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"Life Source Kananaskis"
Dominik Modlinski, "Life Source Kananaskis," oil on canvas, was sold online by Canada House Gallery in Banff for $6,160 and is now in a collection in New York.
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Paul Van Ginkel, "Mountain Man," oil on canvas, 48" x 48", sold online to a couple in Milwaukee for a home in Canmore, $6,500.
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Luther Pokrant, "Autumn Colours," oil on canvas, 33" x 44", was sold online in May 2003 by Assiniboia Gallery in Regina to a buyer in Singapore for $2,500.
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"A Trio of Yellow Pears"
Carmelo Sortino, "A Trio of Yellow Pears," oil on canvas, was sold online by Jenkins Showler Gallery in White Rock, B.C. for $4,200 to a client in California.
The Business of Online Art
By Rod Chapman
Enter Doug Maclean’s Canadian Art Gallery through a vanity plate labeled Buy Art adorning the image of a forlorn, snow-covered Isuzu Trooper. Clicking on the license plate opens up a website containing a selection of paintings by some of Canada’s best-known artists – Max Bates, Illingworth Kerr, Dorothy Knowles, Doris McCarthy, John Snow and others.
Founded in 1945, Canadian Art Gallery held the first exhibitions of the Group of Seven in Western Canada but despite its distinguished history, the gallery no longer exists in a physical space. Squeezed out of Calgary in 1999 by declining margins and rising real estate prices, Maclean packed up and moved to Canmore, on the edge of Banff National Park, where he set up a virtual storefront at www.canadianartgallery.com.
“More than 80 per cent of my business is conducted via email,” says Maclean, now a private dealer and secretary of the Art Dealers Association of Canada (ADAC). “Sure it’s internet-based, but almost all of it involves some form of personal interaction with my customers.”
Maclean’s move to a virtual-only arena isn’t typical. Most galleries combine bricks and clicks in their business operations, using the internet mainly as a marketing tool for keeping up with clients, delivering digital images and providing a visual record of gallery exhibitions. The internet is used mostly as a communication device, a multi-faceted extension of the telephone.
That strategy appears to be working. Jupiter Communications, an internet market research company based in New York, has estimated that the online art and collectibles market, worth $300 million in 2000, will rise to $1.8 billion by 2005.
Richard Thompson, a computer programmer who launched Theo Digital Gallery in Vancouver almost four years ago, says that the 70 galleries now using his software management service conduct about $1 million worth of online business annually.
“About 20 per cent of our sales are from people we’ve never laid eyes on,” says Mary Weimer, co-owner of Assiniboia Gallery in Regina. “Having a website allows us to reach a much larger market.”
That’s typical, says Thompson. Galleries with strong web presences can achieve as much as 20 to 40 per cent of purchases from incremental sales by online surfers. “It’s a good way to even out cash flow.”
Theo Digital has aligned itself with Ontario-based GallerySoft, a company that provides software for art gallery management – together, the two companies provide a complete front- and back-end package for gallery owners.
At the high end, works of art in excess of $50,000 generally fail to sell over the internet because buyers are unwilling to spend large amounts of money acquiring works they have not examined in person. At this level, the value of the art is in its exclusivity – prospective buyers operating in the upper echelons don’t want a work to appear on the internet.
Gone, too, is the notion that selling fine art online is part of the e-commerce revolution. Except for lower-priced photographs, prints and collectibles, it simply isn’t a shopping-basket, “add this item to my cart” phenomenon.
What’s left is the middle, and it is fertile ground indeed for galleries that spend time and energy on their websites. “I went in as a non-believer. I didn’t think you could sell art over the internet,” says Sharon Simpson of Jenkins Showler Gallery in White Rock, B.C. “Now I can’t imagine doing business without it.”
Simpson estimates that about 10 per cent of her sales are initiated online, although she says the line between online and in-store sales is blurring. Many travelers become enamoured with a particular artist while away on business, for example, but will follow up with research and a contact when they return home.
“My experience is that people aren’t going to buy a piece of art over the internet that they don’t know anything about,” she explains. “However, if they’ve visited us before, or they know the artist’s work, they are quite comfortable doing business online.”
Research is what drives collectors to the internet – online, art becomes active. Click! Up comes the image of a new work by an admired artist. Click again – now you’re on the west coast closing in on a coveted landscape painting. But the thrill of the chase is only part of the internet’s allure. Equally important is email, the killer app, which provides immediate gratification in the form of instant, dynamic, high-resolution delivery of images.
This self-education aspect is changing the traditional relationship of buyer to seller, says Mark London of Elca London Gallery in Montreal and author of an ADAC-sponsored article called Art on the Internet: Virtual Considerations. According to London, consumers are much more knowledgeable these days. “People use the internet to locate art and to research artists before making major purchases,” he says. “They come in much more prepared.”
While many artists have a personal website, not many use it as the primary method of selling their work. Only about five to 10 per cent of artists are self-managed; there’s a general consensus that most artists are better at making art than they are at promoting it.
Calgary artist Paul Van Ginkel is an exception. Van Ginkel produces about 100 paintings per year and sells many of them from his website, which is found at www.paulvanginkel.com. He typically receives an average of an email a day from collectors doing research on the internet. He has chosen to be represented by one gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Van Ginkel says, “Between myself and my gallery, I’m as busy as I want to be.”
Vancouver-based painter Robert Genn also uses a website to promote his work, but has a hands-off approach to selling art. “I think you’re either an artist or an entrepreneur,” he says.
