Art Galleries, Art Sales and the Internet: A Survey

If you don't think the Internet is reshaping the art business, transforming how art is exhibited and the ways sales are made, you must still be reading newspapers and watching TV on a television. To be honest, I had an inkling that the art business paradigm was shifting and that sales were taking place online, and I'd heard numerous instances of online sales happening, but I never really paid much attention, nor did I think the totality of it all was any big deal... until recently when I put the question to gallery owners, "What percentage of art do you sell either substantially or totally online as opposed to at your gallery?" Based on their answers, the realization was sudden, immediate and stunning that the online art world revolution is happening now in a very major way, and is no longer some hypothetical outcome that may or may not eventually come to pass at some indeterminate point in the future.

Keep in mind that this was an informal survey, and the 17 galleries that chose to respond to the question are all located in California, and mainly in San Francisco (plus one veteran collector... scroll to end for his thoughts on the matter). So one might expect, based on the demographics, the proximity to Silicon Valley, and the abundance and easy access to computer-savvy talent, that the ways these galleries do business online, and the percentages of Internet art sales they make is comparatively greater than in other parts of the country. That said, the results of these conversations left no doubt that everything happening here will be coming to a gallery near you real soon. Believe it.

Percentage of Overall Gallery Sales Taking Place Online

All galleries reported that the percentage of online sales has increased over the past five years. All galleries reported making sales either largely or entirely online, and all reported selling varying percentages of art sight unseen to buyers who have never set foot in their physical galleries. The difference in percentages was marked between younger and older more established galleries. While older more established galleries said online sales generally accounted for 10-35% of total business, younger galleries consistently reported making 60-85% of their sales almost exclusively online. One gallery owner said that sales made either largely or entirely online account for over 90% of their total business, and estimates that they've never personally met 65-75% of their collectors. Two galleries reported that pretty much 100% of their sales have some online component, either major or minor (both of these galleries are somewhere in between younger and older more established). A number of galleries mentioned that they have multiple collectors who buy regularly from them online, but who they have never met in person. One gallery stated that one of their biggest collectors buys totally online and that if the collector walked into the gallery, no one there would have any idea who they were.

In several cases of younger galleries, the lopsided balance in online versus gallery sales makes it seem almost as if online sales pretty much support the physical gallery space... and indeed, that may be a glimpse into the gallery world of the future. One gallery stated that the Internet is more important than the physical gallery space in terms of generating sales, although the physical gallery space is also necessary in terms providing credibility and being available for either building new relationships or strengthening existing ones.

As for the more traditional established galleries, two underscored the importance of one-on-one communications with potential buyers within the galleries. Both of these galleries sold minimum amounts of art online. Another gallery emphasized the importance of back-and-forth communications, both in person and online, the online component specifically in terms of sending out images to buyers who live great distances from the gallery, both nationally and internationally.

Why People Buy Art Online

Younger people feel more accustomed to buying online likely because they've pretty much grown up with the Internet, make regular purchases online and, according to several gallery owners, may even be more comfortable and less intimidated buying online then they would be setting foot in the physical gallery spaces. A number of galleries reported that many online sales are to people who would rather not travel long distances, or even drive significant distances within larger metropolitan areas; online buyers often live too far away from galleries to make in-person purchases, but not always. A substantial percentage of galleries reported making regular online sales to collectors across the country as well as internationally. According to gallery observations, many of their online buyers already know what art they're looking for and what art by their favorite artists looks like. Based on past experience, collectors assume that what they are buying online is consistent with their in-person viewing experiences. This seems to be accurate as no gallery mentioned any instance of anyone returning art. One gallery selling large percentages of their art online, when asked outright, stated that they had never had a return. Older galleries note that people who buy online tend to call to discuss the art first, but once all questions have been answered to their satisfaction, they will buy sight unseen.

