Buying art online… art at every price point yes, but, by all means, Art at any cost !

04/25/2022

News/Events/Exhibits

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The online art market continues to grow…and although this growth means art is becoming more “mainstream” which is a good thing, it hasn’t necessarily simplified it. And in the end, does it really do Art (in all its magnificence) a favor ?

Purchasing an artwork online is no longer « heresy ». But is this good or bad news ?? Both… making art accessible, unbridling it are, but only if one imperative condition is met : art at every price point, YES, but, by all means, Art at any cost ! (I tell myself this every day!)

 

Explanation :

 

If 20 years ago, someone had told gallerists or artists that people were going to buy art via the internet they would have accused them of blasphemy : ”Heresy!” or “How tacky!”. Some still refuse to believe it today.  “How could someone possibly buy an artwork without first seeing it physically ?” (said with a dramatic tone).

 

 

It has become a reality in today’s world : the sale of art online has since grown steadily and rapidly :  starting from zero, the online art market represented nearly 10% of the global market in 2019, market valued at 50 billion dollars. In 2020, it reached 15,8%, and 25% in 2021, according to Hiscox.

 

Do the math and you’ll understand why websites and mobile applications are booming and the reason why auction houses have made a transition towards digital…

Today, 80% of art buyers have bought at least one artwork via the internet, and 55% admit to buying more and more online, and will continue to do so even more.

 

The online art market recorded a growth of 9% in 2018. Although this represents a decline compared to the 12% in 2017, forecasts show an annual growth of 15% for years to come

We must not, however, be mistaken : even if online sales are profitable to the art market in general, it represents only a small part of the market. It reflects more a growing trend of purchases over the internet, an alternative to traditional sales channels such as galleries or auctions houses. And albeit internet has helped expand the number and the “who” of buyers, we must keep in mind that the average price for an artwork purchased online (78%) does not exceed 5,000 euros (33% were priced under 5,000euros; 22% between 100 & 500euros).

 

It is these 2 factors (deferral of buyers from traditional channels towards internet and the average consumer spending on the web) that cast light upon the online art market and the danger it poses to Art. As a matter of fact, the e-commerce of art, under the guise of “making art accessible” (the unanimous rhetoric of today’s art market players), is a strong indicator of change in buying behavior and how we perceive art, but it’s also an accelerator of that behavior’s evolution….not necessarily in a good way, even if it does have its strong points. Let me explain.

 

Let’s start with the most obvious and positive aspect of the art market’s digital transition :

1

Sure enough, buying an artwork has become quite easy with just a few clicks on the web, even though internet purchases are still restrained by credit card or bank transfer limitations.

 

Artworks can be seen and prices are usually displayed (unlike galleries where you need to « dare » ask) and the selection is vast and may be viewed endlessly.

 

And once the artwork has been delivered to you, you usually have a 14 day trial period during which you can cancel your order and be reimbursed…in that respect, art is indeed made “accessible” and “affordable”, but I’ll get to that later.

2

Secondly, if you spot an artist (or an artwork you love) at an art exhibit, show, fair, or even in a gallery, you can easily search for that artist on online art marketplaces or social networks as to “follow” the artist, see his/her other artworks, receive updates and be informed of new available artworks.

 

That’s right, nowadays, most artists have their own Facebook and Instagram page (which, by the way, are now the preferred sales channels for buyers).

3

Lastly, vast selections abound…e-marketplaces constantly battle over who will have the greatest number of artists and artworks…usually a list of artworks that exceeds 5 or 6-figures…and who offer, of course, a “worldwide” selection.

 

I’ll get back to that later as well.

These three points clearly indicate an evolution, a mutation rather of spending habits, because of or thanks to internet, depending on who you ask : today, art lovers or should I say buyers, get around to nurture their passion for art, walking the alleyways of art fairs and exhibits, and of course galleries, but only now they’re equipped with smartphones; If they’re interested in an artist or an artwork, they whip out their phone….either to photograph the artwork and (the label with details next to it), or to instantly do their research on the internet. In either case, he or she will look to find other artworks, more information regarding the artist, and perhaps even “follow” the artist on Instagram…and perhaps even buy…possibly in another gallery or online marketplace, if it isn’t directly from the artist. It could reasonably be an artwork that wasn’t seen in person, but the buyer will be able to value the workmanship, style and technique based on the artworks he/did see. And bear in mind that, if worse comes to worst, the buyer can change his/her mind and be reimbursed…

 

This is clearly demonstrated by the numbers : 70% of internet users end up on online art marketplaces because they first googled an artist’s name; they say to themselves “let me check out such and such website to see what else might interest me…of such and such artist.” Spend 5 minutes in an art show and you’ll quickly notice a visitor close in on an artwork then back away while whipping out his or her smartphone to check out other websites, other vendors, sometimes even while still being in a gallerist’s booth …or to contact the artist directly via his/her Facebook or Instagram page.

 

So far, you’re probably thinking to yourselves that there are only benefits for buyers and artists. Thanks to internet, buyers have more choice, more information, prices are more than not displayed, 14 days to return the artwork and be reimbursed, while artists are attaining a certain international “dimension” and visibility thus breaking away  from the dominance of galleries, and being able to sell directly. As for galleries, the web allows them a more global market potential and allows them to reach a broader clientele.

But be that as it may, as a symptom of the drift generated by the 2.0 art market mutation, things are not always that easy for many galleries. Professionals that do not have the means to pay for a booth in a fair or exhibit, in addition to implementing their own website, or the means to subscribe to other online sales platforms (in addition to the aptitude it takes to cover the social media scene) are growing further from the reality of this market.

