|T h e Q u i l l I n F o c u s|
Chapter #1: THE INTERNET EVOLVES COMMERCIALLY
One might assume, based on the recent pronounced silence of traditional art trade magazines and mainstream media that the Internet has died as a marketing outlet for fine art. After all, the once extravagant full-page trade magazine advertisements have vanished, the weekly email solicitations offering fresh channels to sell art have been replaced with appeals from desperate and cash-strapped former Nigerian government officials and the hyped-up printed proclamations towards a new era of buying and selling art from the comfort of your in-house computer monitor have been silenced.
Has the Internet really become a dead medium for selling fine art?
Rather than assume that Internet art sales have dissipated into a tranquil sunset, it is more accurate to observe that the medium has undergone the first of many subsequent transitions. My own experiences and observations in surveying the online art universe tend to reinforce my long-term enthusiasm for the medium.
The basis of my observation is grounded by: 1) the breadth and variety of existing and emerging art oriented websites 2) the traceable influence of how the Internet has changed the manner in which business is conducted 3) the sheer and growing numbers of online users and 4) the growing design sophistication of artist websites.
A hangover from once-fantasy expectations was evolutionarily necessary to precede a more realistic picture of the commercial viability of the Internet. Today an illusion of obtaining instant wealth based on creating an online enterprise and taking it forward into public financing has been fatally punctured. Commercial websites share the same financial accountability as any other business enterprise. Revenue must exceed operating expenses and profit must sustain a business model. Corralling viewers at any cost (a prior dot-com philosophy) makes no more sense than opening up your inventory to free distribution or giving away your artwork in the remote hope of generating future sales.
Between the span of March 2000 and January 2002 when I initially began writing about the Internet as an art marketing outlet in Art Calendar Magazine and several publications which I self-published, the failure rate for commercial art websites was easily in symmetry with the steep decline of the Nasdaq stock exchange and other well-publicized dot-com busts. This 22-month period of excessive commerce hemorrhaging proved an unwelcome reality check. Following the pattern of traditional economic cycles in other business sectors, it was by no means unforeseeable.
Since January 2002 through the present time however, the default rate of commercial art websites has stabilized and the number of art commerce websites has likely even increased.
What precisely has prompted this shift?
I believe a new, more modest stabilization and financial maturity has emerged consistent with other online business sectors.
When I drafted my initial writings in mid-2000 on selling artwork online, the outlook for the Internet as a selling medium was unrealistically exuberant and cash bloated. Dot-com art resellers, which were a hastily married coalition of art industry insiders, periphery observers and industry-ignorant venture capitalists, were spreading printed rhetoric and trade ads as rapidly as their operating funds were depleting.
In their rush to obtain instant credibility and a large base of sales revenue from an industry with minimal precedent for either component done in haste, dot-com resellers ignored the three primary long-term elements of what traditionally has maintained the art industry establishment: 1) relationships 2) sustained industry exposure and 3) credibility.
Instead, amidst the hyper chaos of the spending and marketing frenzy, short-term partnerships, poorly structured business models and ill-advised expectations reigned, resulting in the foreseeable collapse of most of the high profile Internet resellers. What was utterly overlooked within the art establishment was the emergence of a substantial and growing number of specialty art websites, marketing reasonably priced artwork and offering fresh exposure avenues for thousands of artists previously doomed to guaranteed obscurity.
The reason these websites escaped media notice is principally because they have modest budgets, small staffs (often one individual) and due to their financial limitations, don't invest in trade industry publication advertising to any flamboyant extent. As any insider in most trade medias will tactfully observe, editorial direction has a direct correlation to advertising revenue.
These current smaller and focused surviving reseller websites along with the millions of individual artist sites constitute the backbone of the fundamental shifts taking place within the art industry.
Aside from this online presence, has the Internet significantly changed the art world landscape in other ways?
There is a fundamental transformation taking shape in the contemporary art world with revolutionary consequences at stake. The changes are inevitable, the ultimate effect on the balance of power relationship between artist and gallery, profound. Just as the demise of the motion picture studio system altered the business mechanics of movie making, the Internet may and likely will eventually transform the manner in which visual works of art are distributed and sold.
The transformation has not proven itself to be immediate. Change is a process and Internet art sales are still in its infancy. Our fixated impressions of how the Internet will permanently alter the sales distribution channels are as sketchy and unfocused as the very mechanics of change. Just as I am confident it will happen, I am less certain as to how it will transcend the industry.
