Social media and alternative art-selling platforms are disrupting the gallery model for the 21st century.
Stuart Semple is one of the many artists using social media to move their art.
As sales of contemporary art have skyrocketed, the ways of buying and selling artworks have also multiplied. The traditional artist-gallery relationship (sometimes called the “Leo Castelli” model), in which a gallery slowly develops artists’ careers, is being challenged: Artists are engaging with the public via social media and bypassing galleries altogether in favor of auctions. Herewith, an appraisal of the shifting landscape.
On the Block
In 2008, Damien Hirst made waves—and a number of art-dealer enemies—when he bypassed his galleries, Gagosian in New York and White Cube in London, and went directly to Sotheby’s London to sell Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. “Even if the sale bombs, I’ll be opening a new door for artists everywhere,” the artist/entrepreneur told reporters at the time. In less than 24 hours, 223 works were sold, for a total of $200.7 million, a record for a single-artist auction. Gallerists braced for a tsunami, but there have been no similar blockbuster direct-to-auction sales since, and Hirst, who had left Gagosian some years ago, just rejoined the gallery this spring, to great fanfare.
Artists whose works fetch more earthbound prices than Hirst’s are increasingly selling in auctions online. Despite a slowdown in the global art market in 2015, the online art market grew 24 percent to $3.27 billion dollars, according to a report just released by specialist art insurer Hiscox. “Mobile devices are becoming our weapon of choice,” notes Robert Read, head of Fine Art at Hiscox, “and social media is becoming increasingly influential in persuading us that the emperor’s new clothes really are magnificent.” While the majority of fine art sold online for under $7,250, almost a quarter of the sales ranged from $7,250 up to $72,500 and above.
Stuart Semple and other young artists, such as New York-based Ryan McGinley, José Parlá, and Daniel Arsham, are using social media platforms like Instagram to exhibit and distribute some of their work—and dealers and galleries are taking notice. “I’m shocked at how much work we are selling from the studio via Snapchat,” says Semple. “Never before has an artist had the power to get into a conversation directly with their audience. I think an artist could survive well through social alone.”
Instagram and Facebook are the preferred platforms, with almost half of online buyers using Instagram in 2016 for art-related purposes. (In the past year, over 80 percent of all Generation Y art buyers bought fine art online.) For all that, says Semple, “a physical gallery space is still really important. It all goes together… exhibitions can have a digital element and vice versa.”
Art as Asset
The Artist Pension Trust, founded in 2004 by Moti Shniberg, allows artists to create a retirement account using their own artworks as assets. Participants donate 20 works over a 20-year period. Gradually the works are sold: 40 percent goes to the individual artist whose work is sold, and the rest is divvied up between the member artists and APT.
With about 2,000 artists and 14,000 works, APT “offers financial security that galleries can’t provide” says director Ayal Brenner. “We provide added value and global exposure.” Last year, APT made its first sales, mostly to museums, with works averaging $30,000, up 18 percent from when the works were put in the trust. This March, APT made its first participation distributions. “We’re holding onto the most valuable works,” Brenner says, “until the selling system is running smoothly.” He knows of no competitors—at this point, he suggests, APT owns the high-end market. Only time will tell whether the artworks will make money for the artists and the trust.
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