William Powhida: Why You Should Buy Art, 2010, pigment print. Courtesy the artist and 20x200.

All works this article are produced in various dimensions.


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.

EXHIBITION A IS UNIQUE in selling wall-ready inkjet reproductions on stretched canvas, which I find to be hit-or-miss in quality: and indeed, whether on paper or canvas, the more materially subtle and less graphic the original (say, emphasizing impasto and painterliness), the less satisfying the reproduction. Exhibition A was launched in late 2010 by Bill Powers, best known for his role as a judge on the reality show “Work of Art”; he began as a style journalist and later opened the downtown space Half Gallery, now three years old. Powers also manages the “rare book room” (first editions and other special art books) at the Gagosian Shop.

Unlike those in the other companies under review, all of the artists contracting with Exhibition A are well known (among them Terence Koh, Jules de Balincourt and Nate Lowman, whose Paper Airplane sold 50 of the total edition of 150 within three hours of its sale’s launch); the company seems not to traffic in the emerging artists so predominant at the other sites. Like interior design retailers (West Elm, for example), Exhibition A promotes its wares by showing them hung over couches and beds in attractive bourgeois settings, and offers two kinds of editions, limited and “unlimited.” The unlimited prints are available to its “members” (who pay no fees) for a specified time—two weeks, a month—on the model of “flash sales.” When the sale ends, production ceases, and however many prints were sold becomes the number in the edition. At Exhibition A, the works themselves are signed by the artist by hand or stamped with a signature; the “certificate of authenticity” accompanying all works carries the signature of someone in the company, not the artist. Prices are never higher than $500. Like all the publishers under consideration, Powers is fervent, as if pursuing a mission. “There’s a public service component in it,” he says, without irony. “People’s lives are enriched by collecting art.”

ArtStar, the newest of the sites, founded by former art advisor Chrissy Crawford and launched in early 2011 (with money, Crawford reports, “taken out of my wedding budget”), distinguishes itself by offering inexpensive UV framing for every work, a feature that others have said they are investigating (most offer limited framing options). At ArtStar, artist’s signatures are scanned onto the certificates of authenticity. Crawford explains, “We don’t want to interfere with the artist’s original works,” and, indeed, she seems at pains to avoid even the semblance of conflict with the galleries that represent her artists. By contrast, Jen Bekman, founder of 20x200 [see sidebar], foresees traffic to the artists’ galleries increasing as a result of her operation. “This is the thing that other dealers are beginning to understand—I want more people walking into galleries, not fewer. We can reach an audience that they can’t on their own.”

The focus on commerce distinguishes these businesses from organizations publishing artists’ multiples to benefit philanthropic operations (Yvonne Force Villareal’s Art Production Fund, for example). Sometimes, however, the sites publish benefit prints on behalf of nonprofit organizations or other causes. Art+Culture Editions started off exclusively as the fundraising arm for Artadia, a philanthropic agency founded by Christopher Vroom, an ex-financial analyst who now fosters a variety of relationships between artists and institutions. Art+Culture Editions is about to be relaunched as ArtSpace, an e-commerce site focusing more on print publishing and art marketing in general, in partnership with nonprofit institutions (recent sign-ons are Asia Society, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and the Guggenheim) and commercial galleries (James Cohan, 303, David Zwirner). At present, the Art+Culture website is a mash-up of digital and unique art, expensive and inexpensive. Some of the site’s better known artists, like Nick Cave, have issued low-price, size-graded prints, but until now these seem to have been mainly produced by emerging artists.

DEMOCRATIZATION OF THE MARKET has been the dream of the print industry since its advent in Western Europe (first with woodcuts, then engravings, then movable type, all of which arose in Germany within little more than a generation, beginning around 1400). Printmaking allowed for the dissemination of images beyond contexts of ritual and power, and as DuÌ?rer and Rembrandt well knew, offered the potential for profit as well. Every subsequent century has brought with it some innovation that increases the availability of images, culminating, of course, in the invention of photography and the recent digital revolution (the ultimate auratic meltdown, in Benjaminian terms).