The fact that a gallery has a physical location does seem to be important, not necessary in the sense that online buyers want to visit it, but rather that they take comfort in simply knowing that it's there. As best as gallery owners can tell, being able to see images of a gallery interior online seems to validate the art. Reviews and photographs of gallery openings, coverage of gallery events, images of the space packed with people, and other indications that the gallery is an active exhibition space-- these all contribute to the impression that the gallery is a going concern and that it's OK to buy there, whether or not these reviews or images appear on the gallery's website or elsewhere. Gallery owners generally believe that their online sales would not be as significant as they are if they did not have physical locations. One gallery owner was actually in the process of analyzing his online sales and cogitating on the question, "Would this sale have been possible if I didn't have a gallery?" He was inclined to conclude that a physical gallery space is still necessary in addition to having an online presence. In spite of all this, one gallery owner firmly believes that if significant art fairs start accepting online galleries that the gallery system as we know it will cease to exist.

How People are Buying Art Online

Online collectors read blogs, follow the art shows on gallery websites, and regularly search for their favorite artists on search engines. Galleries seem to concur that the main way people find them online is that they are searching for art by particular artists, artists that those galleries show. People are also made aware of artists and art gallery shows through art fairs, social networking, blog coverage, reviews in traditional media, and so on. Several galleries report that in-person meetings often happen first, at art fairs in particular, and that once people meet the owners face to face, they then feel comfortable making purchases over long distances and entirely online.

The galleries that sell the most art online generally post entire shows on their websites so that anyone visiting the website can see every work that is on exhibit at the gallery. The trend is in this direction-- for galleries to post entire shows online (several galleries that do not post entire shows online noted that they receive numerous requests for images to be emailed to them, which is probably a major factor in more galleries opting to post entire shows online). One gallery stated that it makes no sense for them to have a show and not post everything online. One gallery reported that they recently did an exclusive online preview, putting the entire show on their website before it even opened at their physical location, and selling it out completely in advance of the opening! Time and circumstances permitting, this gallery intends to do more advance online previews whenever possible. Increasing numbers of galleries are previewing entire shows online-- another reason why the Internet is becoming a more viable option as compared to physically visiting the gallery space-- motivated collectors can buy early, quickly and with minimal effort.

On the downside, several galleries noted that they receive numerous email inquiries and requests for images and information from individuals who they have never met, and that only a small percentage of those correspondences ever result in sales. They seem to believe that these come from people researching various artists for purposes other than collecting their art, or possibly trying to decide whether to buy art by these artists elsewhere, and are pretty much resigned to the fact that this is part of doing business in the Internet age.

Several owners also voiced concern over the ease with which less scrupulous collectors can research online, contact artists directly, and attempt to circumvent galleries in order to buy art at prices less than the galleries sell it for. The galleries emphasized the increased importance of trust and loyalty between themselves and their artists, and went on to add that even in this new paradigm, artists can significantly damage their reputations and standings among galleries by selling their art behind dealers' backs.

How Galleries Use Social Media

The younger galleries in particular are fully aware of the power of social media. They are consistently active online through a variety of social media sites, and regularly update events and happenings at their galleries. Several have large Twitter followings ranging well into the thousands... and sometimes more. Twitter seems to be not only a significant factor in getting the word out about upcoming events and shows, but also in lending credibility to a gallery based largely on the size of its following. It is also exceptionally instant in impact. For example, some galleries make multiple posts in the time periods immediately leading up to their openings-- increasing the buzz as well as the excitement-- with installation images, gallery prep, images of the artists, breaking news, and more (when this is well done, it's practically better than being at the gallery). Among younger buyers, the physical numbers of followers on any social media website are regarded as good measures of a gallery's credibility and proof that they're reputable resources for purchasing art. Add to that the ease with which potential buyers can research and evaluate a gallery's reliability and track record via online searches, following them on social media, or reading their fan pages (much truer for younger galleries than older more established or traditional galleries).

