Tech Start-Ups Bring Art to the Masses

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- While the art world is notorious for being closed off and intimidating to outsiders, a fleet of recently launched start-ups -- following Google's ( GOOG) lead -- is using technology to reach a new generation of art lovers.

Launched in February, Google's Art Project allows any person with a Web connection to explore famous pieces from the world's most renowned museums -- including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Following on this central idea of making great art accessible, this new generation of start-ups is betting that consumers will purchase paintings and sculptures they find online.

Artspace, a New York-based firm launched in March by former DailyCandy COO Catherine Levene and her business partner Chris Vroom, is an online art marketplace offering contemporary pieces from $200 to $10,000. The site targets affluent consumers who are interested in art, but lack access to buy because of their geographic proximity to galleries.

"Art is such a fragmented market online and it's inaccessible for many people, because galleries are local and there are so many different galleries that represent only a few artists at a time," said Levene, whose experience studying art history in Madrid after selling Daily Candy to Comcast ( CMCSA) in 2008 inspired her to create Artspace. "The Internet is the perfect medium to aggregate all this incredible art."

The site has more than 130 pieces of limited edition and original artworks by known artists like Chuck Close, whose portrait paintings resemble photos, and Eric Fischl, whose pieces reflect the dark side of suburbia. Work from emerging artists is also available, and is hand-selected from a team of curators located across the country.

Artspace also collaborates with institutions like the Guggenheim in New York City and the Brooklyn Museum to market prints that complement the museums' exhibit programming. The company, backed by investors including MTV founder Bob Pittman, also works directly with artists to produce works exclusive to the site.
"Grand Central" by Dough Geraghty is available on Artspace.

Artsicle, another New York start-up based in incubator Dogpatch Labs, takes a different approach, allowing users to rent artwork for $50 before committing to purchase them.

The site seeks out relatively unknown artists -- typically recent Master of Fine Art graduates found through referrals and open studios -- and sells pieces for $500 to $2,000.

CEO and co-founder Alexis Tryon said she was encouraged to start Artsicle after trying to purchase a print at a downtown Manhattan gallery and experiencing a difficult time getting the staff to take her seriously.

"We're in this to create a new class of collectors and to create exposure for artists that have none," said Tryon, who left her job at American Express ( AXP) to launch Artisicle last month.

Other start-ups catering to young collectors include Exhibition A, a venture launched in December by designer Cynthia Rowley, gallery owner Bill Powers and business partner Laura Martin. Exhibition A offers a new limited edition print every week for under $500. Art.sy, which bills itself as a Pandora-like discovery tool for fine art, is set to debut this summer with backing from Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. The company will use proprietary search technology to suggest new art for collectors based on personal preferences.

While sites like Gilt Groupe have helped consumers gain comfort purchasing high-priced fashion, jewelry and home goods over the Internet, art has been one of the few luxury categories missing from the e-commerce market, namely because consumers struggle with the notion of plunking down thousands of dollars for works they haven't seen in person.

Advent of Art Online

Early attempts to sell art online were unsuccessful. Auction powerhouse Sothebys launched an online auction business in 2000, only to shut it down three years later after racking up a loss of $100 million.

But as art sales slowed during the recession, dealers -- starting to feel the need to attract new types of buyers from around the world -- began to toy with the idea of selling works online again.

Sothebys re-launched its real-time online bidding system last year, and rival Christie's reported that 28% of all sales in 2010 were made through online transactions, a 5% jump over 2009.

In January, the world's first online contemporary art fair, VIP Art Fair, debuted with works from more than 140 top galleries, including blue-chip dealers like the Gagosian and the Pace Gallery.

The challenge for these organizations is how to make the art world more accessible while maintaining high-quality standards, said David Grosz, the editor-in-chief or Artifex Press, a publisher of digital artist catalogs.

"Most people recognize that having a larger audience is a great thing, but the art world must figure out how to open things up without changing the very special nature of the industry," he said.

Placing the art market online will require galleries to strike a delicate balance between appearing accessible to newcomers and preserving its traditional sense of exclusivity for established collectors.

"The openness of the Internet and the fact that it's a democratizing medium is what has caused the art world not to embrace it," said Jen Bekman, a New York City-based gallery owner and the founder of 20x200, a firm that provides affordable art prints from artists like William Wegman, known for his photographs of Weimaraners. "But extending the experience of being a collector through these art start-ups doesn't diminish the experience of a high end collector."

David Mahoney, an investor in 20x200 and a trustee of the San Francisco Museum of Art, said the Internet is a natural step for the rapidly changing art market.

"Every museum and gallery is struggling with these issues -- how is our audience changing and how can we reach, challenge excite and engage new visitors," he said.

--Written by Olivia Oran in New York.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/Ozoran.

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