Genn’s website, www.robertgenn.com, generates about 2,000 visitors a month, mostly from people coming to view his virtual portfolio. Clicking on an image, however, redirects prospective buyers to the six galleries that represent Genn – that’s where the actual sale takes place.
“Dealers are partners in my success,” he says. “Dealers share the magic with clients – their commissions are well-earned.”
Nevertheless, when it comes to the relationship between artists and galleries, the rules are changing, according to California figurative artist Marques Vickers, who has written a guidebook, Marketing and Buying Fine Art Online: A Right-Brained Guide to a Left-Brained Industry, intended to help internet-savvy artist-entrepreneurs and informed fine art buyers slice through traditional art marketing and investment rhetoric.
Vickers says that while some gallery owners don’t want artists selling independently on their own websites, it doesn’t have to be threatening. “There’s no question that this is evolving,” he says. “Artists now have access to international audiences, and they ignore that reality at their peril. As long as the artists’ website pricing is consistent with gallery pricing, it shouldn’t be an issue for the gallery.”
“While I wouldn’t be that thrilled if every artist had a website and was selling art on it, our experience is that most artists just aren’t that interested in the marketing aspects,” agrees Mary Weimer. “Artists know that there is value in what we do.”
In the end, selling art is still about building relationships. It’s just easier with the internet.
Art.com is the internet’s poster child. Ranked in the top 100 e-commerce websites worldwide, it was a finalist in the 2003 Webby awards, the online equivalent of the Oscars, for best commercial website. Founded in 1995, the company offers more than 1.4 trillion product combinations. Visitors can even experiment with matting and framing options. The site receives 1.5 million unique visitors a month, mostly college students who need posters to put up on bare dormitory walls. And while Art.com still sells a significant amount of product to students, it is now broadening its customer base to include professional and amateur decorators, collectors, art enthusiasts and businesses.
Artnet.com has set the standard for the online art business since 1989. Originally developed as an auction record database for dealers and collectors to more easily research art prices, it now includes a huge network of more than 1,300 galleries serving dealers and buyers by providing easy access to market and pricing trends. Key services include feature-laden magazine archives and the Fine Art Auctions Database, which carries illustrated auction price records.
Artist Resource is an online community for artists and buyers in the San Francisco Bay area. Carefully local, its mission is to educate, connect, nurture and promote Bay Area artists and writers. The site contains information about art classes, art techniques, shows, events, jobs, articles, places to hang art, supplies, classifieds, studio spaces, forums, competitions and calls for art from all over the world. It exemplifies the internet’s ability to provide a growth medium for high-profile, low-overhead organizations.
Despite the withdrawal of many auction houses from the online marketplace, icollector.com is going strong. Founded in 1994, it was the first company dedicated to trading antiques, fine art and premium collectibles on the internet. Today icollector.com represents more than 350 auction houses. Collectors use the site to search for auction houses and to place bids. The average price of a print sold through iCollector is $4,000.
If you are thinking about creating a website for your gallery, here are some tips from Joni Poplawski at GallerySoft Inc, an Ontario-based company that builds gallery management software.
Don't use free web hosting services – these services torture visitors with advertisements, use irritating pop-up screens and other obtrusive graphics, and set cookies. At worst, you only get half of the screen to show your art, with the other half going to the host site. Free sites give the impression that you’re not successful enough to afford your own domain name.
Update regularly – websites need to keep visitors busy. Whenever visitors return they should see fresh images and fresh stock. Sold prints should be removed after a set amount of time and older stock should be rotated in and out. Some galleries think that showing numerous sold works of art will make people want to buy any remaining pieces. The effect is exactly the opposite. Potential buyers think that the best pieces are already gone, and only leftovers remain.
Be up front about pricing – this is essential for success. Showing prices presents you as forthcoming, with nothing to hide. Websites that request visitors to call or email for information are engaging in a shell game: they sucker prospective buyers into inquiring about prices, assess their level of interest in the art, and then quote as high as possible according to those buyers’ circumstances. Experienced dealers and collectors are too savvy to play the please-tell-me-the-price game, and most people simply aren’t interested in revealing personal information to get prices.
Post your policies – online shoppers want to buy art on approval, and they want to be able to return it for a full refund if it doesn’t meet their expectations. No policies for approvals, returns and refunds will limit your online potential and mean few, if any, sales.
Keep it simple – navigation and content must be straightforward. First-time visitors need to know who the artists are, why they should buy the art, and how to move around within the site. Make sure each page links back to your home page. Some website formats are far too confusing, with dead-end pages or sections that seem like medieval mazes. Lost visitors mean lost sales.
Make it easy – the more you tell people about yourself, the more accessible you appear. Include your address, phone and fax numbers and email address. Even better, make sure your gallery’s name and full contact information are on every page. Websites that lack appropriate contact information usually cause visitors to exit fast without taking a second look.
Avoid the fancy stuff – most people just want to see the art. Large text or image files and moving or spinning graphics increase download time and decrease viewer interest. Avoid plug-ins, special effects, complex visuals and other gimmicks that take a long time to load, require special software or even crash your visitor’s computer.
Automate – consider purchasing gallery management software that will automatically update your website. This type of software requires little internet know-how and eliminates the tedious chore of manually re-entering inventory information and removing sold items.
Two companies that do this well are GallerySoft (www.gallerysoft.com) and Theo Digital Software (www.theodigitalgallery.com)