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Despite the almost omnipresent nature of art in society, the way that society consumes art has evolved and shifted from traditional art galleries to the online art galleries of today. Through the decades, art buyers’ purchasing styles and reasons have been both driven and affected by the art industry. Sotheby’s Institute of Art states that the more traditional idea of buying art as an investment started in the 1960s and carried on to the 1970’s, resulting in the greater valuation of the art market. Today’s $64 billion art market was also shaped by the international outreach of the 1980’s, where auction houses were prevalent and reached out to larger audiences through global partnerships. The 1990’s were the beginning of the digital age and the debut of the online art industry. Websites like Artnet, which provided art research tools including a price database, and eBay, which created an uncharted terrain to sell art in, were the catalysts of the changing industry. Fast forward to the 2000’s and we see that contemporary art was in its hay day, despite the economic recession that was plaguing the nation. However, the technological shift we are currently experiencing in the 2010’s is driving prices down and making art accessible to more people than ever.

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The Rise of the Online Art Market

With any great technological revolution, there are bound to be players that fail to meet the challenges that accompany change. The most recent revolution came in the form of the internet and the creation of a new way of life. The online market place was a particularly disruptive new contender that created challenges for many industries, some of which have been unable to cope as well as others. We’re all familiar with the music and film industry scrambling to keep up with streaming services and ever-growing access to more media than had ever been fathomable. However, one industry has been able to ride the new wave of digital markets: the visual art industry.  

The recent rise in public engagement through media channels has been met with the stagnation that the art industry has experienced for the past decade. A decent chunk of the art world has taken to online art galleries with about two-thirds of collectors (64%) reporting that they had purchased art online in the past. Furthermore, Artsy reported that 21% of online buyers spend 75% or more of their annual art budget online and 15.3% spend 50–74% of their budget on online art galleries. Art dealers and auction houses found the use of online art galleries to be fairly lucrative. In 2018, the sector grew 11% from 2017, reaching an impressive $6 billion in worth. Experts expect art sellers, especially auction houses, to take advantage of the more favorable margins provided by online sales in the near future.  

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Brick and mortar galleries are understandably attracted to alternatives to increase revenue and draw more eyes to their art, especially if they come with the added benefit of low overhead costs. Even better for business is the fact that buyers and galleries can interact faster than ever with the help of the internet, exponentially increasing the speed and convenience that these transactions take place at. In fact, the need for a physical location is being questioned more and more as preferences and trust behaviors shift. This is quite a change of pace from years ago when the viability of online market platforms was being questioned as a trustworthy avenue for art collectors.

Given that art is traditionally meant to be viewed in person, it is interesting that so many people buy it based on photographs instead of seeing the real thing. A survey done in 2014 found that online art galleries were growing in both numbers and popularity. Both art amateurs and seasoned art collectors are purchasing more and more of their art online with almost the same effort as shopping for a new television.  Not only has it become more convenient to never leave the house to browse fine art, but more people are finding art more accessible. A report released by Artsy found that overall people were strongly motivated to buy art online for speed and convenience, competitive pricing, access to inventory and information, and the ability to avoid the intimidation of the art world.  

Established players in the art scene, like  Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, and Bonhams,  have embraced online platforms and altered this business model to cater to online demand, utilizing their pre-existing trustworthiness. On the other hand, online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon have added art departments following the rising demand for ease of shopping and accountability from a trusted vendor. They have also been able to cater to different price points, with higher-end pieces as well as simple art prints for sale online. Newer entrants, like Artsy, have developed unique business models that directly partner with galleries and institutions to sell fine art online. The many options available give the purchaser access to thousands of catalogs ranging from abstract pieces to fine art photography, and the ability to discover new artists faster than ever.

Online art gallery of black and white horse photography
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Why People Are Buying Art Online

One of the most cited reasons for purchasing art online is access to work that would otherwise be inaccessible. Art collectors with larger budgets and more experience shopping were 30% more likely to purchase art online because they were unable to be physically present at the show or gallery where it was originally being housed. Prior to the rise in popularity of online markets, these collectors would be limited to only the art in their near vicinity and wherever they were willing to travel to. Even the inexperienced buyer can navigate the online marketplace to find everything from fine art photography to art prints for sale.

The emergence of the technology that enables the online marketplace is largely responsible for the shift in art purchasing habits, but a key component is a relationship between buyer and seller and how quickly it has adapted. The sheer volume of art and information pertaining to it has exploded, giving the curious buyer great expanses of art to choose from and the resources necessary to aid their choices. As a result, the limited jurisdiction of an art expert is no longer a prerequisite for consumers buying art. The public now has the power to be an expert. People no longer take print or television recommendations as gospel and instead can browse for art unfettered, and make their own opinions on what to acquire. Online resources empower people to carry out their own research at their own pace, as opposed to making a decision on the spot with limited information in a physical exhibition room. 

One of the starkest conclusions found on what hinders people from purchasing art is price transparency. The idea that art is unattainable is often propagated, even if it is untrue. In fact, 90% of survey respondents claimed that this was a source of discomfort for them prior to online shopping. While price transparency has not been favored by traditional galleries, newer consumers have not been able to accept it easily. There is some comfort to be found in having the choice to request prices virtually instead of face to face, which many buyers have found to be a source of embarrassment when the prices are beyond their budgets. 

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The Value of Trust and the Personification of the Artist

While more people are buying art online, they do tend to do so for different reasons, many of which an online marketplace has been able to meet. When purchasing any valuable item, the consumer puts a great deal of trust in the market and the seller. With art, the idea of trust can mean different things to different consumers. While about 78% of survey respondents stated that they purchased art for aesthetic reasons, this overlaps with 43% saying that they were motivated by the artist’s story and background and wanting to support the artists. The third most cited reason, wanting to support an individual artist, can be met with the internet. With the abundance of social media channels and storytelling platforms, artists have a louder voice than ever to declare to the world who they are and why they make their art. Consumers are now able to get to know artists of all levels, from casually following digital illustrators on Instagram and Tumblr to keeping up with fine art photography blogs. A testament to this is the sheer popularity than some artists have on social media, especially Instagram. For example,  Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and KAWS, all have more than a million followers. Similarly, Damien Hirst saw his followers increase by over 100% once he shifted to writing his own captions that told the backstories behind his art. This connection through social media allows people to feel like they know the artists personally, similar to how fans of actors or musicians feel connected. Having access to a sliver of the artist’s life and opinions, add a face and gives life to the artist behind the art.

In Conclusion 

As with most advancements that happen adjacent to the rise of the internet, the demonization of online shopping has been one met with the argument on both sides. While those willing to grasp the newer concept and give in to the uncertainty of a new frontier may find buying art online to be an amazing development. However, others may still meet it with some suspicion and distrust. Regardless, it has definitely proven itself to be a worthy contender in the art world and is surely one that will only gain momentum in the coming years.

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