The internet, art industry, and what collectors want

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Clint Watson, founder and CEO of Fine Art Studio Online (FASO), recently wrote a series of articles about the art industry, art collectors, and what collectors want. I’d like to share some of those comments with you.

Clint Watson


True art collectors

“When I say “art collectors”, I’m specifically talking about “true” art collectors: an idea similar in concept to Kevin Kelly’s idea of “true fans.” True art collectors go to art openings. True art collectors seek out and meet artists. True art collectors follow the careers of artists they love. True art collectors have relationships with gallery people. And, true art collectors purchase works of art by artists they follow. In fact, they often purchase multiple works of art by the same artists. In the art industry, true art collectors are often referred to as “art addicts”. These people, of which I am one, can form the backbone of an artist’s career.”



Other types of art collectors

“There are, of course, other types of “collectors.” There are people who want a piece to go over the proverbial couch. There are people who purchase a new home and hire a designer to fill it with art. There are people who purchase art only when on vacation, in the heat of the moment. There are even people who look like “true collectors” while they’re filling their new home with art, but disappear once all the walls are full. If you end up with customers like this, you might sell them a lot of art while they are filling their homes, or enjoying their vacations. But afterward, likely nothing else. True art collectors, on the other hand, don’t let something as trivial as wall space stop them, and they generally keep purchasing art even when all their walls are full. We proudly rotate pieces in and out of storage in our home, even filling our office as well.

“Most major art galleries are supported by building relationships with true art collectors. These are the people that great galleries nurture and support when there is no traffic in the gallery. Add in designer purchases, tourism purchases, and new-home-buyer purchases and galleries can, if they hustle, do quite well.

“Put all those types of collectors together, and there are a lot of people out there who buy art; a big percentage of those art sales happen through traditional art galleries. Unlike many industries, the art industry has yet to be fundamentally transformed by the internet, which makes this the big question: ‘Is the internet ever going to disrupt the art industry?'”


The Internet and the Art Industry

“We’ve all watched the internet completely disrupt many industries. Record stores are gone. Video rental stores are gone. With the advent of the Kindle, while bookstores still exist, the book industry has completely changed.”

Why has the art industry been virtually unaffected?

“Where is the Amazon or Netflix of the art industry? Or, in the brick-and-mortar world, where is the Apple Store of the art world? Why is the art world still dominated by many scattered, individual galleries rather than having consolidated into being dominated by a few large players? Why hasn’t the industry been disrupted, driving a wave of consolidation, or a wave of closures?

“While it is true that a lot of art galleries have closed their doors, most of the major ones have survived and even thrived. In Game of Thrones speak, we’ve lost a lot of the small houses, but the “great houses”, of the art industry are strong as ever. In fact, the one site people might claim is trying to be a “Netflix of Art”, Artsy has built their entire business model around supporting the big art galleries, rather than disrupting them.

“So far, the internet has been far more of a boon to art galleries than a threat. I would even argue the internet is not at all a root cause of smaller galleries going under. It’s much more likely that the 2008 crash and the following recession were far larger factors than any “disruption” by internet sites.

“But, what about artists selling directly on the internet? Isn’t that driving galleries out of business? Let’s consider the case of a new artist: one who has never been represented by a gallery. Certainly, that artist can set up a website and sell directly online. But how does that artist get noticed? As I’m fond of saying: It’s never been easier to publish and it’s never been harder to get noticed.

“In the “old” days, that artist would need to get noticed by a gallery and, if the quality of the art was great, that wasn’t too difficult: the artist simply had to enter the right shows, place a “seeking representation” ad in the right magazines, send a portfolio to the most likely galleries, or get a friend to refer them to a gallery. These were concrete steps that advanced the artist’s chances of getting in front of the right people. And, they were much more targeted steps than “set up a website and start posting on Facebook.” The galleries were then able to discover the artist and to advance that artists career in a way that, so far, has been difficult to recreate online.

“In fact, there was actually one advantage of the “old way”: It forced artists to stop and think about achieving a level of competence in their craft before approaching the gallery system and before offering their works for sell. As much as it hurt, being rejected by several galleries was a clear signal to an artist he needed to go back and improve his mastery further.

“Today, because it’s almost too easy to set up an online portfolio and store, far too many artists, avoid that painful but necessary process of feedback and move quickly into the marketing and selling phase a long time before they are ready. The results are predictable: they don’t sell, they are disappointed, and they bounce from online service to online service, frustrated. They keep looking for that one magic service that would only “do a good job marketing my art.” But in many cases, the fix for lack of sales is to go back and fix the product. In tech, we get feedback from customers, and we go back and rework our software until we achieve “product/market fit.” In the art world, it means getting feedback from master artists, gallerists, or other professionals, and going back and working on one’s mastery of craft and improving the quality of one’s paintings.

“So, rephrasing what I said above, it’s easy to put your art online, but difficult to get true art collectors to pay attention to it.

“I’ve been wondering why that is. Why do art collectors still deal with art galleries? Why don’t more collectors just find new artist websites and start buying directly? And pondering that question leads me full circle back to the more basic question… What do art collectors want?

“As I said above, while in the gallery business, I implicitly knew what collectors wanted. But, if we’re going to recreate it online and truly disrupt the art industry, we must go further. We need to know explicitly what collectors want. And, after letting my mind grind on this subject for a while, I think I have the answers.”

Carolyn Beaver – a true art collector


What true art collectors want

1. Credibility of the artist as established by some third party or brand they trust.

2. Curation of artists and artworks…meaning someone else, a trusted and knowledgeable party, sorts through the noise and shows collectors relevant artists that are “worthy” of attention, interest and time of the collector.

3. Spillover effects is a major way collectors discover new artists. They follow an artist they know and, in doing so, discover an artist they didn’t know of. You can reach far more collectors through spillover effects than through search.

4. Exclusivity gives collectors first choice of new promising artists and first choice of artworks by artists they follow.

Can these four things be recreated online without traditional art galleries? I think so, but I’m not sure. It might be that the galleries themselves evolve to disrupt themselves. Or it might be something completely new. Whatever happens, I don’t think that recreating these elements online has (yet) been successfully done at scale.


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