IT'S RAINING ART, HALLELUJAH!
Notes on the online gallery and its possible contribution to the democratisation of the art scene
What is an online gallery? (and what is not)
In order to find one's way through the confusion of the digital art scene, one should first understand what an online gallery is in the first place - and in what respects it differs from the traditional gallery (in the technical jargon: brick&mortar gallery). For it is not, as is often assumed, an offline gallery in digital form, but in some respects operates according to different laws than those of the classical gallery scene.
A b&m gallery that operates its own website is therefore not yet an online gallery. Its website is only one information forum among others. And an association of classical galleries like artnet or artsy, which enables its members to advertise and sell their artists' works digitally, is not an online gallery either. Here, too, the analogue rules of the game apply, while the digital presence only expands the radius of communication.
The online gallery differs from the traditional gallery primarily in that it has no "material" domicile. Of course, the company has to be registered somewhere, but it only exists digitally. In practice, this means no rental costs for exhibition space and storage, no expensive trade fair stands, no elaborate vernissages. The running costs are thus lower than those of a normal gallery, which is reflected in the much lower sales commission of the online gallery. Both artists and collectors benefit from this.
Since the online gallery does not have a real exhibition space, its customers buy the artworks without having seen them physically. This is less risky than it might seem at first glance. The photographic presentation is usually very extensive and of high quality. Some online galleries also offer the service of a virtual insertion of the artwork into the home of the potential collector. For digital artworks and NFT's, the on-screen presentation is crucial anyway. And as a last resort, many online galleries offer a return policy if the painting does not meet the buyer's expectations.
Nevertheless, this indirect presentation influences buying behaviour in the sense that the overwhelming share of artworks sold online is in a lower price segment (< € 10'00). Rarely art buyers risk spending a higher amount for a work they have not seen «in the flesh». (However, this reluctance no longer plays if the collector already owns a work by the same artist).
Another essential difference is the number of artists under contract to the gallery. In primary sales, the classical gallery represents a limited number of about thirty to at most a hundred hand-picked artists who are contractually bound to the gallery. In contrast, even a small online gallery presents at least a thousand artists, while the large portals can exhibit tens of thousands of artists. This means that the choice for the collector is disproportionately much larger than at a b&m gallery.
The online gallery also differs significantly from the regionally based brick&mortar gallery in its geographical reach. Although art fairs have established themselves worldwide, they remain the preserve of a small elite that can afford the exorbitant stand prices and expensive art transport. The online gallery, on the other hand, reaches its audience worldwide without any special financial outlay and thus offers the collector a global selection of art, and the artist a worldwide forum for his work.
In summary, compared to the traditional gallery, the online gallery is more accessible to the collector, offers an incomparably much larger and more international selection, and is on average much less expensive than the prevailing art market prices. Many online gallery owners therefore claim that they are committed to the democratisation of art by enabling a very large number of artists to make their works available to the public, while at the same time reducing threshold anxiety among buyers and reaching a wider clientele than would be possible for a traditional gallery.
What types of online galleries are there?
Basically, one must distinguish between two types of online galleries: the curated online gallery, which functions according to the classic principle of the middleman (gallery owner), and the "direct" online gallery, which places the emphasis on personal contact between artist and collector, whereby the gallery actually only functions as an advertising portal - i.e. a kind of linked-in for artists.
With the curated online gallery, the artist can open an account free of charge and design his or her own artist page according to the technical and aesthetic specifications of the gallery. The copyright of the exhibited works remains with the artist. Sales and shipping of the artworks are handled by the gallery. For each sale, the artist pays the gallery a commission, usually around 30-40%. The payment is made to a blocked account of the gallery, so that the artist is not paid until the collector has received the purchased work in good condition.
The direct online gallery, on the other hand, charges the artists exhibiting on its website a modest "rental fee" for the use of the portal. In return, the operator waives a sales commission. The proceeds of the sold artwork remain 100% with the artist. However, the artist has to take care of all sales modalities and the shipping of the artwork.
Both forms have their advantages and disadvantages, and there are now also a number of hybrid approaches. Both artists and collectors should therefore inform themselves as precisely as possible in advance and also be clear about their own needs before deciding on one of the variants.
How do you judge the quality of an online gallery?
For the curated online gallery, the question can be answered in the classical sense: a conventional gallery is as good as its galerist - and an online gallery is as good as its curators. If you just want "something nice for over the sofa", you don't need advice. But if you are looking for artworks that will help shape the design and atmosphere of your home, express and/or enhance your attitude to life, touch and stimulate you emotionally and intellectually, and broaden your horizon, then your first step is to go to the "about us" page and there to the curators. The better the curators' training and the greater their experience, the better the advice they will give to collectors on the one hand and artists on the other. Don't be put off by empty chatter about "our international curatorial team" or "our art director" etc.. These exist only in the imagination of the provider. A professional curator is paid for his/her work, takes responsibility for it and of course wants to reap the deserved recognition. That is why serious online galleries introduce both in-house and guest curators personally: with name, photo and exact professional qualifications. You can safely forget everything else.
The curators are responsible for pre-selecting and classifying the artworks to be sold through the gallery. Even with online galleries, which are in principle open to all artists, there is vigorous pre-sorting behind the scenes. In view of the flood of dilletant, demagogic and pornographic products with which the galleries are overrun, this is inevitable. Works with pornographic content, for example, must not be freely accessible to children - strict categorisation is therefore unavoidable for legal reasons alone.
Client counselling is another important task of the curators. Given the large number of artworks on display, it takes a lot of experience and intuition to bring together the right artists and collectors. Even though most online galleries today have halfway functional filters, the potential art collector is sometimes overwhelmed by the abundance of material. A pre-selection adapted to their personal wishes can be very helpful.
With the direct online gallery, of course, this advice is omitted, and this form is therefore more suitable for experienced collectors who do not need advice, or adventurous spirits who want to make their own experiences and can cope with a possible mistake. The bonus is direct contact with the artist and possibly a lower price due to the omission of the gallery commission.
However, this last advantage can be cancelled out again by the very high shipping costs that can be incurred for individual transport. While the large online galleries have their own shipping departments, which in their position as major customers can massively depress shipping prices, the individual artist of course does not have this option. Since transport is generally paid for by the art buyer, he or she would do well to find out in advance whether the shipping costs are included in the purchase price or whether there are still considerable additional costs to be expected.
The question of transport also arises for the artist. For photographers, draughtsmen, graphic artists, miniature painters or digital artists who ship small-format and lightweight works, it makes perfect sense to rely on direct sales via a corresponding online gallery. There will be no shipping problems for them, and the shipping costs are quite acceptable in relation to the selling price of the artworks.
Not so for sculptors and painters of large-scale works, who have to deal with staggering transport costs and opaque packaging, insurance and customs regulations. This is especially true for transatlantic shipments. For internationally active artists with heavyweight, delicate or bulky works, it can therefore be both financially and nervously advantageous to arrange transport via the gallery.
Further criteria for the assessment of an online gallery are the presentation of the website and the technical functionality of the portal. This applies equally to the curated gallery as to the direct form. A turgid presentation with black background, frames or mourning borders around the photos, veils over the banners and other superfluous bells and whistles should prompt caution at first glance. The artistic quality of the works offered for sale could be appropriate.
Gross technical deficiencies are also a red flag. If images cannot be loaded or deleted properly, filters and internal search engines do not work and texts can only be read in dadaistic translation, you should expect payment transactions and dispatch to be just as chaotic. Try it out and compare - this can save you a lot of trouble later on