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Disintermediation Manifesto, Part 2: Disintermediate Sales

Post #1617 • August 14, 2013, 7:50 PM • 9 Comments

The demands: Artists should sell their work directly to collectors. Collectors should buy work directly from artists. This is the natural state of affairs and should be viewed as such.

I have worked with galleries, quite pleasurably, and expect to do so again in the future. But I view it as a means to an end, or a handful of ends—a way to sell art to a wider range of collectors, to get art seen by more people, possibly to occasion some media coverage. I have also made some friendships in the process, but this isn't the purpose of working with a gallery, and I think artists bring a load of trouble upon themselves by thinking that the gallery relationship entails something more than the display and sale of art. Artists often feel that having a gallery means something—that it designates success or acceptance by the vague, shifting metrics that accompany such abstractions. It does not.

Furthermore, it will seem less and less so as the dealers are disintermediated. If the crash under consideration in these recent pages comes to pass, much like the middle-tier colleges and universities discussed last week, the middle-level galleries are going to get wiped out. Whether the crash comes or not, technology is going to replace more and more of their functionality. The end game here is that the physical display of art outside of non-profits and the blue-chip galleries is going to be divided between short-term pop-up spaces and a sort of high-middle made up of the surviving dealers who have mobilized every possible resource available to them to stay afloat. Even the vanity galleries may have a rough go of it—why pay someone else to exhibit your work when displaying it yourself, virtually, is just as effective for sales and less detrimental to your reputation? (I can't decide about the cooperatives. The especially well-funded and disciplined entities may survive, but like the dealers, they are going to have to work every angle possible and invent new ones to boot. Alternately, I could see some young, tough artists making something work on the cheap with a lot of elbow grease.)

A handful of people have been banging this drum for a couple of decades. Chief among them is Caroll Michels.

If I had my way, I would replace commercial galleries with a system in which artists exhibited work in their studios and sold it directly to the public. But such a system could work only if artists acquired enough self-confidence not to need gallery validations, and if the public, likewise, had the self-confidence necessary to buy work without gallery validation.

She doubted that she would ever see such a thing in her lifetime, but lo and behold, Megan Willet, writing last week about Amazon's new Fine Art and Collectibles category along with several other online art sales ventures already up and running, noted:

The real upside of shopping on Amazon for art though is how user friendly it is: You can search by color, size, price, and even subject. Other art vendor websites like Artsy and Artnet on the other hand may have sleek website designs, but they are not as inherently easy to navigate or familiar to prospective buyers.

Buyers are also moving away from the idea that art needs to be experienced in person before it’s purchased. “Young collectors are a lot more comfortable buying things online,” Matthew Glasser, the Director of Marketing and Communications for Exception Children’s Foundation at DAC Gallery, told us. “So when they go through new artwork, they’re willing to purchase the work based on the image alone.”

Plus, there are plenty of people who are uncomfortable with the typical brick and mortar gallery experience who would actually prefer to buy art online. There’s less judgment about what you like, less pressure in choosing what to buy, and customers can rely on Amazon’s return and shipping policies, so there’s extra reliability.

The next day, an article appeared by Darryn King subtitled Online galleries are drawing visitors in a way their real-world counterparts can only dream about.

The old argument that buyers want to see artworks in the flesh before they buy no longer applies. In this age of ubiquitous e-commerce, buyers are more comfortable than ever with online shopping, and only too willing to purchase clothing, furniture and now art sight unseen. A report published this year by art insurers Hiscox found that more than 70 per cent of buyers surveyed had bought art over the web.

The range of work on show on the web's infinite wall space—at any time of day—is immense. It is a 24/7 art fair without all the walking. There's also none of the pressure or intimidation of the gallery environment. You don't need a ticket to Venice. You don't even need to be wearing pants. ...

Whatever [Art Pharmacy director Emilya] Colliver's target demographic, online shopping for art has appeal across the board. One of Art Pharmacy's return customers, Sydney software engineer-turned-nursing student Christopher Hughes-Gage, is in his 60s and has been buying art with his partner for 12 years. He still visits real-world galleries, but finds the online experience convenient and enjoyable. He goes online to search for work by a particular artist or simply to browse—occasionally printing pictures to figure out where to hang them. ...

One dealer who understands that art-browsing habits have changed is Michael Reid. His galleries—one tucked in a Victorian terrace in Elizabeth Bay and another in a converted 19th-century convict barracks in the upper Hunter Valley—are pleasant places to visit. Nevertheless, many collectors now prefer to view the art onscreen, he says.

The article goes on to quote Hazel Dooney, who ditched the gallery system early on in favor of selling works from her studio and via her online presence. Dooney posted the unabridged interview she had with King on her blog, and while the whole post merits your attention, some passages are especially choice.

