In the past few years, some savvy young entrepreneurs, drawing both on venerable models of print marketing and a native comfort with the Internet, have succeeded in linking the technologies of Web communications and digital printing—vastly improved in stability, endurance, quality and availability—to market a new genre of inexpensive, mass-produced artwork. While online enterprises plying digital art have been in existence for some time (Mixed Greens and Eyestorm, for example, which sell pricier wares), the new model for e-commerce print publishing ingeniously merges the democratic ideology of “art for all” with the lure of scarcity. The product is digital prints, mainly on paper, each available in multiple sizes, with prices set accordingly, beginning quite low—sometimes as low as $15.
Offering large numbers of buyers the opportunity to become “collectors” by purchasing “original” limited editions, online companies such as 20x200, ArtWeLove, ArtStar and Exhibition A advertise the prestige of art collecting without the trials of navigating an intimidating gallery system. To emerging (or underknown) artists, these companies offer an efficient publicity machine, and to better known artists, whose prices in all mediums (including prints) are beyond the budget of the average consumer, an audience with which they often long to connect.
Capitalizing on a general trend, e-commerce print publishers profit from customers who are increasingly comfortable purchasing art on the web. One need only recall, for all the kinks, this fall’s online VIP Art Fair, ill-equipped to accommodate the millions of times works were accessed (as organizers assert), or the steady rise in online bidding—and its value—at the auction houses. At Christie’s, for example, 28 percent of bids are now made via Internet, and the total value of lots sold online rose 69 percent from 2009 to 2010.
How profitable Internet print businesses will become remains to be seen, as they are all start-ups. However, the pioneer, 20x200, is surprisingly visible, at least in New York: it seems everyone I mentioned this article to has purchased one of the prints or knows someone who has.
I recently spotted William Powhida’s 20x200 project, the amusing Why You Should Buy Art, a checklist in emphatic uppercase lettering (which as of this writing was nearly sold out), on the wall in a hip downtown group exhibition.
In February and March, I visited the New York headquarters of three of these companies, often in spaces shared with non-art-related businesses: offices, in other words, far from the cool polish of a gallery. This is labor designed to be conducted online, though at the moment, ArtWeLove and Exhibition A are selling some of their wares at the Gagosian Shop on Madison Avenue, run by Gagosian Gallery, and most of the companies have had booths at one or another art fair. There have been promotions on daytime TV programs—“The View” and “The Nate Berkus Show,” for example—and write-ups in shelter magazines as well as art-world and design blogs. Such exposure has translated into sales to newer, unspecialized audiences, whereas in the beginning the works were mainly acquired by people in the arts with low incomes and big desires—gallery workers, arts writers, artists, MFA students, etc., who know what to buy but haven’t the means to acquire it. (In the interest of full disclosure, I myself have purchased some of these prints online, and I have grown attached to them as more than mere consolation prizes.)
For the most part, prints are acquired directly from the companies’ websites, and customers can sign up for e-mail alerts when new editions are released, once or twice a week. Each edition has been proofed and approved by the artist. Buyers receive their prints in the mail packaged with accompanying information about both the artist and the work itself, along with some kind of authentication, usually a signed or stamped certificate. Rarely are the prints themselves signed, for these editions are large and fabricated as needed to meet demand. At 20x200, for example, Mike and Doug Starn made four prints, each in four sizes, depicting broken snowflakes. The smallest is 8 by 8 inches ($50) and the largest 36 by 36 inches ($2,500). Two have been issued in editions of 660 and two in editions of 585: that’s nearly 2,500 broken-snowflake prints by the Starns. In the case of photographs, the images come from digital files sent by the artists; nonphotographic prints are scanned from original works of art in different mediums. Designating their projects for this purpose, artists have contractual obligations to ensure that the works will never appear in this form elsewhere.