Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=168775
Story Retrieval Date: 6/19/2013 6:34:49 PM CST
Website images compiled by Hans Villarica/MEDILL
Yolanda Farias misses the romance of selling art.
After about two decades working in the art world, she longs for the bygone time when she would charm clients in a gallery, introduce them to artists, and call them on the phone to follow up or just talk art. She misses the relationships she cultivated with collectors over the years and the more amorphous, but rewarding, process of courting art neophytes. Simply put, she misses the days when she interacted more with people and less with her computer.
These days, Farias says she gets more e-mails than phone calls, more queries online than in person, and more traffic from her gallery’s website than from the streets. While she concedes the recession has dampened demand for the luxury goods she sells, she says it is another phenomenon altogether that has rocked the fine art scene: the Internet.
“Because of the Internet, I don’t know who I’m selling art to anymore,” said Farias, who currently manages the Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. “You get an e-mail from someone who Googled the name of an artist they’re interested in and found your website that way. They wire the money, and I send them the artwork. And we don’t even talk.”
Farias is not alone. Other fine art purveyors in Chicago’s River North art district like Catherine Edelman, who owns a contemporary photography gallery, are increasingly relying on the Internet to do business. Edelman says she has spent a lot of time ensuring that her website is “informative, transparent and user-friendly.” She provides prices and images of her artists’ works on her gallery’s site, receives e-mails through it and updates potential buyers with blog-type news on recent developments. In other words, her website has replicated some of the traditional roles of an art gallery: exhibition space, information resource and means of day-to-day contact.
“I think the old model is completely changed,” said Edelman, who also serves as the president of the Chicago Art Dealers Association. “About 95 percent of our sales are generated by or through or with our website. Very few are generated by just simple walk-ins.”
The most surprising aspect of this development may be the fact that many buyers acquire works sight unseen or after just viewing a photo online. Edelman, for instance, points to the roughly 70 percent of her clientele who are not based in Illinois and have therefore never come into physical contact with the works they purchase. They may have simply become familiar with an artist’s works through exhibits in other galleries or museums.
Gallery operators asked about the development unanimously say much is lost when buyers experience art online instead of live. They don’t have any real sense of scale of the artworks. They can’t perceive more subtle qualities like texture and luminescence. And, to some extent, they can’t even perceive the piece’s true colors. It’s one thing to expedite the negotiation process via e-mail or to learn about an artist using Google as opposed to an actual conversation. It’s well another to buy visual art without first seeing it in person.
“In my opinion, there’s nothing that substitutes seeing an original [in person], but this is just the way business is done now,” Edelman said. “Everybody’s embraced it.”
Art dealers like Jennifer DeCarlo, the assistant director of Schneider Gallery, believe sites like Artnet.com are giving buyers a little too much information. Part of the problem that results is, well, haggling. Over the Internet, exchanges are largely impersonal, making this practice virtually shame-free. Plus, it only takes a few minutes for potential buyers to shoot e-mails to multiple galleries, compare prices, and use whatever information they get to lobby for the best deal.
“They try to play us against each other,” DeCarlo said. “They find out that this artist is represented by several galleries, and they wonder, ‘Which one is going to give me a better price? Which one won’t charge me shipping?’ It leaves a bad taste in our mouths.”
More importantly, it also leaves a dent in gallery finances. Online sales, said DeCarlo, follow the same fifty-fifty distribution that has long been the standard agreement between most galleries and the artists they represent. Any discounts resulting from online price wars are absorbed solely by galleries.
“It’s great when they find us that way,” she said, “but it’s not always a positive experience.”
Ken Saunders, who sells original glass works at his namesake gallery, looks at it another way. He says the Internet is giving the power back to art buyers by making information about artists and galleries readily available. He says customers are no longer limited to the information gallery owners choose to give them.
“The Internet allows collectors to perform some due diligence and to make sure they get a decent deal,” Saunders said. “It allows them to find out if what they’re hearing is the truth.”
An artist’s online presence has other unintended repercussions that affect both buyers and galleries. As more and more fine art sales are initiated online, artists with established reputations and powerful online personas are becoming more attractive to galleries.
“We feature artists and works we believe in and whose style fits our gallery,” Farias said, adding, “but it certainly doesn’t hurt if our site pops up in Google after someone does a search using an artist’s name.”
Apart from expanding their audience from local collectors to anyone with access to the World Wide Web, the Internet has also helped galleries significantly reduce marketing costs. Traditionally, to promote an exhibit, galleries would spend thousands of dollars on elaborate event cards and/or catalogues, and hundreds more to send them out. They had no control over whether these expensive promotional tools would be intercepted by office assistants, thrown immediately in the garbage or even delivered to clients who may have changed addresses.
Saunders says he used to allocate almost a million dollars annually for such expenses—funds that he now considers as savings in this era of Internet-based marketing. Meg Sheehy, the owner of Zg Gallery, says those days of wasted communication efforts are gone.
“It’s much better now with e-mail,” she said. “We can send invites, thumbnails and links, and we know whatever we send reaches our clients because it goes directly to their phones.”
“E-mail has become just a crazy, invaluable resource to reach people at all hours," Edelman said. “It’s been pretty remarkable to watch the progress of it all. When I first started, it was FedEx, then it was the fax machine, and then it was this thing [on our computers] called the Internet. And now we all have little iPhones and the Internet in our pockets.”
Are social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter the next link between art buyers and sellers? Maybe. Several gallery owners and managers recently started accounts on these sites, but as yet they have no way of measuring their effect in stimulating sales.
“I started Facebook because everyone was telling me to try it,” said long-time gallery owner Roy Boyd. “But I don’t know if anything is happening. It’s new and untested.”
Still, for all the shifts the Internet has caused, it is unlikely the art gallery will go the way of the record store.
“There are no point-and-click [art] sales being done on the Internet, just as there have never been shopping carts and cash registers inside galleries,” Saunders said. “Whether online or through e-mail or in the gallery, it’s the rapport we establish with collectors that sells a piece of art.”