Saatchi Art’s web gallery is allowing artists in Ireland to tap into a global market, and has even helped one to get on the property ladder, writes John Tynan
Online sales of art will grow from $1.57bn (€1.33bn) in 2013, to $3.76bn in 2018, according to the 2014 report from specialist insurer Hiscox.
Further indication that the art world is getting real with the virtual was the launch of Amazon Art, while Christie’s increased their number of online-only auctions from seven in 2012 to 49 last year.
In Ireland, the likes of Morgan O'Driscoll in Skibbereen, Co Cork, holds monthly art auctions, where practically all customers have only seen the art online.
For a more tangible and local perspective, however, you only need to hear the experience of Mayo artist Tracy Sweeney, who actually credits the Los-Angeles-based website Saatchi Art with helping her convince a bank to give her a mortgage.
“I didn’t benefit from the bubble in terms of sales in Ireland and, even now, my audience is in Europe," says Sweeney, who exports to Sweden — having lived there — plus the UK.
“But Saatchi definitely helped me broaden my customer base. They did a feature on me and since then I have had sales in Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and Brazil.
“I’ve sold 12 pieces in a year. I’ve also had people contact me privately. For example, one in Yorkshire commissioned me to do two works after she missed a piece she wanted to buy on Saatchi.
“From a point of view of consistent sales, when I went to the bank it definitely helped me get a mortgage. I could show cheques were coming in every month.
“I’m pragmatic and I recognise that art is a business. I have a good quality of life now and Saatchi has paid a big part in achieving that.”
Though the site is run out LA, Sweeney’s experience has been one of personal contact.
Call Me Baby By Tracy Sweeney
“They have been very straightforward to deal with. I shipped out a painting last week to New York. A courier collected it. Considering Saatchi are in LA, they have never hesitated to contact me swiftly. They are also helping me to build a social media presence. Daily I’m getting new likes."
Saatchi Art describes itself as the world's leading online art gallery, boasting the work of 50,000 artists. Based in Los Angeles, it was launched in 2010, with artists uploading images of their work direct to the site.
'Blue Wall' by Tracy Sweeney. Picture courtesy of Saatchi Art
It offers paintings, drawings, sculpture and photography in a range of prices, as well as a free art advisory service with chief curator Rebecca Wilson at the helm. In the last six months it has sold work by artists in 100 countries to buyers in 70 countries, and features works ranging in price from $150 to $30,000. It claims to “sell more works in a month than most galleries sell in a year”.
It also notes that sales have been great for our Irish artists, including Miriam Sweeney, Mollie Douthit, Sean Molloy, Naomi Vona, Rebecca McGetrick, while it also showed works in a pop-up exhibition at last year's Dublin Web Summit by artists new to its site, such as Eveleen Murphy, Gus Hughes and Joe Scullion.
Saatchi may be big on quantity, but Sweeney also feels they ensure that the standard is high. Importantly, she thinks their “30% commission is very fair".
"Definitely I would recommend it to other artists. There have been no downsides at all. I know Saatchi sound too good to be true, but that’s my experience."
The same could be said of North-Dakota-born, Irish-based artist Mollie Douthit.
The 28-year-old has lived here for three years, doing a masters at the Burren College of Art in Clare. She has hit the ground running, being the first painter in five years to receive the Hennessy Craig Award of 10,000 euro in its entirety, and she says Saatchi has been instrumental in developing her public profile.
"I put some work on the site and, initially, it was not for sale, as I just wanted some exposure. It was up for a month and I was contacted by [curator] Rebecca Wilson and she said she would like to feature me in an ‘invest in art series’ on the site. Basically, she took to my work and me and we forged a relationship.
'Ild', by artist Mollie Douthit, oil on panel, 45x45cm. Picture: Shawna Noel
"At first, I thought the response was weird, getting online likes, etc. But it was a really good format for other people to see what I was doing. I am especially self-critical, so I appreciate the ‘likes’,” said Douthit, who was granted the Tony O’Malley residency in Callan, Co Kilkenny, by the RHA, along with a solo exhibition, which opens on next Friday.
“I was sceptical about Saatchi Art, but the contract is so clear. They don’t own my work and I can take it down at any time and that put me at ease.
"In terms of gaining exposure, Saatchi was important. You can be working in a quiet, remote place such as the Burren, not in an urban environment, yet you can reach the world.
"So far, I’ve made three sales, but exposure has been the most important element,” said Douthit, who describes her work as “deeply personal in that they remind me of people and places and my desire to preserve those memories".