Ever since I dropped out of art school, I'd been skeptical of the entire, rather artificial system that had sprung up around art over the past 100 years, including its increasingly arcane, theory-driven (rather than skills-oriented) educational institutions and its galleries, both state-run and commercially funded. When I began my career as a working artist, I wanted to stay away from this system, convinced that, in an age in which information was increasingly accessible via the web, it wasn't really necessary any more. ... a very smart man called Creed O'Hanlon sat me down and gave me a multi-lateral perspective of how I could manage my career myself and still achieve my various, high-bar ambitions as an artist by better understanding and utilizing the web and social media. He convinced me to be less concerned about my work being widely distributed for free by others and more concerned about communicating directly and uninhibitedly with the large audience for art that is online.

I immediately withdrew from the major galleries that were then representing my work in Melbourne and Sydney and became the first Australian artist of any note to abandon bricks and mortar and middlemen for the web. ...

I don't really need (or have) a 'model' [for selling art]—everything I create is sold, sometimes even before I have created it. The demand for my art outstrips my capacity (and my desire) to make it. In fact, I often retreat to make art just for myself, to experiment, to explore, to play, without the pressure of the market I have created. ...

The gallery system is going the way of the record company and the newspaper—it's not a question of whether it will survive but rather when it will finally keel over and die. It's doomed, and already irrelevant. [Buying art online] is an everyday reality. The audience is now connected directly to the artist and it will at best suspect, but more probably, resent any attempt to filter or control it, or worse, manipulate it.

Another interesting idea was reported a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times by Randy Kennedy.

Without even having to change the abbreviation, the C.S.A. idea has fully made the leap from agriculture to art. After the first program started four years ago in Minnesota, demonstrating that the concept worked just as well for art lovers as for locavores, community-supported art programs are popping up all over the country: in Pittsburgh, now in its first year; Miami; Brooklyn; Lincoln, Neb.; Fargo, N.D.

The goal, borrowed from the world of small farms, is a deeper-than-commerce connection between people who make things and people who buy them. The art programs are designed to be self-supporting: Money from shares is used to pay the artists, who are usually chosen by a jury, to produce a small work in an edition of 50 or however many shares have been sold. The shareholders are often taking a leap of faith. They don’t know in advance what the artists will make and find out only at the pickup events, which are as much about getting to know the artists as collecting the fruits of their shares.

The C.S.A.’s have flourished in larger cities as a kind of organic alternative to the dominance of the commercial gallery system and in smaller places as a way to make up for the dearth of galleries, as a means of helping emerging artists and attracting people who are interested in art but feel they have neither the means nor the connections to collect it.

As noted by Caroll Michels, the issue is in large measure psychological. Amazon entering this market is important because it normalizes the online purchase of art, and sends an implicit signal to the world that people have the power to buy art for themselves without the need for an intercessor. This will benefit in turn the artist-driven sales venues that already exist—the artist-run fairs such as Contemporary Art Fair NYC and the Governors Island Art Fair (in which I have participated twice), and the many open studio events around the country. Yes, the dependably hilarious review trolls have showed up to make light of a disreputable-looking Monet, now removed ("I ordered this product back in June for $1.4 million, but in July I found a similar painting by Van Gogh on sale at Target for only $800k, so I returned this one and had to pay a $14.99 restocking fee, ridiculous!!!"). Tyler Cowen remarks:

I’ve browsed the “above 10k” category and virtually all of it seems a) aesthetically abysmal and b) drastically overpriced. It looks like dealers trying to unload unwanted, hard to sell inventory at sucker prices. I’m guessing that many of these are being sold at multiples of three or four over auction price histories. Is this unexceptional John Frost worth even a third of the 150k asking price? Maybe not.

Amazon wouldn’t sell you a kitchen blender that doesn’t work, or that was triple the appropriate cost, so why should they sully their good name by hawking art purchase mistakes? If you’ve built the best web site in the history of the world, which they have, you may decide that quality control should not be tossed out the window. Much as I admire their shipping practices, what makes Amazon work for me is simply that they sell better stuff and a wider variety at cheaper prices. Why give that formula up by treading into a market where such an approach won’t make any money? Why compete in a market where an awesomely speedy physical delivery network means next to nothing?

He prefers eBay, which frightens me—I don't want to deal with chargebacks and scammers. But even if Amazon gets this wrong I expect the several art-only sites to get it right, and they will carry the day, thus making even more innovative disintermediations all the more promising. One of the co-founders of Housic reached out to me last week to introduce their new mobile app, which launches later this month:

The app is a platform through which artists designate their studio, workspace or any other space as a gallery so that art enthusiasts can come over and check out their work. My co-founder and I decided to work on this app after friends of ours were told by gallery owners that their work wasn't good enough to be in their galleries. It is a free app for artists and for art buyers. We really just want to see a world where artists have the economic freedom to pursue their dreams.

Our situation to date has been too many artists for too few dealers, and too many dealers for too few collectors. The situation to come may have the galleries getting lost among the myriad ways in which a collector can buy art, digital and IRL, often straight from the artist, and with none of the need for the validation that dealers supply. The dealers aren't out of the game yet—unlike Dooney and Michels, I have nothing against dealers as a class and quite like many of them. But they're in a position, knowingly or not, that forces them to consider market innovations that artists are just as able, perhaps even more able, to implement for themselves.



