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The Digital Collectible
Michelle Kasprzak
May 20, 2014

Art at its best is a phenomenon that moves hearts, resolves ideas, and acts as a wondrous and terrible mirror for humanity. On top of that, it's also the ultimate luxury object and is currently selling like hot cakes. As mega-dealer David Zwirner recently said in a profile in the New Yorker: "Nobody's selling expensive stuff like we do with the frequency we do. This is an industry in its golden age." Impressive sales figures and money as the ultimate metric may delight dealers, but naturally there are detractors. Critic and curator Dave Hickey publicly stated he was quitting the art world in 2012, declaring of the new class of art collectors: "They're in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It's just not serious. Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It's not worth my time." The prejudices and whimsies of high-level collectors naturally creates a kind of distorted portrait of what's important, and it becomes impossible to resist pointing out the frailties of auction or sales results as a meaningful metric when biases are so clear. Take the consistently awful auction results for female artists as an easy example. "It wasn't long ago that it was hard to be taken seriously as a woman artist. There will be some remedial catch up before women artists have parity on prices," says Amy Cappellazzo of Christie's. The quick and dirty conclusion is that the kind of art people buy reflects and resonates with their worldview. The rich guys with money want to buy what other rich guys with money buy, which is something created by a guy, who might be rich, but if not, should at least be nobly poor or dead.

Trying to read the tealeaves on the margins is interesting, but it raises the question of what's in the middle. First it's important to briefly acknowledge the obvious: it is precisely in this middle that the impact of the internet on sales has been huge, providing an easy route into collecting for those who may not otherwise consider walking into a white cube. Jen Bekman's 20x200 project is an exemplary case of this, with a highly usable website, well-chosen pieces, and a very friendly attitude: the motto of the site is "Art for Everyone", and the site's URL itself urges you: Sites such as aim higher price-wise (into the thousands of dollars) but still provide a straightforward transaction with a clear asking price – something simply not done at elite level art fairs and galleries. Carter Cleveland of Artsy generated this statistic from his own sales: "For every household that buys fine art in US, there are 37 households with the same average income that don't buy art." The lack of transparency in the art market makes this statement hard to verify, but it's an interesting demonstration of what Cleveland sees as a huge untapped market – the big, messy middle

However much the potential middle-class customer may wish to introduce original art into his or her home, even a few hundred bucks can be a hurdle, since food on the table comes first. A decade ago, Arts Council England started a scheme called Own Art to address this issue. Own Art is a simple idea: the scheme provides 0% interest loans of up to £2,000 to enable a wider range of people to buy contemporary art and craft. The very existence of the scheme means that in the UK, it's a priority at a policy level to attempt to level the art collecting playing field and engage the public with art through ownership. And it's working: over the ten year history of Own Art over 30,000 people have used it to purchase more than £25 million of contemporary art and craft. It may seem small potatoes compared to the sums changing hands at the big art fairs each year, but the sums don't actually matter. What matters is the concept of art ownership is enshrined in policy. In other words, it's not enough to simply encourage the public to see great works of art in museums, it's important for the general public to have what an economist would call "skin in the game": investment of their own money in contemporary culture in the form of original works by living artists.

Jeremy Deller, A Good Day for Cyclists, 2013
(not necessarily representative of the animation to be released by Own Art, which is yet to be revealed)

Part of Own Art's 10th anniversary party is commissioning artist Jeremy Deller to create a digital animation based on his work from the Venice Biennale 2013, which will be divided into 10,000 stills available as free downloadable individual artworks from July 7. On July 19, Deller's animation will premiere on urban screens in two London shopping malls. This emphasis on the digital in Own Art's 10th anniversary plans makes perfect sense for a scheme intent on making art collecting a normal activity. For in 2014, it's not only normal to search for art online, but to consume it online, and to download born-digital content as collectible items.

Which is not to say there aren't some misplaced assumptions about the potential of the digital art market, which have existed for some time. While it's wise for Own Art to offer the Deller download for free as a kind of anniversary gift back to the public, there seems to be an erroneous emphasis in the wider art world equating digital art with free. The Affordable Art Fair in Amsterdam describes digital art, as we define it here on the Art+Tech blog, as "work produced to be viewed by a digital means, which cannot be easily 'owned,' such as web-art", and then goes on to say that this kind of work "...tends not to be for sale, but is freely accessible to experience, but not to own, via the Internet." To compare to a contemporary example of what might not be easily owned, Tino Seghal's ephemeral artworks leave no trace, not even a physical contract, and cannot be documented. You experience a Seghal in a major museum, not on your laptop, but the (surmountable) difficulties in commodifying ephemeral things remain alike.

Making a market for born-digital content based on financial models from the art world and elsewhere is not new. Two early examples come to mind: the pay-per-view experience of skinonskinonskin by Entropy8Zuper!, and the personalized edition of software art piece Every Icon by John F. Simon Jr. available for $20.00. () These works, digital art classics both, may not on their own represent a newsworthy sales figure, but what is worth remarking upon is the introduction of a potentially sustainable long-term model of small sales to support an artist's career, and enable the widest possible public to engage.

The scale is different, and bigger individual sales are not necessarily better. Schemes like Own Art and websites like 20x200 offer not just a smooth entry, but through smaller-scale buying, a sustainable habit of collecting quality art and craft. Online marketplaces like Kickstarter (for just about everything) and Steam (for games) also offer a platform for artists to make many small sales. As Amsterdam-based media artist Jan Robert Leegte put it: "I rather sell a work 10.000 times for $1 than to one person for $10.000." And besides, as writer Jeannette Winterson said in a wonderful essay worth reading and re-reading: " If money ceased to exist, art would continue."

Michelle Kasprzak is a Canadian curator and writer based in Amsterdam. She is a Curator at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media and the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF). In 2006 she founded, the web's leading resource for curators. She has written critical essays for C Magazine, Volume, Spacing, Mute, and many other media outlets. She is a member of IKT (International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art). She is also Akimblog's European Art + Tech correspondent and can be followed @mkasprzak on Twitter.



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Posted by 1, on 2015-01-21 08:29:22

Posted by 1, on 2015-01-21 07:55:29

Posted by MK, on 2014-06-30 11:12:05
Hi Suzette, I agree -- there's mountains to climb yet...

Posted by Suzette, on 2014-06-11 12:58:23
Watched an online auction in Toronto recently, and female artists work sold for less than their male counterparts of the same era. Sad, even in this era of equality.