Articles and Features

The Market That Became Digital Overnight 

Virtual Reality gallery
Art and tech. An editing system for a virtual reality gallery installation
Mattis Curth - Artland CEO & Co-founder

Mattis Curth | Co-founder & CEO of Artland

Mattis Curth is the co-founder and CEO of Artland. He has been featured in Forbes, Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Art Newspaper, Artnet, Techcrunch, amongst others.

It’s an overwhelming time to be in the space where art and technology overlap. The art world has been used to hesitating in adopting online behaviors and slow to embrace change, which has often resulted in low prioritization when it comes to building clear and effective online strategies. That has changed. The art world has been forced to become 100% digital for an extended period of time, without being fully ready for it, and without any real warning to prepare and adapt.

Galleries and fairs have been denied the lifeblood of their attendant public and as a result have been forced to look for online only solutions. This has led to the adoption of a few kinds of existing technologies, and the hurried creation of several more. As is always typical in these types of situations, when expediency forces hasty choices, both good and bad results have followed. Some are the result of real innovation, some characterised by a risk averse, or sensible, ‘safety-first’ approach — avoiding overreach and by using the tried and tested — whilst others have rolled out technology patently unready and in some cases ill suited for the presentation of the very material it is designed to serve. What almost all of these cases have in common is a well intentioned desperation to make immediate contributions to the ecosystem, ‘serve the need’, or ‘solve the problem’, without an in-depth knowledge of how to employ technology to do so. 

For instance, the term ‘viewing room’ has become an especially popular label for online initiatives, entering the lexicon of the artworld in another way as it is appropriated for this new digital context, whilst seeking to invoke the back room power presentation of the leading galleries of old. However, when applied to widely divergent efforts the term lacks specificity in definition. It has become a byword for almost any digital solution not directly related to an extant physical exhibition, even though the online experiences in question are almost always variations of what we have understood for many years as the features of a simple website. Unsurprisingly, most observers can see through this ‘renaming’ or ‘repackaging’ as an obvious trick that fails to bestow new power on these well worn tropes! 

Great Tech Is Not Built in a Day

The main issue has been the time available to build good solutions worthy of the name that consumers find useful and easy to use. Building great tech is not something that can be rushed or rolled out overnight. It’s a process that involves so many different elements and skill sets – experts encompassing the fields of design, software development, programming and engineering create and write code for elements ranging from databases to UX (User Experience) and UI (User Interface). All these components have to be packaged together into an eventual product that requires many iterations, each of which crucially requires a period of testing before the next gets made. 

Unsurprisingly, uncertainty and panic are not conducive to providing the necessary conditions for these kinds of things to be thought through, to evolve and flourish properly. When things get rushed the risk of not working properly is exacerbated. Conversely, as mentioned above, when no innovation takes place at all and the standard fare is rolled out once again, it fails to fire the imagination or provide real practical benefit. We are all familiar with the fatigue of scrolling through endless alphabetized lists, pages of info, or rows of jegs, if we even have the time to try.

However, as a cautionary note, it is also important to note that the best technologies are often shaped and refined by their presence in the world, the only test environment that really counts. They rarely appear fully formed, and it often requires difficult experiences in real time to shine a light on improvements that are needed. The beauty of this is that it creates immediate real time learnings. We at Artland are fully committed to putting our technology in the public realm, and are unafraid of mistakes. We believe that mistakes through real life experiences are essential tools to make even quicker progress. The truest measure of progress is not making a mistake, but how quickly it is learned from and rectified!

Mattis Curth
Mattis Curth. Building Tech and Playing Games.

There Is No Such Thing as ‘Only Digital’. It Is Not In Competition With Real Life!

In 2020, the unprecedented pandemic has led to technology seeking to replace the IRL experience out of necessity, leading many observers to place it in direct competition with that which it is seeking to support. In fact a truer measure of technology’s quality is how it can enhance and supplement our real life experiences, providing both convenience and alternative to the physical, but with no intent to replace it altogether. In the context of the art market, the question has always been how a digital experience can possibly compete with that intangible feeling that comes with standing before a work of art. The simple answer is that it can’t and nobody really expects it to, meaning that there is no ‘digital-only’ solution….yet. What it can do is facilitate the understanding of a work, richly contextualise its creation with relevant information, imagery and media, provide sophisticated tools for seeing surface and materiality, whilst enabling contact and connection between buyers and sellers and the means for them to transact. This is an incredible array of capability, which should be more than sufficient to enable technology to fulfil it’s true mission instead of ascribing a false one to it.