These innovations have often been met with disapproval or outright hostility. One need only recall Baudelaire’s 1859 essay “On Photography,” which heaped opprobrium on the newborn medium and the masses who adored it. Even today, print snobs scorn mechanically reproduced prints. Many artists, however—among them Lawrence Weiner, who himself has published an edition with 20x200—consider ephemeral materials, such as mass-produced exhibition announcements and flyers, to be integral to their artistic practice, and embrace their mass appeal and inexpensive production. All the artists I spoke with for this article were enthusiastic about participating in the websites, though they have as yet seen only modest profits. (They declined to say how much.) It is the system’s great reach that attracts them.

Many institutions collect inexpensive and ephemeral materials, but for now museums seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward acquiring digital editions marketed online. Says Sarah Suzuki, associate curator of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “We collect printed projects of all kinds, from posters and bookmarks to ephemera—as well as interesting works in digital mediums. But our acquisitions tend to be through galleries, printers and publishers. As far as I know, we haven’t been approached by any of the e-commerce sites. Their goal may not be to make Many institutions collect inexpensive and ephemeral materials, but for now museums seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward acquiring digital editions marketed online. Says Sarah Suzuki, associate curator of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “We collect printed projects of all kinds, from posters and bookmarks to ephemera—as well as interesting works in digital mediums. But our acquisitions tend to be through galleries, printers and publishers. As far as I know, we haven’t been approached by any of the e-commerce sites. Their goal may not be to make institutional connections.” She goes on, “As for me, when you work inside [an institution like MoMA], you make your wish list—and mine tends to go in a different direction. That said, my sister’s in her first house, and she bought something from 20x200.”

Curiously, the start-ups discussed here actually take measures to curb proliferation, operating on a simple paradigm: the scarcer a work appears to be, the more desirable it becomes. “Nobody wants anything more than a sold-out print,” remarks Bekman. It seems incredible, but these companies have managed to fold scarcity and availability into what would seem to be the perfect commodity—something analogous to what Facebook does, allowing you to have an “intimate” friendship with thousands. Sometimes touting “curators” and other experts, the sites promise buyers discerning intermediaries who will select from the vast ocean of what’s out there. “Educational” features are available on all the sites to further enhance the desirability of the product, though some proprietors examine data from those features to help determine market strategies [see sidebar, next spread].

So there is in fact no dearth of built-in paradoxes—but no more so than in the photography market, which limits availability in an at-heart reproducible medium through restricted editions or the “touched-by-hand” aura of the “vintage print,” which people seem to forget was a marketing ploy as much as a mark of material distinction. The “vintage” nature of a photograph can boost prices by extracting it from the realm of mere image and transferring it to that of precious object. As for the prints in traditional editioned mediums such as etching or lithography, they are beginning to look more and more singular.

On its FAQ page, Exhibition A answers the question, “What is a print?” with words that will no doubt chill the hearts of devoted printmakers and curators everywhere: “A print is a reproduction of a work of art.” And indeed, when I contacted members of the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) to solicit their reaction to the phenomenon of e-commerce prints, they were mainly dismissive. After all, they argue, these are merely reproductions, not prints, which are very much hands-on, with their plates, stones and presses; burins and chisels; aquatint boxes and fancy papers. Indeed, “hands-on” is one of the appeals of the medium to artists. This does not, however, discourage artists like Jane Hammond, famously hands-on in the many projects she has produced at workshops like Pace Prints, Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) and Shark’s Ink, from expressing an interest in one day publishing an inexpensive, e-commerce inkjet print. “I am frequently contacted by people who wish they could acquire a print by me,” says Hammond. “I would love to make something that is widely affordable.”

