Point, Click, Collect

Amazon.com has entered the fine art biz

By Brangien Davis


November 21, 2013

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Seattle Magazine.

In October, adored and anonymous British street artist Banksy—whose work customarily fetches tens of thousands of dollars—set up a simple stall at New York’s Central Park and offered his own original spray-painted pieces for $60 each. He staffed the booth with a nondescript older man wearing a baseball cap and a vest. No sales happened until 3:30 p.m., when a woman bought two pieces for her kids, bargaining the seller down to $60 for both. At the end of the day, eight pieces had sold for a total of $420.

The art prankster was making a point about context: How big a role does setting play in the price tag and perceived quality of art? How does a viewer’s experience change when art is displayed in a traditional gallery setting versus in a street stall, versus on the website of a billion-dollar Internet company that sells everything from books to lawn mowers to, now, a Banksy screen print. (At press time you could one-click it on Amazon for $7,500, plus $75 shipping.)

Amazon launched its fine art store
(amazon.com/art) in August, built on partnerships with a preselected group of 150 gallery owners and art dealers nationwide—including seven in Seattle—who submitted 40,000 paintings, photographs, drawings, prints and other two-dimensional work for sale. Prices run from $10 to $4.85 million (for an original Norman Rockwell painting); Amazon takes a cut of each sale based on a sliding scale that decreases with the price of the work. The art store uses the same template as other Amazon departments, such as appliances, beauty and electronics. Customers can read the “product specifications” for each piece of art (size, condition, frame) and award a star rating (becoming instant art critics). And if you buy a piece of art and are dissatisfied once it arrives, you have 30 days to pack it up and return it. For 100 million or so Amazon shoppers, this context is second nature—and for many, a lot more comfortable than walking into a traditional gallery.

Presenting, buying and selling fine art online was commonplace before Amazon got in on the action. Local gallerists have been showcasing work on their websites for years, often with prices included. Big aggregator sites, such as Berlin-based Artnet.com and New York–based Artspace.com and Artsy.net, work with high-end galleries and dealers to sell art online via auctions and direct sales. But Amazon’s entry into the art business marks a shift: It is the first time a retailer of this size, with such a huge range of inventory, has made a full-court press into the fine art business. (Issaquah-based Costco has a fine art section online, too, but it currently has fewer than 100 pieces.) And since Amazon has changed the way we buy pretty much everything, there’s a good chance it’s going to change the way we buy art.

Whether you think this is good or bad determines your side in the debate that Amazon’s art launch sparked among Seattle gallerists—some contending that introducing artists (particularly Northwest artists) to Amazon’s immense customer base can only be a win for artists and galleries, and others believing that Amazon’s take on art is too corporate, too indiscriminate and generally a dubious way to experience art.

The marriage of art and corporate commerce has always been wrought with tension (see books, music). Artists worry that their work may be cheapened by mere proximity to commodities that don’t require an artful eye to be understood (e.g., toilet paper). But is the desire to sell work to people outside the traditional art circles necessarily selling out?

“Amazon is a great equalizer,” says Catherine Person, a Seattle art dealer for the past 26 years who had her own gallery in Pioneer Square from 2005 to 2011. “Art sites like Artnet and Artsy are great for people who already like art and know about art,” she says. “But I’m really glad [Amazon] is doing this because it’s not just an art site. A lot of people who would never consider going into a gallery will see it.” While confident that brick-and-mortar galleries are in no danger of disappearing, having owned one, Person clearly remembers how difficult it can be to broaden the customer base. “Thousands of people walk by on game days, but don’t even glance inside.” (Above: Longtime gallery owner Linda Hodges is making some of her artists’ work—including paintings by Seattle artist Jennifer Beeden Snow, whose “Palm Springs Pool” is seen here—available on Amazon Art.)

Person was among an exclusive group of Seattle gallery owners and art dealers invited to attend a meeting with Amazon earlier last summer, in advance of the launch. At the meeting—where attendees were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement preventing them from discussing the art store prior to launch—Amazon staff presented the details of the new store and invited galleries to join the beta version. Person decided to embark on the “grand adventure,” rounded up 10 of the artists on her roster, and spent months helping them select artwork to appear on the site and inputting information about the art into a giant Excel spreadsheet. “I filled out 54 columns of information for each print,” she recalls. Acknowledging that she could’ve chosen to include fewer details, she says, “It was our choice to go big.” Her painstaking efforts seem to be paying off—Person sold three pieces in the site’s first three months online.