"For Two," by Mollie Douthit, oil on canvas, 5.7in H x 15.7in W. Picture courtesy of Saatchi Art
“Saatchi certainly live up to their commission percentage. They handle all the shipping, plus the sale is final after seven days, which is reassuring. The seven days is beneficial both for the artist and the customer."
She also says the fact her work is online does not determine price
"My work has a value and that is how I work, regardless of it being in a gallery or online, because the purchaser is paying the price. I am adamant that it would not be fair for a customer to buy a piece of work in a gallery, only to see it cheaper online."
But what of the obvious downside to art websites: Not being able to see the article in the flesh? It is a fundamental part of internet buying that demands a larger degree of trust. While Saatchi et al provide superb ease of access to art on a massive scale, it is only a facsimile of the real thing, albeit of high quality.
Douthit is not oblivious to the constraint of customers not seeing the works directly, but feels it is a small price to pay for bringing her work to a global audience.
“Of course, it’s only natural that you would feel frustrated that Saatchi are limited to only putting up photographs of your work.
"However, that’s how today’s world functions, everything is online and the advantages outweigh the limitations.
"Saatchi has been instrumental in my development as an artist. They’ve supported me and Rebecca got me into a show in London. They are supportive outside of sales, too, and that stands for the character of the company and what they are trying to achieve. Their enthusiasm is infectious and my experience has been nothing but positive. I would definitely recommend it to other aspiring artists."
Saatchi chief executive Sean Moriarty's name betrays his Irish roots, with his father’s ancestry traced to Dingle, Kerry, while his mother’s family comes from Cork.
He said Saatchi's participation in the Dublin Web Summit was a mark of confidence in the potential of Irish artists.
"I’ve been to Ireland once or twice a year for the past 15 years, but you could visit 20 times a year and it would take a lifetime to know the place," he said.
“We were very happy to be at Web Summit... We have done pop-up shows in the States and we had great interaction with the artists. It was an attempt to showcase the work of Irish artists. Five of us went over for the show and we loved Dublin and we know Ireland will be an important market for us, as there are outstanding artists and a culture that is very rich in the arts."
Moriarty is the former president and chief executive of Ticketmaster and he is excited to be bringing that experience to bear on the art world.
"I spent 10 years at Ticketmaster, helping to turn it from a large offline company to a global internet success over a decade. The main lessons were about how you connect audiences to something they were passionate about. I spent my time at Ticketmaster connecting audiences to culture. When you do that in a commercial-environment/transaction-environment, there is a lot that you need to do to make it a value experience, as you do not have many of the things that are available in the physical world.”
In Hiscox’s survey of 506 art buyers for its 2014 report, it found that almost 40% of individuals surveyed had bought art and collectibles through purely online platforms, suggesting that online-only platforms are building brand awareness and trust with buyers and collectors. Crucially, 39% of the respondents felt the process of buying from an online art sales platform is less intimidating than buying from a physical gallery or auction house.
"I see Saatchi as bringing art to the masses,” he says. “Art for too long has been, in many cases, intimidating and inaccessible and I think the internet makes it much easier for people to experience things that are not in many cases close by, such as galleries. With Saatchi, you can go deeply into tens of thousands of works or skim over them. It works for people who would not have the confidence to walk through a gallery door."
Hiscox also discovered that 65% of buyers were “extremely or very satisfied” with their online art buying experience, with 27% saying they were ‘moderately satisfied’. The remainder were unhappy. Hiscox concluded that the high satisfaction levels suggest that the market could grow rapidly in the coming years.
In addition, while “82% of online buyers said the most difficult aspect of buying art online was not being able to physically inspect the object”, it also found that such fear could be overcome by more detailed information; condition reports and certificates of authenticity.
Saatchi, like their contemporaries, are striving to address the issue.
“There are things you can do to mitigate that,” says Moriarty. “High-resolution imagery is better than ever and it gives a collector the ability to zoom in and approximate texture. We also give a sense of scale, by allowing customers to place the works on a ‘wall’. The internet will never fully replace the physical world, but as the tech gets better we can improve to close that gap. Over time, we will give people the ability to upload a picture of their own room to see the artwork in context.
"As for the future, we know that collectors care deeply about artists’ stories and we are aiming to give them a chance to go into an artist’s studio through a video format."
He appreciates that artists are often sceptical and fearful.
