In a new initiative announced today, Internet sales site Artspace is offering its subscribers direct access to the work of seven established Chinese photographers. Normally, there's something of a taboo for artists when it comes to bypassing the commerical gallery middleman to sell directly to the consumer. Gallery representation, after all, is a sign of pedigree. Artspace, however, is betting that it has found a niche where this novel strategy can take hold: the booming contemporary art scene on China's mainland, which has a surplus of stars who are for various reasons under-exposed outside of its borders. The Web site is now offering choice works from seven contemporary Chinese photographers, all available for purchase at a click: Wen Fang, the duo Rong Rong & Inri, Cang Xin, Wang Jinsong, Xing Danwen, and Wang Ningde.
"The Chinese artists' embrace of the Artspace platform shows their understanding that they need to develop new distribution channels," the site's co-founder Chris Vroom told ARTINFO. His partner, Catherine Levene, added that the new initiative offered a real opportunity to Western buyers: "Outside of China, this work can be very difficult to access."
While on the surface the works offered by Artspace's latest partnership are not terribly different from the site's other inventory, behind the scenes the project marks a huge shift. With many of its other offerings, Artspace functions somewhat like an online outlet mall, serving as a channel through which to sell prints and lower-priced original works that remain unsold from gallery and museum shows — a novel idea for the art world, but still complementary with the dealer-based sales framework. Instead, the Chinese photographers are working directly with the site, recruited by Beijing-based curator Tiffany Beres.
The set-up would seem to be a win-win-win for the site (which gets more business), the artist (who gets more exposure, more collectors buying), and the buyer (who pays a lower commission and gets a better price, in addition to being exposed to art they might not even have seen on trips to Beijing).
So why doesn't this kind of arragment happen more often? The idea of artists selling directly to buyers seems simple enough, but pulling it off is unbelievably complex. The fine art world values social capital immensely — this is the reason why there is not yet an Amazon or eBay for high-end art, and what art fairs base their entire business model around (a fact that financial commentator Felix Salmon addressed directly in a recent post about Frieze New York). Anecdotally at least, more dealers reported to ARTINFO that they had sold work via JPEG to collectors standing at their booths at the recent Frieze than reported selling any artwork via pure online route at the VIP Art Fair — same type of in absentia art sale, different social situation.
The Internet is good at disruptive innovation, but not necessarily at breaking down social norms. Social media may facilitate communication, but it doesn't replace IRL ("in real life") interaction for the most part. You can set up a dinner date online, but you still have to venture to the actual restaurant to experience it. Art is much the same way. Sales can happen online, but collectors largely prefer to see someone face-to-face. In a section on the barriers to online sales in art economist Clare McAndrew's 2011 report, "The Role of Art & Antiques Dealers: An Added Value," she writes that the art market offers particular barriers in this respect: "In general, personal contact is important and much more highly valued in large, infrequent sales such as art and antiques."
Despite these barriers, Artspace's new China initiative has the benefit of giving collectors access to something that they couldn't get otherwise. There is no loser because the gallery model is slightly different in Beijing than it is in New York, London, or even Hong Kong, according to Beres. Artists in mainland China function more like freelancers, who "don't have these sort of constraining contracts that they do in the West" — meaning they can sell on Artspace directly without risk of alienating anyone. At the same time, the arrangement suits them because "they don't have a gallery or a machine behind them to promote their career long term." This has meant that artists have to be more involved with promoting themselves — and Artspace is allowing them to connect directly with potential buyers in the United States and around the world, potentially changing the game.
ARTINFO exchanged emails with four of the artists, Wen Fang, Wang Ningde, as well as the duo Rong Rong & Inri. All said there were international collectors and museums that owned their work, but they still felt the need to expand their networks. "Since Artspace.com is online, I am hoping that it is an open exhibition platform, one that will complement any physical exhibitions I might have," wrote Wang. The world will certainly be watching to see whether it pays off.