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Affordable art is the new reality

New technologies have given emerging artists a shot at building an audience -- and consumers a chance to buy quality art for a reasonable price.

August 06, 2011|By David A. Keeps, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Artspace Warehouse, which opened about a year ago in Los Angeles, specializes in affordable art. At left is art work by local artist Judy Zimbert.
Artspace Warehouse, which opened about a year ago in Los Angeles, specializes… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

At first glance, the shopping cart filled with canvases looks like it might be a work of conceptual art, an installation that equates paintings with groceries. And indeed, that's the intent at Artspace Warehouse on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles: paintings so affordable, you might consider stocking up.

"The gallery is very unintimidating," said owner Claudia Deutsch, who brought the concept from her gallery in Zurich, Switzerland, to Los Angeles last year. Artspace Warehouse is laid out with paintings on movable walls that flip like pages in a giant picture book. Neon-pink signs direct customers to sections organized by price, with small-scale original pieces by artists such as Berlin-based Kati Elm that cost as little as $40.

"I am sure I sell more because of the democratic price," Elm said.

And that is the point: In this new world, advances in digital printing and Internet commerce have given emerging artists a shot at reaching and building an audience, not through an exclusive show where a few works sell at high prices but, rather, through venues where low-priced creations can sell in volume.

While masterpieces still fetch record-breaking prices at auction, another segment of the gallery industry is still wobbly from the recession. Some dealers are recognizing that in the current economy, a market exists for consumers who appreciate interesting work but can't — or simply aren't interested in —spending too much.

"People are so overwhelmed by mass-produced things that the idea that you can find an original painting for $250 is much better than walking into Crate & Barrel for a framed photograph," said art consultant Cris McCall of Hollywood-based Tinlark Consulting.

The newly opened Design Matters gallery in West L.A. offers works on paper for less $500, but one need not even look that far. A host of e-commerce art sites offer a range of alternatives. Individuals market their own photography and art on the Web, of course, but the scene is also populated with group sites such as Socurio.com, which offers original paintings and sculpture, and Artspace.com, which sells limited edition prints by emerging and museum-quality artists.

"Affordable art does not mean any lesser quality art," Deutsch said, adding that margins are lower, but higher sales volume can help the ventures survive.

New York City gallery owner Jen Bekman, who launched 20x200.com, has done that math. Her site's pricing scale for limited editions gives shoppers some choices: A small photo offered in an edition of 200 might be priced at $20 per print. But a much larger version of the same photo, in a more collectible edition of two, might sell for $2,000.

The site has featured 500 works by about 200 young artists as well as household names such as William Wegman and David Bowie. It introduces a new fine art or photography piece each week, and it can be addictive to see how shoppers react — whether high-priced exclusive editions sell out before the smaller, less ocstly but ultimately more common versions of the artwork.

"The Internet is a great aggregator of attention and engagement and this is away to educate people about art and acclimate them to collecting," Bekman said.

The experience is more than a transaction. Buying "small batch" art satisfies an itch to be discerning, Bekman said, adding that in some ways art is no different from a microbrew. It also gives consumers the opportunity to become patrons:

"Whether you are spending $20 or $2,000, you are supporting an artist in their practice, and people feel virtuous about that," she said, adding that her site's sales are split 50-50 with the artists. "It means a lot to our audience that the artists benefit from the purchase."

Plus there is something exciting about discovering someone on the way up, McCall said.

"Artists are so accessible now," she said, "you can become a part of their lives and feel you have a stake in their success."

As proof that consumers are responding, Bekman said her sales have doubled every year since the site launched in 2007.

"I like to think of it as the gateway drug for becoming a collector," she said. "It's the first time in history where a mass audience can engage in collecting."

Artspace.com launched in April with 110 artists. The goal: to make the work of midcareer and museum-collected artists accessible to the public, according to co-founder Christopher Vroom, who commissioned a market research study indicating about 25 million households will spend up to $500 per year on art.

"These people don't all have access to the top artists that the commercial galleries are marketing," Vroom said.

He said his Artspace Marketplace gives people access to the backrooms of galleries of the world, collaborates directly with artists and partners with museums and nonprofits to create limited edition prints. Of the 300 pieces available on the site, 70 are less than $250.

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