"Fundamentally, it starts with the initial interaction. We help them share their works with the world in an environment that is under their control. Everything we do, working on a daily basis, is about building substantial trust. We take it very seriously and see it as the beginning of a lifelong relationship."
Moriarty declined to divulge financial aspects of the company.
“It’s part of a public company. We do not disclose business revenues, but we are heartened by the success that we’ve had. It will grow nicely in the coming years. We are early in a huge market. The global art market is $65bn annually and very little is online, but we are in a good position to grow with the market. We are in investment mode and the near-term profitability of the business is not a priority."
He says Saatchi's focus on emerging artists is what differentiates it from others.
“We host the work of 50,000 artists for sale from 75 countries and our curators look at every single work and provide substantial curation and classification. Every artist has the ability to find buyers that are interested in their work. Some sites focus on the higher end and lower end, but we focus on emerging artists."
Chief curator and director of artist development Rebecca Wilson says every work is viewed by Saatchi.
"We have a team of three curators. Every work is looked at by the curators. I see nearly everything that comes every day. What I am looking for is work that is the most exciting of its kind. So, the range of work that we have in terms of style and genre, is fantastic. I can promise there will be something on our site to fall in love with. Every Monday there are at least four exhibitions on the home page, and I draw on the works every day and I share them to show the best emerging artists."
She says the quality of artists turned out by Irish colleges differentiates them from their foreign contemporaries.
"One of the real strengths with Irish artists is that you have two wonderful schools, NCAD [National College of Art and Design] and the Burren College of Art. I’ve been really impressed. Painting is really strong, in a range of styles, and with a freshness to many of the works."
She pointed out that Mollie Douthit, Elizabeth Ann Curistan, Collette Egan, and Natasha Conway made the shortlist for the New Sensations prize set up by Saatchi and Channel 4.
Also, Miriam Sweeney won Saatchi's Showdown prize.
"We run this four times year for artists from all over the world. We average 3,000-6,000 entries, so she did incredibly well to win," said Wilson.
The Hiscox survey found that 61% of online fine art buyers had bought one or more paintings directly online in the last 12 months. The largest share of buyers (45%) had bought in the £1,000 to £10,000 range, with 10% having spent more than £50,000 on a single painting online.
Wilson says experience has given her a sense of what work will sell, but there is no accounting for public preference.
"Having had 15 years with emerging artists, you get a pretty good sense, but one of the things about the online gallery is that all sorts of work sells every day, including work that I would not have thought of as particularly exciting. I think that is great. There are people all over the world with different tastes and we want to match the work with that. It is very exciting, me seeing what is good, while people tell me otherwise.
"You are not looking for something that is purely commercial. Certain works online are easier to grasp. Very conceptual work is not easy to convey online. Being a curator of an online gallery, what you do find is a liberation in that I am able to be responsive to what collectors are interested in and looking at. I am looking for a signature style, and I’m not afraid of promoting art that is, say, reminiscent of Turner or Rothko.
She says that, occasionally, it is necessary to advise artists on pricing work.
"We let artists price their own work, but if I think it is too low or too high I contact the artists. Most artists have a good idea how to price their work and also through comparing their work with other artists.
“People can get an inflated idea, but I feel it is best to start a little lower and, incrementally, increase the price. It think art schools are not very good at helping in that regard."
She sees the presence of 50,000 artists on the site as a plus and says they do their utmost to help customers navigate.
"We definitely think the number off artists will grow. It is growing organically, such as through word of mouth. I do a lot of outreach, particularly around graduation times.
"As for our customers, we arrange different exhibitions every week. I also run a number of series, 'one to watch', 'artists of the day', etc. We always try to find ways of filtering and making it a more manageable experience.
"Selling is key to continuing as an artist. We have many stories of people giving up part-time work to work full time as artists, getting a studio. Also, many artists are getting to exhibit in galleries due to the exposure on Saatchi.
"We would love to have more artists from Ireland joining the site. Hopefully, they will enjoy the experience of some of our other Irish artists."
For Skibbereen auctioneer Morgan O'Driscoll, monthly online auctions have proven a success.
"Auctions are held once a month and we've been doing it since October 2011.
"There is good interest, with 99% of bidders having viewed the art online only. Of those approximately 70% is sold in Ireland with the remainder abroad.
"The fact we are based in Skibbereen, it allows us an outlet to the world and the important thing is that a lot of people are coming back," says O'Driscoll, who says that "a general rate is 15%" in commission.