Gigaom

Selling the Art World on the Web


Can you turn art into an everyday digital industry? That's what Spencer Hyman, chief executive and co-founder of London-based Artfinder, is betting. He's leading a team that wants to build an art service to help people consume and enjoy art online.

Hyman takes his inspiration from an obvious source—his previous job as chief operating officer at music recommendation site Last.fm. He helped guide the site through its $240 million acquisition by CBS in 2007 and now wants Artfinder to build a similar service for a different purpose.

"If you want to build one of these great businesses like Last.fm, or IMDB, or LinkedIn, you need to get four bits of a virtuous circle working," he says. "The first is the catalogue. Once you've got the catalogue, you can move on to the next bit, social profiles—curating stuff, building their own collections, meeting people with similar tastes, sharing stuff. If you think about that, it's never happened to art. If wanted to show me your 10 favorite pictures in the National Gallery, how would you do it? If you wanted to tell me about this great new street artist called Inky, how would you do it?" he asks.

"Then the next bit is discovery. It's the search, it's the recommendation," he says, moving to the final piece—online consumption: providing an alternative to the postcard.

A $50 Billion-Plus Untapped Market

In truth, however, this sort of social pitch that has been applied to dozens of sectors with wildly varying degrees of success. Hyman says the art market is a sleeping giant just waiting for the moment it can benefit from being digital. For a start, it's a huge industry that draws large audiences. There are varying estimates of the size of the market, which includes auctions and private sales, but even lowball numbers start at a worldwide value of $50 billion annually. It's a largely untapped market.

Then there's an opportunity to capitalize on what he calls "the Ikea situation:" Most people buy their art from home stores such as Ikea. Why can't somebody take a piece of that?

It's an argument worth putting forward. The Artfinder team is polished and well-connected enough to have pushed the idea successfully to a handful of backers, with angel investment from the likes of LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman and a first round earlier this year from Wellington Partners. On top of that, Hyman has assembled a team of co-founders, most of whom he worked with before.

They're hoping to crack the market with a three-pronged approach. First, build a catalogue that really covers the vast majority of art and artists available in the world. Today, Artfinder has details on around 500,000 works. To be useful, it will require between 2 million and 10 million works. To get there, it's teaming with institutions across the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere. Next comes image-recognition software that let Artfinder become what they call "a Shazam for art," The system is already working, essentially boiling down a user photograph into a digital fingerprint that can be compared against the database. Making this system infallible and fast is a crucial part of the job. Finally, the company must build apps that give users something to do and a place to do it. I suspect that, in the end, most of Artfinder's usage may come in galleries and museums, rather than on the website. To this end, the company is offering museums and galleries—and even individual artists—a set of tools that invite them to rapidly build a downloadable catalogue or show guide for visitors to use. If Artfinder can do all this, it may be on to something.

Find Art, Define it, Buy it

The proposition will be a lot more straightforward: Find a piece of art you like, whether it's in a museum, gallery or out on the street. Take a photograph of it. The system examines the photo, breaks it down, and works out what you're looking at. From there, the apps can let you find out more about the artist, see more work by the artist, or crucially, give you the option to buy a print, a book, or a postcard right away.

I can't help but have a couple of reservations. First, there's the question as to whether there are enough art aficionados to provide the core user base. Art is a difficult sell to most people because even though we are surrounded by art and design all day every day, it's largely seen as an elite pursuit. True, the Ikea opportunity could be large, but the fact that it even exists may prove that people just don't care enough about art to worry about making informed decisions. Is the overlap between the hardcore art community and the natural user base for a digital service large enough? A venture-backed business requires dramatic scale.

In addition, most art is about consumption, not creation. Yet most successful sharing platforms are based largely around things users have created themselves, whether it's posting your photos to Flickr, writing a witty message on Twitter, or ranting on Facebook. Professional work can be a hugely important part of the mix, and it is often where the money lies. But only a tiny minority will ever be considered artists by other people.

Screen Lacks Art's Physical Presence

Even in terms of consumption, there's another problem: The art experience relies on physical presence. There are many recommendation engines out there to let us share our tastes and get us to consume more of the things we like, whether it's Amazon tips, Netflix recommendations, or music services such as Last.fm. Most rely on media that can be distributed digitally. Nobody has yet produced a good, Kindle-like experience for art or created the MP3 of sculpture. For art lovers, merely looking at an image on their screen is a pale imitation.

Are these barriers too much to deal with? They could be awkward, but I'm not sure they are insurmountable. After all, if the last few years of media upheaval have shown anything, it's that for every problem there is somebody, somewhere, who will crack it.

"If you think of something like music, it doesn't really lend itself to the PC," says Hyman. "But if you look at what the PC [has] done to music, it's completely revolutionized it. It's completely changed it, both from making it—as an artist, as a musician—but also from your ability to find music, to be able to listen to it, to be able to share it. The weird thing is that's never happened in the world of art: Art hasn't got digitized. We're trying to figure out why that hasn't happened."

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Johnson is a writer for the GigaOm Network

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