a sense of scarcity and uniqueness is crucial."
But that dynamic is changing quickly. Today, transactions conducted over the internet are helping to power record-breaking sales, even as the merchants behind them are looking to downsize their physical footprint. Christie’s, one of the largest auction houses in the world, announced in March of this year that it would close down a space in London and shrink another in Amsterdam while ramping up online auctions. “A lot of gallery owners are asking why they should commit to space when rent is so high and people can find you easily online,” says Carlo McCormick, a veteran art critic and curator. “Even in a successful gallery, most of the time, the space is empty.”
The move online has been one of the critical forces shaping the industry over the last decade, a disruption that happened slowly, and then suddenly. “It’s a huge change in what galleries have done. It’s been the biggest trend in the art market, next to art fairs, over the last ten years,” says Clare McAndrew, a leading art market economist. “The biggest driver is the wider acceptance of e-commerce. This is how collectors buy everything else, so why not art?” After closing their physical space, Weiss and Martinsen focused on crafting an online business, Gates of the West, and cultivating their brand through social media.
This new paradigm is powering the success of Artsy, a New York City-based startup that this morning announced it had raised $50 million in fresh venture capital. The company’s offering is far more open and approachable than the traditional art world. Every piece is available through a search engine that can filter by style, time period, or price. The service uses algorithms to understand what kind of art appeals to users and then recommends other works they might enjoy, or buy. Instead of the rarefied, sterile walls of a Chelsea gallery, users swipe to browse. Artsy makes shopping for art as unassuming, and as pedestrian, as using Tinder.
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