Statistically, the Internet is maturing as a medium. According to the Nielsen Net ratings (www.Nielsen-NetRatings.com), the estimated current Internet global universe is approximately 453 million users with approximately 295 million considered "active" internet users, an increase of approximately 10% annually (based on September 2004 figures).
Statistics among active users include per month:
Each of these categories have increased approximately 10% annually.
Conclusion: Viewers are investing significant time in the medium and averaging over a half hour per session.
What this shift represents to a professional artist like myself is that the present and future exposure opportunities for my work can potentially reach millions of viewers without the exclusive patronage relationship of a third party, such as a commercial art gallery, reseller, art critic and/or financial benefactor.
These industry insiders and organizations will always exist. Their niche is secure. Taste, style and esthetics are subjective interpretations and most individuals who possess the resources to own, prefer a second qualified opinion, if not a little hand holding to reassure them with their purchasing preferences.
The ability and outlet for an artist to display their work internationally (through cyberspace) is an unprecedented phenomenon. It has previously only existed for a privileged few artists. Likewise, the ability to digitally reproduce and affordably reprint painted or computer designed images for resale is a new form of artist empowerment. Rather than being limited to an existing patronage and distribution system, artists now have the mechanism to create, cultivate and develop their own public image, clientele and sales outlets.
The focus for most of my comments are directed specifically towards image oriented visual artists such as painters, photographers and computer art designers. But the identical selling principles and opportunities apply to sculptors, craftsmen, artisans, writers and any other commercially potential discipline.
The ultimate enabler of the Internet may ultimately require more involvement in the distribution process to the visual creator, the artist. But will this innovation signal an end to the traditional means of selling art?
I find this scenario very unlikely.
Internet savvy gallery owners are already embracing the medium as a supplemental and increasingly primary sales outlet. This does not mean that galleries and resellers sell vast inventories of work exclusively or directly online. Most comments, which I have heard directly from gallery owners, indicate the contrary. However the subtler influences of their Internet presence is often easily overlooked. Online exposure frequently opens a visibility door as an opening contact and can provide important background information on the history, represented artists, available inventory, satisfied clients and even physical location of the reseller.
Walk-in business to a gallery is often pre-qualified by buyers who have surveyed a galleries website and arrived at certain impressions about the reseller based on their online presence. This fact may or may not be confirmed to the gallery owner upon their initial visit, but will very likely be a follow-up stage in the purchasing process.
One nagging argument against the Internet, which some traditional galleries and resellers cling to, is that the medium may ultimately reduce their influence in the sales and distribution process. It is a fear with limited merit since every industry is subject to the shifting of time and innovation. Business traditionally follows an evolutionary track: Survival of the fittest. Successful galleries will thrive because they are well managed and understand how to effectively service their client base. Poorly run galleries disappear because they cannot adapt and lack a clear vision of what they represent and who keeps them in business (namely their client base).
The Internet will not salvage a poorly run gallery any more than extend the credibility and sustainability of an artist that lacks depth and marketing patronage.
The role of galleries however is due for a tune-up and potentially an overhaul. Clarified simply, artists create artwork, not gallery owners. Galleries are retail outlets, which mark up merchandise for resale. On the issue of price, given the option of dealing directly with the creator or the middleman, most consumers would prefer the source if the retail mark-up is significant. The process of course is never quite that simple because the gulf between most visual artists and ultimate buyers is often wide. The buying public for most artists is potentially accessible but often poorly navigated.
Even if many artists are not commercially oriented, their bargaining position can change in the traditional selling arrangement as the web continues to evolve. In the past and still presently, an artist typically turns over 40-75% of the gross sales price to a dealer for the privilege of exhibiting their work in a gallery storefront or for access to their selling network.
As with any process, an artist evolves into a stronger negotiating position with gallery owners and buyers as their work, reputation and recognition matures (and sells consistently). A principal role of an art gallery remains to drive up an artist's selling price as the art market recognizes an emerging or commercially successful artist. This of course enables a gallery to cover their substantial operating overhead and provide artists with a livable income incentive to continue to produce work.
