Average Is Over V: The Red Pill
In the last installment, I discussed how, in an online-centered art market, branding will be at least as valuable as it is today, if not more so. The reason? The tyranny of options. With so much artwork so readily available via any device with a network connection, art buyers will crave signals of quality more than ever. And while I’m sure that a handful of artists will find ways to blaze their own independent path through this terrain, I believe that the rest of their colleagues will ultimately rely on one of two general outlets to sell their work, each with its own distinct pros and cons.
The first option is what I’ll call the makers’ emporium. In this model, any artist can create a profile and upload her work to a website that serves as a mammoth central marketplace - one which online buyers can browse, sort, and purchase from at their leisure. The emporium’s founders take a set commission out of every sale, just like a traditional gallerist, and the artist nets the remainder. Think Etsy, except exclusively for fine art instead of a potpourri of items eligible to be featured in a Portlandia sketch.
The advantages of such a model are democracy and brand pre-awareness. The former leads to the latter. For an artist, there are no barriers to entry other than her own time and the basic technical skills needed to set up a profile. No longer does she have to win an art world Game of Thrones purely so that potential clients will have an opportunity to see her work. The gates are open. The buyers are there. And the artist can walk right into the marketplace herself rather than first convincing some middleman to sponsor her.
Unlike traditional galleries, the makers’ emporiums will be constrained by neither square footage nor a programming calendar. Representing artists is in some sense a zero sum game for any gallerist operating a physical space; her walls and floors can only accommodate so much work at any given time, so whatever is currently on view temporarily cannibalizes everything else in her inventory (as we covered in Part III). Yes, she gains some flexibility through the ability to show clients print-outs or JPEGs of pieces in deep storage… but then she’s simply doing a less efficient version of what an online gallery would.
By contrast, the emporiums can “exhibit” as many artists as their servers can handle. In lieu of traditional shows, they can run features, promotions, or contests that highlight some subset of their vast consignment holdings. They can also run as many of these spotlights as they want at any given time, as well as switch them out at any moment they choose. Best of all, to do any of these things, the emporiums need to expend no more resources than a few minutes of coding.
All this diversity and capacity will inevitably lead to consolidation, just as it has in the online distribution of the other creative media I mentioned in Part IV. If an author wants to self-publish today, she’s probably going to do it on Amazon. If an aspiring comedy director wants to show off her latest short, chances are she’s posting it on YouTube or Vimeo (assuming it’s too long for Vine or Instagram). If a musician wants to self-release an album, she’s most likely partnering with iTunes or Bandcamp.
Each of these brands has pre-awareness in the field, either because they tapped the keg on maker-based digital sales and distribution on their respective campuses, or because they kept the nectar flowing best. I see no reason that fine art would follow a different story arc. Consigning to a strong makers’ emporium thus gives an artist reason to feel confident that thousands of buyers will at least have the possibility of encountering her work every day. In contrast, if the same artist simply maintained an independent site for her work, she would be solely responsible for bringing it to the collective consciousness of online art buyers. That’s a much harder sword to wrench from the stone.
Whereas Etsy is not a 1:1 prototype of the model, it’s worth noting that there is one true makers’ emporium in existence today: Saatchi Art. In comparison, Saatchi Art sells only artwork instead of Etsy’s miscellany, and they stretch into significantly higher value tiers - high enough to compete with mid-tier physical galleries. As of my typing this sentence, Saatchi Art featured nearly 6,000 works priced at $25,000+. Etsy’s most expensive category is a mere $500+, and in a quick price-based browse through its inventory, the costliest work I saw there went for only $2,450.
Most importantly, Saatchi Art comes prepackaged as a known art world brand. Its founder and namesake, Charles Saatchi, is one of the most iconic collectors of the past thirty years, and its curatorial/art advisory team boasts sterling pedigrees in the contemporary art world away from the keyboard. The pure fact that Saatchi Art has a curatorial/art advisory team at all distinguishes it. Etsy, to return to the comp, is professional guidance-less. Then again, I suppose that just opens up the opportunity for buyers to serendipitously stumble onto plunder like a portrait of recent NBA Rookie of the Year Anthony Davis styled as a Frida Kahlo parody. Sometimes you don’t know what you’d kill for until you see it…
Long story short, my bet (if it were possible to place one) would be on Saatchi Art to be one of the makers’ emporiums we’re still talking about in twenty years. They fit all the criteria for a democratic, artist-oriented central marketplace. And just as importantly, they’re doing it early. The longer they’re able to fortify their position now, the harder it will be for competitors to successfully storm the hillside in the future.
Still, for all the advantages of the makers’ emporium model, let’s not forget that there’s a caveat lurking underneath the delicious layer of utopian frosting. All the challenges of volume (covered in Part IV) persist there; it’s just that they’ll be concentrated within the emporium instead of diffused across a broader, decentralized marketplace. To put matters in perspective, there were 386,515 artworks available for purchase on Saatchi Art when I wrote this sentence, and the simple sorting tools that empower buyers on any makers’ emporium also weaken most of the participating artists’ earning power over the long term. Comparison shopping is possible there in a way that was previously alien to fine art. If a buyer is hunting for, say, a blue abstract painting priced under $5,000.00, she can now quickly cull the works available via those criteria and decide if she really needs the piece that’s $4,500… or whether the $200 piece by another artist will do the trick.
Now, a handful of high-earning stars will still be born in makers’ emporiums, just like in the physical marketplace of the current and previous generations. And the lack of barriers to entry suggest that more artists than ever will be able to generate some level of revenue from their work, especially as more and more of the art-buying public acclimates to Internet-powered collecting. But the above hypothetical also reinforces the shrink ray effect that will hit rank-and-file artists’ margins as sales consolidate online. Again, in a volume business where the buyer is powerfully informed of her other options, a maker can only compete by either finding ways to convince buyers that her higher-priced product is vastly superior to the cheaper option… or busting her price down as close to the baseline as she can. In theory, it’s the type of meritocratic, market-based result that makes economists from my alma mater start beating their chests in song like McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street.
To be clear, I think artists without traditional gallery representation still come out ahead by partnering with makers’ emporiums. They’re in a better position to generate revenue from their work there than with an independently operated sales outlet, let alone no sales outlet at all, i.e. the default position for anyone without classical gallery representation. And generating revenue is a great thing, even if it’s only supplementary. But sustaining an entire career on art sales is another odyssey altogether. To do the latter, artists will still have to find ways to make themselves the cutest puppies in the digital pound. Their challenge will have only changed in degree, not in kind. For most participants with grand ambitions then, signing onto a makers’ emporium is a little like choosing Morpheus’s red pill in The Matrix: They’ll have unprecedented agency in their quests to change their lives, but they’re still going to have to fight like hell to get where they really want to go.
So the pros of the makers’ emporiums are minimal barriers to entry and an automatic presence in a high-traffic commercial brand lubed by pre-awareness. The cons are a reprise of the violent and often randomness-driven competition of the traditional marketplace, as well as contracting profit margins for the rank and file over the long run. But if an artist sees that analysis and says, “Thanks, I think I’d rather towel myself off with steel wool than go that route,” what’s her second option? I’ll cover that in the next installment.