Can Artsy make fine art as accessible as luxury fashion?

Are you familiar with the canvases of Oscar Murillo? Or the ceramics of Jun Kaneko? Unless you travel in the rarefied circles of the art world, probably not. But a New York startup hatched in a Princeton dorm room wants to use technology to bring the artifacts of the elite to everyone else.

Launched in 2010, Artsy is part of a relatively new crop of startups trying to propel the traditional art world into the digital 21st century with a website and mobile app for connecting galleries and artists with collectors and consultants. Other sites, including Artspace, 1stdibs and even Amazon’s (s AMZN) new Fine Art section, offer similar services. But Artsy founder Carter Cleveland has especially aspirations.

Bringing the world’s art to the masses

His goal: to turn Artsy into an online home for all of the world’s art while making the big names of the art world as accessible to the masses as the Dolce & Gabbanas and Chanel’s of haute couture.

“Twenty years ago, engagement with luxury fashion was largely concentrated in New York, London and Paris but now everyone aspires to incorporate luxury brands into their lives,” Cleveland said. “That same widespread appetite is now catching up to art…but before Artsy there was no easy way to access that world.”

murillo artsyOver the past couple of years, the startup has built up a searchable database of more than 50,000 artworks from more than 11,000 artists. But it’s also gone a step further: through its Art Genome Project (much like Pandora’s music genome project), computer scientists and art historians analyze each piece of artwork and artist in its database and assign it a set of “genes” that denote everything from a historical period and location of origin to a work’s image quality and category.

Coding the characteristics of artworks

That not only makes the search process easier, it enables Artsy to recommend art and expand the knowledge base for anyone who signs up for the site. Taking a cue from social networks, it lets users “follow” artworks, artists and galleries, as well as post their own reflections and thoughts about art. As a result, Cleveland said, the site has become a hit among art history and fine art students and educators who, anecdotally, are among its biggest fans.

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Engagement metrics are on the upswing, especially on its new mobile app, the company said. In the first three weeks since launching its iOS (s AAPL) app last month, the company said it saw 90,000 downloads, more than 2.2 million artwork page views and 330,000 user sessions. As far as gallery interest goes, the company said it now gets 25 inbound requests to join the site each week, which is up from 5 requests nine months ago.

When it comes to making art more accessible and creating an online community for collectors and enthusiasts, the startup seems to be cutting a path toward success. But it still remains to be seen whether it can break out into a wider audience, inspire purchasing among a new class of buyers and build a business from its mission.

Now, the site takes an “honor” approach to making money: it takes a cut from transactions that emerge from introductions made on the site, even though those connections are difficult to track. But, that doesn’t seem to be its long-term plan. Cleveland didn’t disclose any details but said, “We’re a long-term-focused business. We’re a service that has huge educational as well as commercial value, and over time the way we monetize that value will evolve.”


Citing a report from insurer Hiscox, a recent Economist article pointed out that online art sales were $870 million in 2012, which is less than two percent of the $56 billion global art market. (That figure does not include the online bidding platforms from major auction houses.) Assuming it follows the same trajectory as luxury goods, the report estimates that sales will more than double to reach a larger but still relatively small $2.1 billion by 2017.

Overcoming the art world’s insider culture

But Cleveland predicts that, based on household income levels in the U.S., there are plenty of art-buyers-in-the-making who just need a little more encouragement to start their collections. By Artsy’s estimates, for every current art-buying household, there are 37 more households that could purchase art but currently do not.

It’s true that people are getting more comfortable with buying big-ticket items online. From jewelry on Gilt Groupe to cars to expensive vacation packages, those with the cash are increasingly clicking their way to multithousand-dollar purchases. But art and commerce have always enjoyed a peculiar kind of relationship, and some might argue that an online environment further abstracts and potentially dilutes the art collecting experience.

Scott Zieher, co-owner of New York’s ZieherSmith gallery, said Artsy has been a valuable way to keep their artists more top of mind for collectors and has successfully led to sales. Still, he said, the startup’s “democratize art” mission doesn’t necessarily jibe with an art world that doesn’t always want to be understood and accepted by the mainstream.

“It’s a little bit at odds with the culture of a good portion of the contemporary art world, but it does a good thing and I applaud them for that,” he said.