The key to successful negotiation with a potential gallery (from the artist's vantage point) is based on the notion of an artist's perceived selling strength. Visual artists currently have several tangible means for establishing sales credibility based on: 1) the caliber of previous exhibition outlets, 2) promotional write-ups and critical reviews in industry publications, 3) consistently earning prizes and awards in juried competitions and 4) roster of patrons and successful public, corporate and museum commissions.
It is no secret to both the detached observer and insider, that the art world tends to be a small closed circle. Numerous interests jockey, back-scratch and intrigue for a concise and small number of coveted prestigious positions and acclaim. The short list of favorites and soon-to-be out of favorites revolve in a continuum of musical chairs and despite the inherent politics, fine art is created daily and in large quantities. Some works will endure; most will ultimate fade into oblivion, as does its creator.
Yet, this "small, rather secretive world" which is both "ambiguous and corrupt in a petty sort of way" as defined by former editor Anna Somers Cocks of the London based monthly The Art Newspaper (January 18, 2002) is in the process of receiving an overdue airing out. The advancement of the Internet as a communications vehicle will be the engine responsible for the shift. For most visual artists, traditionally the beginning link in the distribution chain, this overhaul is both a welcome and overdue development.
The two most accessible and immediate assets an artist can and should be cultivating online are a website and expanded selling network. This sales network should include Internet auction sites, affiliate partnerships, business and consumer exchanges, barter services, direct mail, licensing outlets, virtual art galleries and portfolio listing services.
Businesses and creative professionals in all industries are discovering that a key component to establishing credibility in today's market is a professional, easy-to-navigate website. Whereas an innovation like the cellular phone or fax machine might have been a luxury or even novelty twenty years ago, today they are commonplace. As a business, your absence on the web is a serious strike against you. Consumers and potential resellers won't bother to ask you why not. They'll just assume that its' not a priority and you're not serious about expanding your selling network. The art world has been slow to accept this innovation, but the erroneous perception that an online presence is unnecessary is in full retreat as nearly all artists, galleries and art organizations maintain a website.
Never in the course of economic history has an emerging trend like the Internet been burdened with such vaulted expectations. From its rocket growth over the past seven years, eliciting comparisons with the 19th century Industrial Revolution, to the current meltdown, rebirth and flourishment of many dot.com enterprises and volatile technology stocks, the Internet has wildly exceeded it's initially intended purpose as a universal research tool.
As a fine artist, if you're serious about exposing and selling your work to the largest potential market capability, you've never had a better ally than the Internet.
Within the artistic community, many artists have gone as far as to crown it the new and superior distribution channel to replace the traditional sales pipeline of galleries, brokers, showrooms and assorted middlemen. This wishful concept has a nice ring to it; the artisan selling his/her work direct to the buying public empowering greater financial earnings. But is such an expectation realistic? Do most artists want to cross over into the full time marketing of their work?
The answer varies amongst artists, but the current financial realities are that marketing expertise and art production is mutually inseparable. While the present performance of Internet sourced art sales have not matched the levels of more standardized consumer products such as books, toys or electronic equipment; major opportunity trends are emerging. In the process of separating hype from substance, fresh client contacts and international exposure outlets, previously inaccessible to only a minority of artists, are becoming universally available.
The principal major marketing shift that the Internet has eliminated is territorial sovereignty. Artists, galleries and high-end outlets that have invested years and a substantial advertising investment towards cultivating a geographical territory have sound reasons to feel threatened using their traditional marketing approach. The Internet is irrespective of geography. An artist or gallery reseller can sell just as easily to their regional marketplace as halfway around the world.
This market shift has becomes the greatest distinction of Internet based sales. A local art gallery or artist has the identical opportunity to expand their sales base. Rather than viewing the Internet as an intrusion into their limited slice of pie (customer base), the Internet in effect creates a substantially larger pie. Ignorance to the possible exploitation of the Internet as a sales medium results in potential lost sales opportunities. In the end, ignorance or avoidance of the medium may become an expensive luxury.
So how do artisans, galleries and art related institutions harness the potential of this global exposure and communications phenomenon? It begins with a simple physical presence such as a website. As elemental as this sounds, it is only the start of a much more extensive process.
Marques Vickers is a fine artist member of the Set Decorators Society of America and his figurative sculpture, paintings and photography can be viewed on his award winning web site www.Marquesv.com. He is the author of "Marketing and Buying Fine Art Online: A Right-Brained Guide to a Left-Brained Industry.