Painting an Online Future

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Eric Sparre, Director of Artspan, the site which combines branded sites with an online gallery, argues that for visual artists, the internet is taking up where commercial galleries leave off. However, the two can work together

Once upon a time, establishing a career seemed a simple matter for visual artists. First: secure gallery representation. Then: back to the studio. Let the gallery worry about sales, which were sure to come and at steadily increasing prices.

Of course, the process was never that simple. Then, as now, dealers were often reluctant to take on new artists. But with no serious alternative, most working artists had no choice other than to keep knocking on the same doors. And even with representation, there was no guarantee of success: galleries could control client lists, veto outside opportunities, hold payments on sales, and dictate the extent of publicity. For artists without representation, particularly older artists, prospects were even bleaker.

The advent of the Internet has brought empowerment. Alongside social media, artists now use the web in two main ways: by creating personal, branded websites to promote their work as they please, and by using online galleries to show work for sale, joining other artists and/or makers (Saatchiart and Etsy are prominent examples of online galleries).

The problem of encouraging traffic to self-managed artist websites is a very real one. There are hundreds of millions of results for a Google search on “artist.” As for online galleries, while artists may have an individual profile page, that page will not have its own domain name and is therefore limited in its promotional outreach. Sales are essentially one-offs.

Artspan is the only provider of templated websites to combine independent branded sites with an online gallery. This concept grew out of my experience setting up my own artistic website in 1996. I commissioned a developer to build a website, but this proved costly and took far too long to complete. The end result was a website reflecting the developer’s design sense but not mine. Since I did not yet know how to code and was not even confident uploading images, there was little I could do with the site. Also, it was competing for traffic, and I had no idea how to boost visitor numbers.

It was this experience which shaped Artspan at its beginnings in 1999, and continues to inform it today. I assumed a lot of artists would be in the same situation as myself: light on tech and web skills. I therefore wanted to offer artists self-managed, independently branded websites with their own domain names, while also making these sites part of a larger artist community. I realised that a community of websites would be much more likely to attract traffic than any individual website.

Of course, our member websites have incorporated many tech advances in the years since. The features are much more developed and include e-commerce functions. Artists can customise the look of their sites, and the social media and search engine optimisation (SEO) tools greatly extend their potential reach. They are also tailored to a visual artist’s specific needs – grouping images and image details in distinct galleries and offering such options as multiple views of artwork.

Each website is intended to serve as the focal points for the artist’s promotion, and as virtual studios where collectors and others can keep abreast of an artist’s work. Importantly, each site can be used to sell artwork with no commissions due when buyers go directly to the artist’s site.

The recently re-launched UK version of the community site, Artspan.co.uk, combines content with search features and directories. The Search+Shop functions ensure that search results are truly relevant. Featured are both original works and (giclee) Prints-on-Demand. Clicking on any thumbnail in the search results pages brings up a ‘Product Page’. This page gives the visitor details about the artwork, the artist, and shows thumbnails of their other work, functioning as a mini-site similar to the profile pages of other online galleries, but here the visitor can click through to the independent artist website. To attract visitors and build traffic to our member websites, we also feature artwork in our Articles and Collections, and on our blog and social media platforms.

We facilitate sales but are not dealers (our highest commission is 10%). Instead, we partner with artists, providing tools, visitors, and easy ways for visitors to find artwork. Being an artist myself, it was important to me that we also foster an expanding, vital, international community. American buyers have recognized that UK artists have unique visions and strong skills and their work should be easily accessible to North American buyers and art consultants. Artspan aims to stimulate this interest. Our prints-on-demand targets a growing US market for affordable prints. And we plan a new outreach to art consultants who will have their own destination under another domain, dARTresources.com.

Finally, returning to the matter of establishing a career. Physical galleries continue to play a pivotal role but are themselves increasingly moving online with an ever larger proportion of their business coming from their websites. They may see additional opportunities in working with an Internet company such as Artspan. We could host their artists’ websites (linking back to the gallery) and attract buyers that a physical gallery might not have access to. We would work to protect any arrangement the gallery might have with an artist. Further, galleries can (and do) use Artspan to source artists.

Marketing art does not have to be a zero-sum game. We should all be able, where it is feasible, to work together to expand the market.  And opportunities for artists.

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