“We are asking galleries to provide a lot of data for each piece of art, because our customers like that,” says Peter Faricy, vice president of Amazon Marketplace (which oversaw the launch of Amazon Art). He is well aware that the gallery experience isn’t fully replicable online, but the extensive information gathering from galleries is an attempt to anticipate the questions a shopper might ask gallery staff or art dealers in person. “You can never replace the experience of being inside a gallery—it’s wonderful,” Faricy says. “But our mission is to create something as close as possible to that experience.”

On the Amazon Art site, customers can sort by 10 categories, including color—15 unique colors, plus “clear” and “multicolor.” “People love searching by color,” Faricy stresses. He recalls getting feedback from an interior designer who said she works with people who’ve been collecting art for years. “She says one of the most difficult things is finding original works of art to tie in to the color of a room,” he reports. “Being able to search by color is a game changer in the world of interior design.”

Customers can also sort by subject, which includes straightforward subheads such as “Still Life,” “Animals” and “Figures,” along with some puzzlers such as “Social Issues,” “Stolen Moments” and “Emotions.” “I’ve never seen any site in the world that divides the search this way,” Faricy says with enthusiasm. (Artsy and Artspace allow users to search by the same criteria as Amazon—although their “subjects” are fewer and less mystifying.) Faricy points out that being able to sort and browse by subject and price point are things Amazon Art can offer that can’t be done in a physical gallery.

“If someone walked into my gallery and said, ‘I want emotional art,’ it would be the first time in 30 years,” says Greg Kucera, owner of the well-established Pioneer Square gallery that shares his name. He, too, was specially invited to be among the participating local galleries at launch, but declined—though not because he’s against selling art online. “There was a time I believed I couldn’t sell art online,” he says, “but that was a long time ago.” Kucera puts his inventory online, with prices, and reports, “It has worked well.” People buy work directly from his website, sometimes without first seeing it in person. But he’s as yet unconvinced by Amazon Art. “I’m sure Amazon has the reach that they are going to sell art every day,” he says. “But it’s not looking at art in a way I want to look at art. They’ve created a gimmicky website that people can have fun clicking around on, but to me it seems unrealistic that people are going to create collections using this setup.”

It may be that people buying art on Amazon aren’t setting out to create an art collection. (One of Banksy’s few buyers on that day in New York City told the street vendor he “just needed something for the walls” of his new apartment.) Historically, the concept of collecting art has been reserved for an exclusive, insular crowd (one that is often accused of liking it that way). But limiting art expertise to a smaller group isn’t just to maintain a certain cachet and fabulous wine and cheese parties. Despite the prevalance of crowdsourcing,  customer reviews and comments online, many people still believe a group of sanctioned experts is important in any field—if only to set standards, evaluate pricing and quality, and identify fraud.

Gail Gibson, owner of the G. Gibson Gallery in Pioneer Square, was also invited to Amazon’s prelaunch meeting. She attended the meeting but declined to sign on, saying she was put off by the presentation and her impression that “the staff didn’t seem to have any arts background.” (Amazon does not comment on staff backgrounds, but Faricy says, “We wouldn’t have launched without a team of people who are experts in the area of fine art.”) Gibson has no problem with selling art online—she displays her artists’ work on her website, with prices, and makes some pieces available through Artnet.com. “I think Artnet is more professionally inclined for the industry,” she says.

With 40,000 pieces (and counting) available on Amazon, there is no shortage of art of the sort one might find in a tourist gallery in Hawaii; then again, there are thousands of terrible books on Amazon, all within a click’s reach of the Pulitzer winners. “Amazon is after a broad presence in the market,” says Kucera. “Not so much the best the art market can offer, but the broadest appeal. I’m more interested in websites that seek quality over affordability.”

Several of the local gallerists who chose not to participate in Amazon Art acknowledged that while the site wasn’t appropriate for them or their buyers, it might make sense for another type of shopper. Jeffery Kuiper at Davidson Galleries in Pioneer Square also declined Amazon Art after attending the initial meeting. “It’s a different kind of collector. If we were slanted toward decorative art, it might be a better fit for us,” he says. “But our philosophy isn’t built on finding art to go over the sofa.” Clarifying the user experience at Davidson, he says, “We work very hard to establish an experience for collectors that’s well-informed with a lot of integrity behind it. Seasoned collectors like getting the inside scoop, meeting the artist—that’s all part of the dialogue.” While Davidson Gallery does sell work from its website, Kuiper says, it’s usually to buyers who are already familiar with the artist. With Amazon’s approach, he says, “You lose the personal part of this.”

