Friday, March 23, 2012

Finding the Next Generation of Art Buyers and Collectors--Online

Jen Bekman at work:  credit: Paul Costello
          In 2003, when Jen Bekman opened an art gallery near the Bowery in Manhattan, she admits she had never bought art, though she always wanted to.  But once she started living with art, she really enjoyed it. Soon  her mission  grew to something more than decorating her own walls. In short, she wanted “to democratize art. My business arose out of frustration. I realized that the reason I had never bought art was that no one had ever tried to sell it to me.”  But one of Jen’s early observations about customers is that they “came with a lot of baggage about buying art. They saw it as an intimidating experience. They had the means because I saw them in my gallery with expensive clothes and accessories; they just felt at a loss about how to make an art purchase. I wanted everyone to enjoy art, but I couldn’t’ reach everyone just with  my gallery.”
          So her next big step, in 2007, was to found a company, 20x200, to sell prints online, making good use of her tech background. A native New Yorker, Jen attended Stuyvesant and Hunter College, and then steadily racked up an impressive career directing community and content development for internet companies, such as Netscape, Disney/Go Networks and eventually Meetup, where she was VP of User Development.
          Well aware of  the emotional baggage she found in some of her gallery collectors, Jen knew she had to help her online customers along. A few times a week she writes chatty newsletters introducing new artists; she also allows viewers to browse the site through several filters from colors to style of art. A big feature of the site is its transparency. “Customers,” she observes, “are nervous about buying art: Who sets the price? Can they resell? Can they return? We’re open to all their concerns.” To reassure buyers, they receive an artist-signed and numbered certificate that ensures the print is part of an exclusive edition created with the artist. “What’s important,” Jen feels, “is that we’re not a faceless monolith to customers.”       
     An equally important  20x200 mission: to help emerging artists sustain themselves. “Part of my goal from the beginning,” Jen Bekman says, “was to create opportunities for artists and to show respect for their career choice too.”  One way is her twice-a-year international competition, “Hey, Hot Shot!” which attracts thousands of artists at all stages of their careers. Ten photographers a year—5 from each round of competition-- are selected to participate in a two-week exhibition at  the Jen Bekman Galley in NYC; they also receive $500 honoraria. The Grand Prize winner gets $10,000 along with a full length solo exhibition and two years of representation at the Gallery.
          Whenever 20x200 identifies promising new artists, known or unknown, the company works with them to select works suitable for printing. “The problem for us is never supply,” Jen says.   The company covers all upfront costs, including printing, (prints are offered in various sizes, framed and unframed) so the artist doesn’t have to put up anything before a sale. When a work sells, after deducting production costs, 20x200 splits the proceeds with artists on a 50-50 basis.  Typically artists remain on the site until their edition is sold, but in some cases 20x200 has printed as many as 15 editions of the same artist.  “Our goal,” Jen states, “is to create a benevolent ecosystem both for artists and for customers.”
          And apparently a successful business model too! Since setting up the 20x200 site in 2007, Jen has sold over 170,000 prints, from 275 artists, “though I’m looking forward to selling 10 million.”  Prints can be bought for as little as $24 or as much as $10,000. With her gallery and her online company Jen expects to generate revenues of over $7 million in 2012.
Catherine Levene with piece by Nick Cave
       A newer entry in the online art world, Artspace.com, launched in 2011, takes a different approach. CEO and Co founder Catherine Levene  works with galleries to  allow her to showcase their  best contemporary artists—both unique pieces and limited editions by established and emerging artists – for Artspace’s  more than 70,000  international online viewers.
      Another rich source of contemporary art for Artspace is established art museums, such as the Guggenheim and Whitney in New York and the Institutes of Contemporary Art in Boston and Philadelphia, which often commission pieces by contemporary artists, then look to sell them to fund other art projects.  By collaborating with Artspace,  museums reach a larger audience of buyers, beyond their own members or directors. Artspace also collaborates directly with artists.
      As a result, Artspace gives its members access to the work of  some of the best galleries,  museums and artists’ studios  in the world. For its role, Artspace receives a commission, though the majority of the proceeds go to the artists or institutions who are sellers. Prices generally range from $200 to $30,000, though earlier this month Artspace sold a Jenny Holzer bench to a German collector for $125,000.  In its short existence Artspace has racked up sales in 40 states and in 20 countries.
   CEO Catherine Levene comes to her role with 15 years of experience with internet companies, most recently as COO of Daily Candy. When Comcast bought the company, Catherine left and took a year off to travel in  India and then wound up in Madrid studying art history.  But she attributes her earliest  interest in art to “my grandmother in Binghamton who did a little collecting and  got me to engage in art.”  Once Catherine arrived home  in  NYC, she was introduced to her co founder Chris Vroom, an investment analyst who had also founded the non-profit Artadia to support artists.  Backed by $3.7 mil from angels and venture capitalists, Catherine says both she and Chris “had the same vision in wanting to support artists and then to figure out a way to merge art with e-commerce.”
     One successful technique has been Artspace’s weekly “private sales” offering subscribers special access to a curated group of art works at discounted prices for only a week. Surprisingly, Catherine notes, “While we thought the hardest challenge was to get work from museums and galleries, finding sources of art has gone very well, very fast.  Our bigger challenge has been the technology platform—putting everything onto the site in the quickest, most effective way. What we aim for is a community of both buyers and artists so that collectors stay engaged on a 24/7 basis. We see a big opportunity ahead of us.” 

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