John Link

August 14, 2013, 11:26 AM

Sometimes I wonder what collectors think about the fact they could be buying directly from the artist for a 50% discount or more.

Everyone seems to think auto dealers are crooks. Yet, they sell cars for about 10% over cost. In exchange, after the sale they serve as the go-between for warranty work, recalls, and lately have been providing routine maintenance performed by brand specialists at competitive prices. What do art dealers provide after the sale? Parties, I suppose.



August 15, 2013, 7:56 AM

Note to everyone—you shouldn't sell your work at a 50% discount out of your studio if you're working with a gallery. This is rude and ultimately pits you against your dealer. If you don't have representation, price your work at whatever you like, of course, and think of it as a discount if that's useful to you.

After the sale, in theory, the dealer encourages the collector to buy your work more extensively, to develop his holdings of Links or some other worthy artist. Obviously this is going to depend on the dealer in practice. I think the dealers are in a position to add value in a lot of cases in return for interposing themselves between the artist and the collector. My claim is that this position is going to become less necessary as time goes on, and they're going to have to respond accordingly.


Lou Gagnon

August 15, 2013, 8:15 PM

I’d like to reinforce Franklin’s comment. The price of your work should be the price of your work whether it is in a gallery (commercial, coop or community space) at and art fair or from your studio. If you believe your work has integrity then you should believe in the price. The quickest way to undermine value is flexible pricing.


John Link

August 16, 2013, 5:22 PM

From a collector's point of view, I would think a 50% commission to the dealer is rude. But apparently they don't, even when the sale price is $1 million.

Work by dead artists is easier to understand because there is more mystery. Who owns it? Where did it come from? How was it acquired? Same holds true, I suppose, for earlier work by celebrity artists. Unless the show is of recent work, it might as well be dead. Old work from celebrity artists has been collected, traded, and re-traded, typically. You can't get it from their studio. So its origins are the same as for dead artists. Speculation about getting it for a discount from the artist are not relevant, though the artist is still alive.


John Link

August 17, 2013, 8:41 PM

Hey Lou, what does "integrity" have to do with art?

Frankly, artists fret too much over integrity. How does that word relate to art? Van Gogh couldn't sell his work for much of anything while he was alive. Does that mean his work didn't have integrity? When gobs of money started changing hands when Van Goghs changed hands, did their integrity surge? I don't think so.

Does integrity mean moral soundness? Yes, when applied to human action. Art is fun, entertaining, pleasurable, a lot of things. But moral it is not. Only humans are moral in that sense. A work of art could not commit a moral or immoral act if the world depended on it. It is just a pile of stuff.

But I could understand protecting the integrity of my art if someone were about to deface it because that would be destructive to its wholeness. Otherwise the term is a red herring. So I would concede a defaced Link would be worth less than it was before it was defaced. I might even sell it as used art supplies and forget about the art aspect entirely, depending on the extent of the damage. Whatever the market might bear and whatever my mood of the moment might dictate.

Someone may think I—not my art—have no integrity because I treat sacred art so casually but in truth it is just so much chattel and it is mine. If it isn't worth what I sell it for shame on me. If it is worth more than I sell it for, double shame on me.


John Link

August 17, 2013, 8:57 PM

Loney Abrams has a point. He goes overboard saying documentation of art must be considered an artistic medium in its own right. He should have stuck with the obvious: it is damned important. And the internet is spreading these images further than the gallery and art mag system ever thought of spreading them in days past. And the suitability between how a work reproduces on the internet and how its acceptance fares is critical in some important ways.

Why does everything that is important have to be declared art? I did get a chuckle out of his reduction of the formerly holy sanctuary of the gallery venue to the site of a photo shoot, the backdrop to the installation photo. If anything I've learned in all these years stumblebumming around this globe of dirt and water, it is nothing is forever.


Michael Guilmet

September 7, 2013, 5:38 PM

Nice article, Franklin. It's also interesting to note Saatchi Online's recent addition of Advisory Services to their model.

Have you taken a position regarding artists posting the price of the artworks that they present online? I've heard various arguments pro and con. Those against mostly support their arguments with reasoning that seems an artifact from the traditional-channel model.

Those arguing for posting pricing seem to argue mostly that people want to see and understand immediately what the price of the work is, without any further click-thru or email to investigate, and that the generic online buying experience conditions in this manner.

In a few recent conversations with gallerists I was surprised to learn a few had reversed their thinking from just a few years past and are planning, or already have begun, to post the cost of artworks they showcase online.

Your thoughts?



September 12, 2013, 10:22 PM

Not listing prices signals artistic integrity and high value. It shouldn't, but it does. The dealers, I think, need to lead the way on this, because they can post prices by virtue of being in the business of selling artwork. The artists may harm their reputations by putting up their own sales galleries and listing prices. That said, maybe enough of them just have to start doing it and it will seem normal.



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