This constitutes the first collateral damage : there have never been so many small to mid-sized galleries that are struggling, shutting down even…unless they efficiently adapt their means and/ or their offer. And this is where I take a more critical look. 

Let’s dig a little bit deeper shall we ? Kindly bear with me.

 

Internet sales rhyme with e-commerce, e-marketing : varied techniques designed to attract customers to a website, incite them to stay on it a while and essentially…get them to BUY. That’s where things get ugly ! To attract internet users and incite them to buy, the almighty Google god must first lead them to your website. This, of course, requires an optimized referencing which in turn requires a very extensive catalogue that offers as many artists as possible. You heard correctly. The more artists you have, the more you increase the probability of someone looking up one of those artists hence landing on your website; and the vaster your catalogue is, the greater the chance that person will buy an artwork, notably via algorithms that analyze the navigation behavior of users in order to “push” artworks that fit their profile and are likely to please them. Under the cloak of offering the largest selection, the different websites battle it out with their catalogues containing tens, hundreds of thousands of artists.

 

And once you’ve landed on their website, they pull out all the stops to keep you there and get you to buy, by applying e-commerce techniques and the sacred “conversion funnel” that drive customers to complete the desired action : buying.

This has two main consequences : 

 

  • Websites who broaden their catalogue, their array of products, do so without being selective of the artworks or artists, especially those whose business models rely on subscription fees paid by artists and/or galleries that upload their inventory to their websites. On the contrary, the more subscriptions they have the more they earn. The basic task of selecting for the sake of art lovers, which should be inherent to all gallerists, tends to disappear, leading us to drown in an ever growing stockpile, quantitatively and qualitatively, of artworks.

  • These very same websites use the conversion funnel to get you to buy. During your navigation on the web, many will offer you discounts (10-20%) for an artwork you keep coming back to, as if they were selling plane tickets or furniture.

    Even the notorious Black Friday and other eventful sales set the pace to their marketing events. And they all too often do so without the consent of artists, while in the meantime those same artists are trying to work up a reputation and progressively consolidate a price increase by gaining market recognition. But how can they if their artworks are regularly “on sale” ?

On the pretext of making art accessible, which is in itself a worthy cause, internet tends to disparage art in every sense of the word : Artistic devaluation on the one hand, as the boundaries that differentiate an artwork from “drapery” canvasses painted in bulk are thinning…as are the boundaries between an Artist who is devoted to this art and producers of decorative products that sell, inundating the former with the latter. Financial depreciation on the other, not only because of the “bargain” aspect, but because emerging artists who begin their career at “affordable” prices find themselves capsizing under the weight of equally priced “products” sold by so-called “artists”.

Internet users/buyers, and especially beginners, who seek to discover art end up getting lost in the vast array of catalogues and lose their wits by trying to make sense of the prices they see.

In my opinion, internet sales have the tendency to obfuscate this already cloudy and ambiguous market, hence, indulging the paradigm whereby purchasing art is for the wealthy elite, powerful insiders, or those fluent in art.

When in fact, the primary expectation of internet users is trusting the vendor’s expertise and ability to provide advice, exactly what you would expect from “traditional” galleries.

Which brings me to the last, but not the least (or worse from my standpoint) consequence of art sales online : the detrimental impact on galleries who must adapt in order to compete with online sales, regarded as unfair.

Until recently, galleries were the safekeepers of what discerned a work of art and talent from decorative objects and their producers. A gallery’s selection, advisory role, expertise, and its capacity to reveal and promote Talent were its very essence, the key to its success.

Given the 2.0 art market mutation, three trends in relation to galleries have taken root :

 

Either they’ve opted for and succeeded their “digital transition”, all the while maintaining their presence at exhibits and fairs in order to uphold and promote their selection, whose quality they haven’t “cheapened”.

Or they’ve tailored their selection in order to be on the same “level” as online marketplaces, at the expense of artistic quality, but for the benefit of a plethora of Mickey Mouses (to name just one) in all shapes, sizes and colors. 

 

Or, because they refuse to be part of the web or don’t have the means, they deprive themselves of this market’s growing share; many languish, while others simply drop the curtain.

This trend is all the more dramatic since art lovers will barter an artwork’s price if the artist cannot be found online, consequently deemed “unknown” and without a “market rating”. Unfortunately, I am more and more accustomed to this kind of behavior.

Trustworthy and financially sound galleries are essential to the art market, all the more so today. By trustworthy, I mean whose selection is based on Talent rather than on profitability. Sound financially because they can afford to promote their artists and will not be tempted to sell “stuff that sells” in order to catch up financially.

Demonstrative proof of the demise of trustworthy and financially sound galleries is the fashionableness of street art which is very accessible money wise, decorative and super trendy, and whose supply is literally proliferating, like the multi-faceted Mickey Mouse. You’ll find this famous rodent in galleries, exhibits, fairs, and on the web of course, and, for the life of me, sold at times for an outrageous sum of money ! I rest my case.

YES, I agree that the Art market should be made more accessible in terms of strategic approach, by means of the internet; more accessible to buyers who were too shy to cross a gallery’s threshold, but who now, thanks to internet, realize that an artwork doesn’t necessarily cost an arm and a leg (on the basis that all “famous” artists started off selling their work for less than a 1,000euros); more accessible to artists and galleries who now have access to the global art market.

 

But let’s concentrate on Art, shall we. YES, art at every price point, but, please and by all means, Art at any cost !

In that respect, online art sales create a wonderful opportunity for the art market and for all those who are passionate about art. But it also poses a threat to Art itself if that opportunity is transformed/ derived for the benefit of business opportunism, mercantile volume or consumerism.

Article published by LJ Art Traffik