Curiously—and perhaps without knowing it—e-commerce print publishers are operating on the model long established in independent print publishing. Traditionally, print publishers foot the bill, matching up artist and workshop, and oversee the marketing of the final product. In like fashion, e-commerce vendors find the artist, arrange for the manufacture of the print with a digital contractor and market the print online, taking a percentage of the profit (generally 50 percent after production costs). In the 1980s, there were quite a few independent publishers of fine-art contemporary prints, and while a number of them still regularly publish (Diane Villani, Peter Blum), others are doing so intermittently (Brooke Alexander Editions) or have ceased altogether (Multiples/Marian Goodman and Ronald Feldman). The function of publishing has been taken over largely by the print workshops or by artists themselves, who might be ill-equipped to meet the challenges of adequate distribution. And galleries are mostly uninterested in wasting time on selling what they deem, after all, to be the low end of the market.

HOW GOOD ARE E-COMMERCE PRINTS? The painter Richard Phillips, who produced a nifty inkjet-on-canvas edition for Exhibition A, in a sale that closed January 11 after 200 had sold, observes, “That print is scarily like my painting, though it’s much smaller in scale.” (The work, Der Bodensee, is based on a much larger painting—78 by 52½ inches—of the same name from 2008. The smallest of three sizes, 12 by 8 inches, sold for $75.) “[In my own spaces,]

I don’t hang my own paintings, which are gone in any case, but I do hang my prints” (Der Bodensee and two others created by Art Production Fund as part of its Prop Art program, which creates digital reproductions of paintings for TV shows—in the case of Phillips, “Gossip Girl,” then markets them to raise funds). “My paintings have an uncannily real effect, and translate well into reproductions—almost one to one. Exhibition A even matched the sheen and the varnish.” He continues, “I have one of the Der Bodensee prints in my studio. A friend visited and saw it and said, ‘I didn’t know you did that painting small.’”

Pace Prints, which had optimistically begun digital operations around 2000 to produce inkjet prints at the workshop, stopped doing so three years ago. According to Jacob Lewis, director of Pace Prints Chelsea, who is on the programming committee of the IFPDA, “We found that artists weren’t satisfied—they wanted to be working by hand in some way.” (Digital printing is used at Pace, but only in combination with traditional printmaking techniques.) Asked if the IFPDA would ever allow e-commerce companies into the annual November fair at the Park Avenue Armory—the most prestigious print fair in the world—he replies, “I’m 32. I’d be in my 70s by the time that would happen.” He adds, “I don’t see the prints as particularly valuable, but who knows? Warhol sold his prints for so little, and now you see them for a hundred thousand. Though I don’t see what happened to Warhol happening here.”

According to Phillips, “The difference between these prints and traditional printmaking is that these are made for immediate gratification. You bring them to your house and just pop them up on the wall. If you don’t like them after a while, you can drag them into the closet.” For Philips, whose work specifically concerns the circulation of images throughout pop culture, e-commerce prints have a particular allure. “That’s what it’s about: to make a Mona Lisa-type reproduction in order to stake out a position beyond art-world concerns. To become an image of the times.”

Unlike some of his comrades at the IFPDA, Pace’s Lewis is receptive to the idea of e-commerce prints. “These folks are introducing art to a younger generation. As the buyers invest further, I would hope they will invest in stronger work. It’s a great starting point.” Bekman is more than hopeful: “I often call 20x200 the ‘gateway drug’ of the art world,” she says. And there is evidence that people who purchase e-commerce prints go on to buy more expensive works by the same artists, beginning with the originals, which some seek to acquire (often through the publishers, sometimes through the artist’s gallery). Her appetite whetted, Bekman herself bought an etching by Ed Ruscha from Crown Point Press in San Francisco for $4,000. “The goal is to get people to move on and buy other work,” she says. As to the resistance from the fine-art print dealers: “That’s a pretty small pie they’ve got, and no one wants to give up their piece. Sometimes I look at those fantastic print workshops and think, ‘Boy, I could move that inventory!’ But I have too many irons in the fire.” She adds, “There are tons of people willing to buy art if you sell it to them. There’s no shame in that.”

DuÌ?rer might well have agreed.

