Online sales of art may have grown significantly in the past year, but artists and galleries must work hard to attract a digital audience, warns Eric Sparre.

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The TEFAF Art Market Report, published in March, revealed that the art market grew by 7% in 2014. This was not unexpected. “It continues to be a highly polarized market, with a relatively small number of artists, buyers and sellers accounting for a large share of value,” said Clare McAndrew, who prepared the report. The major dealers, art fairs, ‘top 20’ artists and big collectors – the usual suspects – were the principal participants.

The surprise came with the growth of online sales which were estimated to have reached $3.3bn, a 32% increase over estimated 2013 sales of $2.5bn. These numbers are not overly weighted by higher priced items: 67% of the sales were in the $1k to $50k range.

This growth seems to have come, at least partially, at the expense of the art fairs. As Skate’s Art Market Research puts it, “Galleries are increasingly focusing their effort on digital marketing and sales and are capping their art fairs participation costs accordingly.” After all, why buy a booth at a major art fair if you can access a much greater number of visitors with some simple online advertising at a fraction of the cost? So, after years of predictions that the internet would play a leading role in the art market, it seems to have finally begun to materialise. And the impact goes beyond the top galleries. It is affecting even high street galleries.

While social media can result in a larger audience for an artist’s work, neither it nor an online gallery can effectively serve as a foundation on which to build a career

Alan Bamberger, an art consultant in the San Francisco area and prominent blogger, polled a number of galleries in the Bay Area (17 chose to respond). The question he posed was: “What percentage of art do you sell either substantially or totally online?” Older, more established galleries said online sales accounted for 10–35% of total business while younger galleries consistently reported making 60–85% of their sales almost exclusively online. The top online performer revealed that 90% of its total sales were made wholly or partly online. They have never even met the majority of their collectors.

Clearly, notwithstanding the modest size of this sample and the gallery’s location near Silicon Valley, there is something of a trend going on. Art consultancy Parker Harris spoke to some London galleries and found the same trend in place – though less developed. Again, the higher-end galleries are more active, but all agree on the increasing importance of online sales, and were responsive to the need to increase their online presence.

As for individual artists, they use the internet in a number of ways but can be confused by the multitude of options available. Artists can upload artwork to online galleries, which can bring in an occasional sale. Social media can help. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest can be useful in the artist’s outreach and can increase the audience. While social media can result in a larger audience for an artist’s work, neither it nor an online gallery can effectively serve as a foundation on which to build a career. The sales are one-offs and social media exposure cries out for a focal point. 

A professional website, where an artist can send someone who is interested in their work, provides the best opportunity to shape the experience of potential buyers. As much care should be taken with presenting work in a virtual space as would be taken hanging work in a real gallery. From layouts, fonts and colours, to the arrangement of work in distinct galleries and portfolios, and explanatory text about the work and what the artist wants to achieve. It will always be an uphill battle for an artist to get discovered by someone who is not already familiar with their work. So any text should not only be clear and interesting, but also include strategic placement of keywords, written with search engine optimisation in mind, and the site must work in tandem with social media.

Artists must be actively involved in promoting their careers and selling their work online. This is really no different from any time in the past – successful artists have generally been active in their own cause. The internet has to be effectively used by artists, and when it is, there is no greater medium for reaching out to both existing and potential collectors. There has never been a tool like it for advancing careers and selling art.

Eric Sparre is Founder and Director of Artspan.

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