A beta or preview version of the much-anticipated art website Art.sy is now open to some 40,000 users, who have been granted access on a first-come, first-served basis.
Among Art.sy's bold-face advisors is dealer Larry Gagosian; among its investors is Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. No public launch date has been announced.
Art.sy's ambitious aim is "to make all the world's art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection." The primary function of the site, founded by 25-year-old Princeton graduate Carter Cleveland, is to recommend artworks and help collectors locate them using a "genome" model, like the one used by the website Pandora to introduce music lovers to new bands based on characteristics of those they already like.
The beta site initially launched in the fall of 2011, as reported by Stephen Wallis in A.i.A., and a rolling launch with continually updated features has continued since.
The database currently includes over 15,000 works by over 3,000 artists, in connection with more than 200 galleries in 40 cities, ranging from the international powerhouse Pace Gallery to more modest venues like London's Paradise Row.
The site plans to earn money by charging a commission to connect buyers with sellers (on average, 3 percent of the sales price, according to Art.sy), though not every work on the site is for sale.
A clean, white homepage greets the visitor. At the top is a scrolling horizontal bar of "current exhibitions" featuring images of works by major players like Damien Hirst and Richard Avedon as well as lesser-known figures like Shen Yuan and Angela A'Court.
The inclusion of the more obscure artists seems slightly random, and there are some dogs, like the dorm-room-poster-ready oils of Fulvio di Piazza, whose Magmawhale (2012) depicts a sperm whale made of molten rock floating above the clouds.
Clicking on a work brings you to a page devoted to it; there, selecting the artist's name yields a selection of his or her works and the opportunity to "follow" the artist, which nets e-mail alerts about shows and new works posted on the site. One can also email the artist's gallery to inquire about making a purchase.
Visitors can search by artist name, artworks, movements, etc.; certain kinks remain in the search function. For example, when I searched for Barbara Kruger by last name only, the sole search result was for the lesser-known Louise Kruger, though Barbara's works do appear in the database.
The browse feature, which appears in a navigation bar at the top of the page, allows a glimpse into Art.sy's classifications. The categories within which one can browse pertain to style or movement, subject matter, medium or technique, region and, somewhat anomalously its own category, contemporary art, which one might have expected to be part of a larger category devoted to, say, historical period.
Connections among artworks based on shared characteristics offer a way to move from one period or artist to another. For example, click on Richard Avedon's group portrait Allen Ginsberg's family (1993), and similar works such as Paul Strand's 1953 photo The Family, Luzzara, Italy, appear, as well as Frans Hals's Regentesses of the Old Men's Alms House, Haarlem (1664), which transported me happily back to an introductory art history lecture, with its classic compare-and-contrast exercise. Other characteristics by which one's search could fan out from Avedon's photo, which appear in text links, are "literature," "high contrast" and "family."
Classifications seem at times a bit arbitrary. Art.sy defines "conceptualism" in the contemporary art category, for example, as encompassing works in which "the artist emphasizes ideas over the art object." Included is Jim Shaw's Dream Object (Digestive tract sculpture), 2007, a mixed-medium sculpture that depicts the titular system of organs in a nearly trompe l'oeil fashion-nothing if not a highly finished object.
But slightly messy categories may allow the site to suggest unexpected connections that end up working for the visitor by offering surprising works. The test of Art.sy will be whether those quirky leaps, for example from Avedon to Hals, induce viewers to spend more time on the site—enough to ultimately purchase art.
The beta version, as it currently stands, doesn't seem to offer much to insiders, but the site may be helpful for those less familiar with art. It offers thousands of high-resolution images that are searchable by categories. For those interested in actually buying art, it may serve as a useful go-between for potential purchasers intimidated by the process of visiting actual galleries or studios.
But many new functions are in the works that may offer more to people in the field, according to Art.sy COO Sebastian Cwilich, who maintains that the site is already of use to those in the know: "Even Whitney Museum curators have e-mailed us to say that they have used the site in looking for artists while researching exhibitions."