THE PIONEER: 20x200

LAUNCHED IN 2007 by Jen Bekman, a downtown dealer (Jen Bekman Gallery, on Spring Street) with a background in digital technology, 20x200 was a million-dollar business by 2009. That year Bekman received $800,000 in venture-capital financing to grow 20x200—so called for the price of its smallest prints ($20) and the edition size at the time the company was founded (200). “Art for Everyone” is 20x200’s tagline, and the idea is that each work sold online—typically an inkjet print on archival paper (the nomenclature on the website is “archival pigment print”)—is available in three to five sizes. Today, the prints run between $20 for the smallest size (usually 8 by 10 inches) to $5,000 for the largest (40 by 60 inches). Though most of the artists are emerging, others are well known (William Wegman, Mike and Doug Starn, Roger Ballen, et al.). Emerging photographers are vetted through an annual juried competition, “Hey, Hot Shot!,” that Bekman sponsors.

The 20x200 website also sells some of the original artworks on which editions are based, along with, occasionally, silkscreen and letterpress prints, and some prints with hand additions by the artist. Profits are split 50/50 from the start, with the cost of production (typically low) coming out of the artist’s take. To date the site has produced over 400 editions by 215 artists, and sold more than 95,000 prints. How much do they make? One edition, reports Bekman, grossed $250,000, though she declines to disclose which one.

Penelope Umbrico is an artist who has produced two editions for 20x200 with imagery captured from the
Web, the modus operandi for all her work. One is a montage of moons—a benefit for the Aperture Foundation—and the other of sunsets. “I made these pieces specifically for 20x200,” says Umbrico. “I basically ganged hundreds of pictures of sunsets and hundreds of pictures of moonscapes to get a psychedelic effect.” Umbrico herself buys 20x200 prints, “though I didn’t until I had work there.” She likes purchasing them “every once in a while, for presents. I like the idea that there is this really available opportunity to own someone’s creative process.” Marni Shapiro, a retail analyst from New York, buys enthusiastically from 20x200. “My work is figuring out how people spend their money. People are intimidated by art. But to make it accessible? That, to me, is huge.”

EDUCATION AND ANALYTICS

Founded in 2008 by Laurence Lafforgue, a digital startup entrepreneur who entered the art world collecting inexpensive prints, ArtWeLove uses much the same model as 20x200 in offering multiple sizes at a range of prices along with signed certificates of authenticity. In addition, each work is embossed with the company’s stamp, something like a printer’s chop. To date, ArtWeLove has produced around 60 editions by 30 artists, some more conceptually adventurous than others. The New York-based artist Jorge Otero-Pailos, for example, used a photograph of a piece of latex to which he had transferred pollution residue from the facade of the Alumix factory in Bolzano, Italy—an artifact from an eco-conscious installation that he mounted at the 2008 Manifesta. Light striking the latex reflected a fiery red in the photo, which looks like a pure abstraction. The Italian artist Luisa Rabbia adopted a still from a video that combines her blue ballpoint-pen inkings and vintage travel shots.

“ArtWeLove is maybe a little tougher than 20x200,” says artist Daniel Wiener, known mainly for his sculpture. He has produced three editions with ArtWeLove based on abstract watercolors. “Here you have printing on demand, Philin really high quality. The elasticity of scale worked for me, because there’s a fractal thing going on anyway in my work. I was surprised. The little ones—smaller than the original—look really good.”

ArtWeLove has an elaborate educational component on its site, which it uses not only to inform buyers but to help select new work. In addition to biographical and exhibition information on artists, ArtWeLove features nicely produced 2-minute videos with them (“Studio Visit”). There is also a section on the site called “Learn About Art” in which visitors can browse based on their collecting interests (movements and styles, techniques and mediums, or emerging markets), finding mini-lessons and links. In the “Situationism” section, for example, you can link to an essay by Guy Debord or click on relevant artworks (a piece by affichiste Jacques Villeglé, for example). “The section indexes more than 200 artists and 400 artworks,” says Lafforgue, “and venues and galleries. It is a Pandora- or Amazonlike way to discover and serve content. We are using that to find out what people are interested in. We perform analytics—on time spent on pages, or which are the most shared—and we draw conclusions based on interest level for certain kinds of work. That helps us fine-tune the kinds of artists we’ll go after.”