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Summary:

All sorts of media have been disrupted by the online world: music, video, news, books and more. But after years of digital revolution, the rarified world of visual art remains largely untouched. Enter one British startup that thinks it can change all that.

Spencer Hyman, by Joi Ito (used under CC license)

Spencer Hyman, by Joi Ito (used under CC license)Can you turn art into an everyday digital industry? That’s what Spencer Hyman, the chief executive and co-founder of London-based Artfinder, is betting on. He’s leading a team that wants to build the world’s smartest, best art service that helps people consume and enjoy art online.

Hyman takes his inspiration from one obvious source: his previous job as chief operating officer at music recommendation site Last.fm. He helped guide the site through its $240 million acquisition by CBS in 2007 and now wants Artfinder to build a similar service for a different purpose.

“If you want to build one of these great businesses like Last.fm, or IMDB or LinkedIn, you need to get four bits of a virtuous circle working. The first is the catalogue. Once you’ve got the catalogue, you can move on to the next bit, social profiles — curating stuff, building their own collections, meeting people with similar tastes, sharing stuff. If you think about that, it’s never happened to art. If wanted to show me your 10 favorite pictures in the National Gallery, how would you do it? If you wanted to tell me about this great new street artist called Inky, how would you do it?”

“Then the next bit is discovery. It’s the search, it’s the recommendation.” The final piece, he says, is online consumption — providing an alternative to the postcard.

In truth, though, this is the sort of social pitch that has been applied to dozens of sectors, with wildly varying degrees of success. But Hyman says the art market is a sleeping giant just waiting for the moment it can really benefit from being digital. For a start, it’s a huge industry that draws in large audiences. There are varying estimates of the size of the market, which includes auctions and private sales, but even the lowball numbers start at a worldwide value of $50 billion annually. It’s a largely untapped market.

And then there’s an opportunity in what he calls “the Ikea situation”: most people buy their art from home stores like Ikea. Why can’t somebody take a piece of that?

It’s an argument worth putting forward, and the team is polished and well-connected enough to have pushed the idea successfully to a handful of backers: angel investment from the likes of LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman and a first round earlier this year from Wellington Partners. On top of that, he has assembled a team of co-founders, most of whom he worked with before, to get the job done.

My takeaway from meeting them was that the way they’re hoping to crack the market is with a three-pronged approach.

  • Build a catalogue that really covers the vast majority of art and artists available in the world. Today, Artfinder has details of around 500,000 works — but in the end, to be useful, it will require between 2 million and 10 million works. To get there, it’s partnering with institutions across the U.S., Britain and elsewhere.
  • Build image recognition software that allows to be what they call “a Shazam for art”. The system is already working, essentially boiling down a user photograph into a digital fingerprint that can be compared against the database. Making this system infallible and fast is a crucial part of the job.
  • Build apps that give users something to do, and a place to do it. I suspect that, in the end, most of Artfinder’s usage may be in galleries and museums rather than on the website. To this end, the company is offering museums and galleries and even individual artists a set of tools that allow them to rapidly build a downloadable catalogue or show guide for visitors to use.

If they can do all this, then Artfinder may be on to something. The proposition will be a lot more straightforward: Find a piece of art you like, whether it’s in a museum, gallery or out on the street, and take a photo of it. The system examines the photo, breaks it down and works out what you’re looking at. From there, the apps can do all manner of things: let you find out more about the artist, see more work by the artist or — crucially — give you the option to buy a print, a book, a postcard right away.

Still, I can’t help but have a couple of reservations.

First, there’s the question of whether there are enough art aficionados to provide the core user base. Art is a difficult sell to the vast majority of people because — even though we are surrounded by art and design all day, every day — it’s largely seen as an elite pursuit. True, the Ikea opportunity could be large, but the fact that it even exists could be because people just don’t care enough about art to worry about making informed decisions. Is the overlap between the hardcore art community and the natural user base for a digital service large enough? A venture-backed business requires dramatic scale.

In addition, most art is about consumption, not creation — yet most successful sharing platforms are based, largely, around things users have created themselves, whether it’s posting your photos to Flickr or writing a witty message on Twitter or ranting on Facebook. Professional work can be a hugely important part of the mix, and it is often where the money lies… but only a tiny minority of us will ever be considered artists by other people.

And even in terms of consumption alone, there’s another problem: The art experience relies on physical presence. There are many recommendation engines out there to let us share our tastes and get us to consume more of the things we like, whether it’s Amazon tips or Netflix recommendations or music services like Last.fm. But most of them rely on media that can be distributed digitally. Nobody has yet produced a good, Kindle-like experience for art, or created the MP3 of sculpture — and for art lovers, merely looking at an image on their screen is a pale imitation.

Are these barriers too much to deal with? They could be awkward, but I’m not sure they are insurmountable. After all, if the last few years of media upheaval have shown anything, it’s that for every problem there is somebody, somewhere, who will crack it.

“If you think of something like music, it doesn’t really lend itself to the PC,” says Hyman. “But if you look at what the PC [has] done to music, it’s completely revolutionized it —it’s completely changed it, both from making, as an artist, as a musician, but also from your ability to find music, to be able to listen to it, to be able to share it. The weird thing is that’s never happened in the world of art: Art hasn’t got digitized. We’re trying to figure out why that hasn’t happened.”

And if they can be the ones to do it, then the team at Artfinder may very well be one to watch.

Photograph used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Joi Ito

  1. This is really interesting and I agree with Mr. Hyman that though there’s no one path, there is so much potential for art in the digital realm. I’ve also seen this pop up recently – any thoughts? http://vivalaartrevolucion.com/dev/

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