Art for art’s sake

There was an interesting dinner conversation last night. It was sparked by a senior music industry exec (who I will call M – for “music” and not because it is his first, or last, initial). Was it not possible, he asked P (a leading British painter – again, initial for “painter” not …blah, blah) and my other half Gail , a rising star in the printmaking world, that the internet might not do to art what it had done to the music industry?

P thought not, believing the traditional gallery system would continue to be the most effective way of selling art. Gail wasn’t so sure, pointing out that at the more popular end of the market the smaller regional galleries were increasingly under threat from new retailing forms such as the highly successful Affordable Art Fair series of shows featuring work under £3,000, and galleries such as Wills Art Warehouse. Both of these make good use of the internet to promote themselves and an increasing number of artists are doing the same.

Will’s describes its mission:

Will’s Art Warehouse is the concept of Will Ramsay, who realised the need for a gallery which:

First, makes art more affordable (all work is priced between £50 and £3,000)

Second, is a friendly gallery. You are not hassled and each piece has lots of information beside it so that visitors or prospective buyers are helped in their understanding of the work, however much or little they know about art.

Third, he recognised that customers want a large variety of art to choose from. To use an analogy, he wants Will’s Art Warehouse to be “The Oddbins of the Art World”.

“We want to be as unintimidating and accessible as possible, to enable people who have a background which may not be art-based to feel they can buy original work without feeling they must acquire the theoretical baggage.”

The effective use of the internet is key to the broad appeal of these types of enterprises.

Yet there is still a feeling among the elite of the art world that somehow art is different and it will never be sold online and subject to the “destructive” forces of the internet.

I’m not so sure. If you look back at the history of internet commerce, easily accessible, commoditised items like books were the first to go. Later, however, almost all product lines started to succumb and some of major high street and shed retailers tried to respond by penalising those trying to buy form them online – after all the most expensive channel they have is the stores. The smart ones, though, realised there isn’t a choice and if people want to see the merchandise in the (expensive to run) store and then buy on the (cheap to run) internet later, it would be better if it was from the retailer’s own site. Now it is common to see joined-up, multi-channel approaches – from Comet, for example.

Not so in the art world. And yet with gallery commissions of up to 50% of purchase price there is an incentive for the artist to deal direct, even if the clients are experiencing the work first hand in the gallery. Smart galleries should start to recognise that increasingly there isn’t online and offline – it’s all part of the same continuum. Working with the new reality – something the music industry should have done a hell of a lot sooner – might just save the day.

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