One gallery talked about formatting all correspondences, both emails and postings on social media websites, to contain links so that anyone interested in their art can find out pretty much all the information they need without ever having to either visit or actually speak with anyone at the gallery. The implication almost seemed to be that less contact with buyers may sometimes be better than more in terms of allowing them to make up their minds without interference from the gallery, or perhaps it was more that the gallery is attempting to minimize interactions with individuals who simply want information, but who have no intention of buying. Either way, their goal is to make the Internet buying experience seamless, not only in terms of information available to the prospective buyer, but also in terms of the gallery's not having to get involved in the physical transaction other than packing and shipping the art.

One gallery noted that artists, especially younger ones who are not well known and do not have significant Internet presences, are increasingly choosing galleries based on online clout and, in particular, the abilities of those galleries to network and get the word out about the artists they represent. The owner went on to say that younger artists are sometimes so eager to enhance their online profiles that making sales actually seems secondary on their agendas. The gallery does inject doses of reality in these types of situations as required.

Speaking from personal experience, I do extensive online coverage of San Francisco gallery openings and regularly hear from people who learn about certain artists or galleries from online reviews and images, decide which shows to see or galleries to contact based on that coverage, buy art online (or sometimes in person) based on reviews or images, and even occasionally contact posters (including me) about particular art or artists whose work they see in the coverage before going ahead and making their purchases. I also hear similar stories from artists themselves either about gallery sales or direct sales that happened as a result of online exposure. On infrequent occasions, gallery owners tell me about sales they made as a result of my online coverage. I'm of course well aware that most gallery owners do not divulge the specifics of their sales, nor do most serious collectors divulge their strategies for acquiring art.

Gallery Website Enhancements

Several galleries reported that they're in the process of adding functionality to their websites to make it easier for people to better view their art, see larger selections of it, and see individual works in greater detail, so that they can more easily decide what they'd like to buy and then proceed to buy it online. One gallery reported augmenting their site with abilities to see video and dimensional works in mixed mediums in order for their clients to experience those works similarly to how they would if they were physically in the gallery space.

Buying Expensive Art Online

The myth is that people only buy lower priced art online. The facts indicate otherwise. One gallery reported selling several artworks valued in excess of $150,000 each to buyers they had never met. One gallery reported making a sale in the range of $80,000 to an overseas buyer whom they had never met, this coming as the result of a fairly respected blogger posting about one of their artists. A number of other galleries indicated that they generate sales at a variety of price points, ranging from lower priced works (hundreds to low thousands of dollars) to more moderately priced works (low to mid tens of thousands of dollars, and occasionally higher).

Vetted Multi-gallery Websites

The general opinion on higher profile multi-gallery art websites is that they are good for business, particularly in terms of lending credibility to the galleries on them, and also for generating interest and exposure among audiences that those galleries would not otherwise reach. The gallery that reported several sales in excess of $150,000 each (see above) stated that the buyer initially learned about them through a respected multi-gallery website. One gallery stated that one of their major collectors found out about them on a multi-gallery website and continues to buy from them exclusively online. At this point in time, younger galleries do not seem to need or care to be involved with vetted multi-gallery sites as they are more than capable of establishing reputable online profiles and generating interest in their artists on their own.

A Collector's Perspective

This collector has been actively collecting for the better part of 40 years, both antique and contemporary works of art. Here's what he has to say about online buying:

"The internet is becoming ubiquitous in the art world. I get 25-50 art gallery announcements or art offers every day. I get friended on Facebook by artists who I don't know and whose work I have never seen. I do buy art online if I already know the work of the artist because if I wait to see it in person at a gallery, I risk the chance that it will no longer be available for sale when I get there. I have occasionally bought work by entirely new artists this way, but not often.

"I miss the days when going to the gallery and personal face-to-face connections with dealers and artists was essential, when dedication to seeing the work in person was both difficult, time consuming and very rewarding at the same time. I would probably not buy more expensive work sight unseen ($20K+), but I do buy 19th century items on eBay, and they are great, but the cost tends to be low and I can usually tell what I'm looking at from the high res images provided by the sellers. In buying online, knowing the dealer or person offering the art is extremely important because trust is everything. The newest generation of collectors will become used to online purchases of art at any price point."

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