Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Artists, Galleries, and the Internet

I came across an article months ago, a piece on NPR online, revealing Amazon’s entering the fine art market. I love Amazon, and the ability to buy almost anything through one storefront. And I love the web, and the ability it provides artists to create global reach for our art. Having just completed the redesign and launch of my site to better present my work online, I re-read the NPR piece, to refresh my memory of the article, and the impact it predicted Amazon’s might would have on brick-and-mortar fine art galleries. The take-away was a positive one…that galleries did NOT need to feel threatened.

reddooropening3The piece made the parallel between big box hardware stores and how they were putting small, local hardware stores out of business. That was the fear 15 or so years ago when Home Depot and Lowes, expanded their franchises. Not all local stores survived. Yet, our local hardware store up here in New Hampshire, thrives as much today as it did decades ago—and they’re less than 5 miles from both Lowes and Home Depot. Their secret to continued success is simple: specialization, client service, and knowledge about every one of their products.

Buying art isn’t like buying a hammer. It’s more emotional. It’s more expensive, and the art buyer wants to learn about the artist, wants to have a relationship with the gallery, and wants the service the gallery provides. My galleries’ routinely bring work to corporate clients and private buyers’ homes, work with designers to select a body that works in a particular space, and handles framing, shipping, and everything else associated with a sale. But most importantly, the gallery knows the artists, believes in the artist, and works hard to sell the artist. A lot of work goes into the development of a connection between the collector, artist and gallery.

I have had discussions over the years with several of my galleries about the internet and art. Some feel threatened, others not. Some have embraced the web, social media, and the reach both provide, to expand awareness of the work (and artists) they represent. And while online art sales by the growing mass of web-based “galleries” might (potentially) nibble into these galleries’ bottom lines, the reality is, they appear not to be. What these web presences ARE doing, however, is providing galleries the opportunity to become more creative on how they promote the work of their artists, and to work harder to build relationships with potential buyers.

One of my galleries, Morris & Whiteside in Hilton Head, SC, is running a summer art auction of small works by their gallery artists. The goal of the auction is to provide affordable, smaller works to a new generation of art buyers. The gallery hopes to use the small pieces as “calling cards” for both the artist and the gallery, to get the work into hands of buyers just beginning to build their art collections. I found this to be a very creative way to engage would-be art buyers, and submitted six small pieces. Ben Whiteside, co-owner of the gallery, said recently that the event is “taking on a life of its own,” adding, “I don’t think we will be able to accommodate everyone that will attend. Good problem to have.” Morris & Whiteside also takes advantage of social media sites, tweets regularly, and maintains a Pinterest account with “boards” for each artist.

The Powers Gallery works tirelessly to organize and present a full calendar of themed art shows, hosted community events, relationship-building with Boston-area interior designers and architects, and impeccable service to every buyer, regardless of the size/price of work. And consistent amongst all the galleries with whom I have relationships, is the tireless effort to “do everything and anything” to continue to promote their artists’ work, attract repeat and new buyers, and to continuously assert their role as an essential variable in the artist/buyer equation.

In re-reading the NPR piece, I couldn’t disagree with this quote, by Peter Faricy, Amazon’s VP of Amazon Marketplace: “We know our customers love fine art and want ways to discover more of it. And so this really gives them a way to discover artists far beyond their geography.” To this point, he’s right. Buyers do want to discover art, but when it comes to buying it, especially pieces costing thousands, will they add a $4,000 oil-on-canvas to their shopping cart, as they would a book? The article touches on price point, with this: “On Amazon, you can buy a Monet, a Warhol or a Norman Rockwell for close to $5 million. But most of the works range in price from $100 to $5,000. And many of the galleries that have signed up are not high end.”

A message board for artists I occasionally read, posed this same question…”What is the future for fine art galleries?” One commenter, a gallery owner, replied, “As long as there are artists who want to sell their art, there will be galleries.” A statement I agree with. But it’s evident (at least with the galleries I’m fortunate to work with ), that for galleries to thrive amidst the steady launch of new online art galleries, they must think creatively, engage in relationship-building–particularly with the proven social media tools available–and (most importantly) have the mutual trust of their artists.

The good news to take from the emergence of these online art “galleries” (and Amazon’s entry into the fine art world) is that clearly, art is sought, and being bought. There’s a huge art-buying market, or these sites (and the money going in to building and launching them) wouldn’t exist. It’s up to the artist and his/her galleries, to find more creative ways to work together to increase exposure, increase reach, and increase the value of the gallery/artist/buyer relationship.


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