Hybrid Models: The Opportunity To Build New Audiences And Deliver Good Offerings To Existing Ones 

It’s good to be critical of what technology can do, evaluating it in the context of what it purports to bring. Only by doing so can we move forwards. Even we at Artland — as an online art platform — never want or expect to be the only channel for a gallery. We need to look at the online sphere as one part of any forward thinking gallery or art fairs’ business model. As such, we can speak of hybrid models, where the bricks and mortar model is ably supported and supplemented by digital. Hybrid models can take various forms, and by their very nature have the ability to be versatile and inclusive, enhancing the outreach to, and experience for, existing clientele, whilst also tapping into a new generation’s inclination to conduct research and commerce online.

It is important not to think of the online sphere as all or nothing. This is where hybrid models can provide ideal solutions. What is suitable for one gallery might not be for another. Some galleries may well pursue the direct selling of art online, given the demographic of the art they represent and the likelihood of young, tech savvy collectors being their principal audience. This strategy will encourage the participation of a new generation — those who might consider themselves artlovers, but have the ambition and potential to transition to art collectors. This emerging generation has grown up online, equally at home with digital content and games, and are well versed in what they expect tech to do for them. To some extent if it doesn’t exist online it does not exist at all to this demographic, so why not create technology that lowers the barriers for  this increasingly powerful economic group to access and participate in the artworld? It is an industry worth $52bn annually, only 6% of which takes place online, a percentage surely destined to change in the years to come and a large pie to seek a slice of. 

Other galleries may well prefer to use digital channels for enhancing knowledge, providing rich content to enhance their current audience’s affinity with the work they offer. In this instance, one could say that a digital strategy improves the conversion rates of an existing client list, employed to supplement more traditional modes of doing business. One thing is certain, the buying audience that expects to discover things online grows bigger and bigger all the time. Their expectations for technology also exponentially increase, because they witness the pace of tech development and adoption in every other sphere of commerce and life. To them it is inconceivable that their needs can’t be met by online development in the art world too.  

Untitled Art digital art fair
UNTITLED, ART, Online, Powered by Artland. Installation render. Works courtesy of Altman Siegel and Tafeta. © Koak and George Osodi

“ To my mind, the key traits of a physical art fair that make it special are the elements of discovery and interaction.”

We Need To Be Better At ‘Discovery’ And ‘Interaction’

At the end of July we at Artland will partner with leading contemporary art fair UNTITLED, ART to launch a brand new kind of online art fair, one employing the very latest technologies to try and capture the essence, character and flavor of a real fair. But can such an endeavor really be an art fair, instead of just a version of a ‘website’? When one thinks of a fair, what are the key elements that create the necessary frisson of excitement and competitive buying public for its participating vendors? If the online arena is to succeed for the art industry it must learn to capture and replicate at least some of these conditions. To my mind, the key traits of a physical art fair that make it special are the elements of discovery and interaction. ‘Discovery’, because the format of an art fair allows for an almost overwhelming visual feast, enabling visitors to meander and become captivated by the array of works available to them. At a fair one is almost completely immersed in art. And then comes ‘interaction’. Booths are populated by knowledgeable and passionate dealer-advocates for the art on offer, allowing for incredible amounts of discussion and learning about the new things that have caught the eye. With these components missing or stripped away the experience is an altogether more sterile one.

For the next iterations of online art fairs, I believe we need to further harness technology’s ability to make consumption convenient and friction free. This can likely be achieved by all manner of integrations, necessitating more collaborations amongst the expert subsets that support the market and oil the wheels of its very functionality. The next steps in the very near future should and can involve integrations with other APIs, databases and software services for, amongst other things, price estimation and valuations, automated shipping quotes, real time chat and messaging – plus genuine community interaction for the benefit of all the stakeholders.

ARTLAND Tech demo at ENTER Art Fair Copenhagen, 2019.
Tech demo at ENTER Art Fair Copenhagen, 2019. Photo Courtesy I DO ART

See You In July, Let The (Art) Gaming Begin! 

Good technology pays most attention to the user experience, but who is the user in this case? What should suitable technology for the art world look like and what should it do? Who is it for? Is it primarily to assuage the fears and serve the needs of hamstrung sellers, or is it designed with an end user in mind and created for their benefit? Has it evaluated both sides in order to further the essential mutualism of this symbiosis? Is it geared towards stimulating content and intellectual discovery, or is it a luxury good shopping experience? Can it possibly be both? We feel that there should be, and need be, no exclusions. Technology can easily be the great inclusive leveller if it is created properly. With our fantastic partner, Jeff Lawson of UNTITLED, ART, and his team, we take together the first steps in exploring many of these hypotheses we collectively share about technology for the art world. Where restrictions have existed, we see only opportunity to do better. We look forward to welcoming you at the end of the month and are excited to learn what you think!

Related Reading

Untitled Art Online, powered by Artland – Website
Notes From The End of An Art Market – Sylvain Levy dslcolumn