One great thing about art created on the Internet is that it still exists in a largely non-commercial zone: it’s free to look at and often free to own, with the right click of a mouse. Artists broadcast their work freely over social media, with little expectation of directly profiting from it, simply out of the desire to share and participate in a community. This situation creates obvious problems — artists working online lack the infrastructure necessary to make a sustainable living from their work. As Internet- and technology-based art grows, however, infrastructure is evolving to help support artists monetarily.
Sure, it’s possible for artists to throw a Paypal link on a personal site and ask viewers to send in money. The donation button, however, has long been outré for creatives. Instead, a new online gallery is hoping to solve the issue with a new system that allows gallery-goers to tip artists and individual works directly, right as they view them.
Art Micro Patronage (AMP), a clean, well-composed Web site with the feel of an established gallery, was founded by Oliver and Eleanor Hanson Wise and launched last month. The site’s current exhibition, named “Deriving An Imaginary City: Virtual Psychogeographies” and curated by multimedia artist Andrew Venell, explores the use of technology in mapping the intersection of psychological states and urban environments. Beneath each piece in the exhibition (which are viewed by forward and back buttons in the frame of AMP’s Web site) are “Pledge” buttons in $.50, $1, $2, $5, $10, and $20 denominations. At the end of the exhibition, viewers are presented with a bill for how much they chose to pledge.
“Right now you can like something or tweet it, and that is a way of showing appreciation to the person,” explained Eleanor Hanson Wise, “but we're really interested in associating appreciation with an actual dollar amount, and seeing if that can actually happen on the Internet.” The method is similar to the crowd-sourced funding of Kickstarter, but without the site’s material rewards — ideally, AMP viewers would tip a small amount to artists whose work they liked. “A lot of people doing that at once can really come to something,” Wise said.
A small amount of the donations go toward AMP’s hosting fees and an honorarium for exhibition curators, but the larger the amount donated, the more that goes straight into the artist’s pocket. For donations under $10, the artist gets 70 percent, rising to 85 percent for over $50. Visitors can also add money to an AMP bank account and disperse it over a six-month period, or sign up for a membership with a one-time fee that is distributed evenly over all AMP artists. Members get their names on AMP’s dedicated patrons page and have access to the exhibition archive (completed shows are otherwise locked).
AMP’s first exhibition has garnered $238, while “Virtual Psychogeographies” has brought in a total of $36. The site has a long way to go, but even small amounts of income are significant for an institution only months old. As AMP’s credibility grows with future shows curated by Internet art figures like Lindsay Howard and Karen Archey, those numbers may grow.
Where AMP trades on the joy of supporting art and artists to push for pledges, new media art non-profit and authoritative online publication Rhizome is using more material incentives for an annual pledge drive that supports their work archiving, promoting, and commissioning works of Internet art. The organization is using artworks as rewards for donations. For $50, donors will receive an archival print from DIS, a fashion publication associated with Ryan Trecartin, while $100 will net a series of digital typefaces and artworks by Paul Chan. A $1,000 donation gets you “Hyper Geography” aluminum prints by Joe Hamilton, a young artist whose highly-regarded Tumblr of the same name features digitally mashed-up landscapes.
These works come straight from the artists. “We reached out to artists and asked them if they would consider making a donation to us — to help support our programs,” wrote Rhizome’s Zoe Salditch in an email. “It’s a hard thing to ask an artist to give their work, so generally we ask artists that we have worked with in some way, who might want to give back to Rhizome.” Where possible, Rhizome supports the donated work’s production costs and gives artists a proof of the final edition.
“The fact that we support an emerging field of practice differentiates us from other arts institutions and makes us more reliant on the community we serve,” Salditch wrote. “We need the artists we support to give back to our efforts.” In turn, proceeds from Rhizome’s 2011 $25,000 pledge drive will go toward an annual Commissions program of 11 grants ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, event programming including performance and media work, and online resources for artists, among other projects.
While AMP and Rhizome both circumvent the traditional commercial gallery system of representation and commercial sales, that doesn’t mean that artists working in innovative media can’t thrive in a gallery setting — it’s just harder to sell a computer-based sculpture or JPEG file than a painting on canvas. New York’s bitforms gallery, opened in November 2001, has spent the past decade creating a sustainable sales system for innovative, technology-based art. “We have tried to educate and create a platform for collectors and curators” about new media art, said bitforms director Steven Sacks, in order to “create the ability to sell the works and have the artists and gallery profit from them.”
By representing a combination of historically significant artists like ‘70s generative art pioneer Manfred Mohr and emerging new media stars like Italian video artist Quayola, bitforms creates a deep artistic context that “brings in more traditional curators and collectors,” Sacks explained. The gallery works with artists over the course of their careers, building foundations that eventually lead to a strong commercial market. “It can take years before sales become part of the equation,” the director said. Mohr, for example, has long been known for his early computer-generated drawings, but rose into art-world popularity in the ‘90s and 2000s. While bitforms deals in object-based works rather than the abstractions of online-only art, selling work that needs technological support and upkeep to conservative audiences presents similar challenges.
The market for new media art is now “more integrated into the fine art world,” according to Sacks. “It has grown globally, and will inevitably gain a bigger market.” In the meantime, organizations like AMP and Rhizome give non-gallery artists working in these innovative forms a well-deserved opportunity to be paid for their work.
Net Work is a weekly column exploring the state of contemporary new media art and its practitioners by ARTINFO Assistant Editor Kyle Chayka. Follow Kyle on Twitter at @chaykak or email him at email@example.com.