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Ad chieftain markets a world of art in virtual gallery

Saatchi Online boosts exposure for thousands of creative people, who forge links with buyers and one another.

August 06, 2007|Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson | Financial Times

The cream-colored terraces of one of London's most expensive addresses exude undisturbed privilege. Yet in a basement of one of the elegantly proportioned houses lies perhaps the city's closest equivalent to a Silicon Valley garage.

It takes a little while, walking along a corridor past small, dark offices, to realize that its location is not the most unusual aspect of this start-up's cluttered premises. On the walls hang frame after frame of the distinctive paintings of Paula Rego and Martin Maloney. The art and the basement belong to ad-man-turned-art collector Charles Saatchi.

A decade after his "Sensation" exhibition created a tabloid uproar with a dung-decorated Madonna and a portrait of killer Myra Hindley composed of children's handprints, Saatchi is finding new ways to upset and enthrall the art world. This time, he is doing so not with bisected sharks or phallic dolls, but high-speed Internet connections.

In just over a year, with no promotional campaign or venture-capital funding, Saatchi has created a social networking site aimed at connecting artists around the world with one another and with potential buyers. More than 35,000 artists have signed up with Saatchi Online, and another 19,000 have registered with Stuart, its student-art section. Museums and art schools have posted their details and visits to the site have grown 10-fold since February.

"The art world is dominated in people's minds by the thousand artists that are very successful, that are handled by the top 50 dealers around the world," Saatchi explains. "They're the ones that get all the attention, but the real art world is hundreds of thousands of artists around the world who don't have dealers and are pretty much unrepresented."

It is this observation that has driven Saatchi Online. As a promoter who says bringing contemporary art to a wider audience is "the thing I've enjoyed most," Saatchi is drawn to the Internet's mass reach -- an exponentially larger audience than the 600,000 visitors who used to come to his gallery each year. As a collector, he relishes the prospect of diving deeper into that "real art world" without having to wait for dealers, galleries or critics to pick raw new talent.

Saatchi Online already has the feel of a MySpace or Bebo, where unsigned bands jostle for their peers' approval in the hope of being noticed by a major record label. But will it be able to change the hidebound art world in the way those innovators are transforming music, publishing and entertainment?

The site has evolved since it was launched as Your Gallery in May 2006, but its core idea remains the same. It provides a free platform enabling artists to promote their work to a global audience. Painters, photographers, sculptors, graffitists and video artists post high-resolution images of their work, provide details of their biographies and future shows, link to friends' sites and chat with other users.

Collectors can browse, comment on what they find and buy works they are interested in by contacting the artist, without going through a gallery or auction house.

"One advantage is that prices are probably much lower because buyers are in direct contact with the artists," says Charlotte Bonham-Carter, a freelance critic and assistant curator at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. She adds, however, that when she looked on the site for some of the artists emerging on the London scene, she could not find them.

With tens of thousands of artists on the site, Saatchi admits to an element of chaos. "Like everything else, it's a lottery," he says. He has decided not to curate the site, but he has made efforts to cut through the clutter, with a magazine section, a critics' corner and a listing of shows put on by artists discovered through the site. The list stretches from Britain to Malaysia.

The most popular feature is Showdown, a competition in which artists can submit images for users to rate, with a cash prize for the winner.

Down in the basement, his team is working on his toughest order: attempting to write software that will automatically translate Mandarin postings into English and vice versa. One-third of the site's artists come from the United States, and another 20% from Britain, but the proportion of non-English speakers, especially from China, has been rising.

Saatchi's purchases, such as a $1.5-million painting by Zhang Xiaogang that is now featured on the site, have helped fuel rapid inflation in the prices China's top artists can command. "I think their best artists are as good as any in the West," he says.

In the two months since the Mandarin site went live, it has signed up 10,000 Chinese students -- vastly more than the number of Chinese artists currently represented by the few Beijing and Shanghai galleries that have any contact with Western collectors.

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