Seattle artist and Georgetown gallery founder/curator Sharon Arnold has similar concerns. The brains behind the LxWxH Subscription Project—a sort of CSA for local art designed to increase access for both artists and wannabe buyers—Arnold says, “My entire platform is accessibility and plain language, but that’s not the same as dumbing it down and packaging it for mass production.” Noting that although the decline of indie bookstores in the wake of Amazon is often raised as a parallel harbinger of doom for galleries, she says that because it isn’t produced in multiples, art is a different animal, and accordingly needs to be sold in a different way. “Artists and art dealers are successful by building communities around what they do. They reach out and make important, viable, personal connections.” She believes the problem with a megacorporation selling art is the inherent disconnection. It also raises questions of how do you know which dealer to trust? (This issue was brought into full relief in 2006, when Costco closed its fine art store after allegations that “original” Picassos being sold on the site were fake. Costco quietly reopened its art store, with fewer offerings at much lower prices, in late 2012.)

Arnold also questions the long-term impact on the art world. “I’m worried about Amazon completely steamrolling the existing small businesses that curate excellent affordable art through new models of online delivery.”

One of those is Artsyo, a hyperlocal, lower-priced site devoted to Seattle artists launched in July, 2012, by Sarah Brooks and Stella Laurenzo. While Brooks says she doesn’t love the execution of Amazon’s art site (“I don’t really want to see the same interface when I’m shopping for a toaster and when I’m shopping for fine art”), she appreciates the fact that Amazon is making art more accessible and promoting the idea that anyone can be an art collector. “One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced with Artsyo is battling the mind-set that art collecting is only for a small, select group of people who ‘get’ art or have tons of money,” she says. “For the average person, the prospect of buying art is pretty intimidating. ‘Do I have good taste? What will my friends think about this?’” Adding that trying to sell art online has increased her respect for brick-and-mortar galleries “tenfold,” she doesn’t believe galleries will ever become obsolete. But she is optimistic about the Amazon experiment. “I have high hopes that Amazon will expand the market for fine art, and that will benefit all of us in the business.”

That sentiment is shared by Linda Hodges, who has owned her eponymous Pioneer Square space for 31 years and is participating in Amazon Art. “There is no substitute for standing in front of a piece of art and being spiritually or emotionally moved by it,” she says. “But we want to expand our market and reach a younger generation—one that’s acclimated to buying everything online.” Dale Cotton, gallery director for Hodges, adds, “If we can sell a painting to someone in Germany or Japan…well, how would they know we exist otherwise?” One of the first pieces Catherine Person sold on Amazon, in fact, went to a collector in Vienna. “This is all amazing to me,” Person says, though she notes that online traffic has slowed since the initial flurry.

Faricy says that, so far, the gallery response has been “super-positive” (Amazon does not share sales data), adding that hundreds more have applied to be included. Laurie Kearney, owner of the funky, affordable Ghost Gallery on Capitol Hill, was one such applicant. Curious about the selection process and the ways Amazon might increase exposure for her artists, Kearney filled out the online questionnaire (asking how many shows she has per year, how many artists she represents) and received a quick reply with more extensive queries (which art dealer associations she belongs to, which international art fairs she’s had a booth in). With a small gallery focused on locally made art, Kearney doesn’t belong to any associations and can’t afford the booths at art fairs—which is the reason Amazon said her gallery wasn’t eligible (she was told her information would be kept on file). “The process brought up interesting questions in the community,” she says, about the intimacy of an art transaction. Had she been accepted to Amazon Art, Kearney says, in the end she would’ve declined, because “I’m too focused on the environment that art is presented in.”

Which brings us back to the question of context, and one amusing aspect of Amazon Art. Part of Amazon’s ongoing quest to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company,” the art store’s “In Room” view allows art shoppers to virtually hang any piece of art on a wall in a virtual room that is fairly stark, though with warming hints of taupe and hardwood floors. Click on “In Room” and the work under consideration magically appears, scaled in proportion to the room’s minimalist-mod chair and small green ottoman. The result is slightly useful (for scale), yet ridiculous in terms of context (unless you have the same gray chair and green ottoman). It’s one room fits all.

“Customers love this feature,” Faricy says. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the chair we chose and the table.” (Asked why the furniture wasn’t one-clickable, Faricy replied, “Stay tuned.”) He reports that customers want to see several different types of rooms, choose the dimensions and the furniture that appears in the room. At press time, a new In Room option showing a mod brown couch was popping up with certain art selections.

Longtime Seattle artist Deborah Faye Lawrence—whose politically charged collage work is available on Amazon through her dealer Catherine Person—says she enjoys the In Room feature. “It cracks me up,” she says, “because for decades we artists have been complaining that collectors buy art to match the furniture.” For Lawrence, Amazon’s foray into fine art didn’t seem too surprising. “I think this phenomenon signals some kind of change in the gallery system,” she says, “but art will always need to be witnessed in the flesh, and galleries are the place for that.”

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