CENTERPIECES


LOST IN CYBER-SPACE: THE COMMERCIAL ART WORLD ON-LINE
by Barbara Pollack

"1996 is the year of electronic money on the Internet....People will be able to find and buy everything they need."
Nicholas Negroponte--director, MIT Media Laboratory, at MILIA '96


By the time you have read this article, it will be over. Trends in the art world last only as long as it takes for them to get covered in the New York Times and the art magazines. "Art on-line" has already made Art In America, American Photo, Art & Auction, the New York Times' "Arts & Leisure" section, Crain's, Newsweek, World Art and ArtNews. By this time next year, cyberculture will be such old news that those still attached to their websites will face the same issues as those running non-virtual art sites: how to get funding and how to generate press coverage.

But those art worldlings who can read TalkBack! should relax: Now you can find almost everyone you know in Soho, Santa Monica or South-of-Market on-line. The question remains: why do you need to?


Les Levine

ARTISTS MARCH ON-LINE

Initially, on-line access promised a brave, new art world--one vastly more democratic and free than the current, commercial system. "This whole thing is about levelling the playing field," declared Ted Berger, executive director of New York Foundation for the Arts, which founded Artswire, the first on-line art network, in 1988. Artswire gave its 700 non-profit art organization-subscribers the ability to communicate about grants and exhibitions, although political action--especially right-wing attacks on the N.E.A.--inspired its inception. "This came from a sense of being closed out from the official outlets," explains David Green, a former director. "Our pitch went to people who felt disenfranchised--financially, politically, aesthetically--from the contemporary art world." Likewise, The Thing, perhaps the first art bulletin board, offered artists an exhibition forum for the new, on-line medium; a place to post digital work. Essentially non-commercial in nature, these sites were the beginnings of the cyberequivalent of the alternative-space scene.

This "pitch" to the disenfranchised was a noble goal, well-suited to a notfor-profit artists' organization or a conceptual-artwork-of-a-project site. But soon the entrepreneurs got involved. Hundreds of them offered to put artists' work on-line "for a small fee." During 1995, thousands of artists signed on with commercial outfits--which offered the equivalent of art as merchandise in mail-order-catalogue form--such as Artists On-Line, Liqwwwd Worldwide Gallery or C.D.I. Art Gallery.

Most viewers are already bored with these vanity sites--since they offer only an artist's resume, a list of works with prices and "thumbnail" reproductions of art that can sometimes be enlarged to full-screen at the click of a mouse. Although some artists, such as Jill Sperberg who listed her work with Artnetweb, report commissions and sales as a result of going-on line, contacts with blue-chip collectors or even museum curators never seem to materialize. The crass commercialism of such ventures has tainted appreciation of artists on-line.

SOHO SLINKS ON-LINE

Interest in on-line art heated up--not because thousands of artists went digital--but because a group of curators and gallery directors announced that they were leaving the artworld for the Internet. Armed with savvy and credentials--all dressed up with nowhere to go in the shrinking art market of the early 1990s--they viewed the Internet as a new venue for, among other things, career advancement. Site developers, such as Troy Maier (a former director at Barbara Gladstone gallery) of Tractor/Contemporary Art Site and Benjamin Weil (former independent curator at Documenta and the Venice Biennale) of ada 'web, came from the (non-virtual) network of the international art world and knew how to manipulate its publicity mechanisms. Likewise for Janine Cirincione, who left Jack Tilton gallery to head Microsoft Network's Artline, art consultant Thea Westreich who tried to start Artix, and Los-Angeles-dealer Marc Richards of Art City.

Their sites featured artists with name recognition, like Jenny Holzer or Laurie Anderson. They fit into a cyber-landscape already under development by museums (still the largest segment of the art world on the Internet.) Suddenly, collectors and critics began to receive invitations to website openings and press releases on Internet art projects, which made the Internet seem accessible to even the most cyberilliterate in the artworld.

Most of these "players" describe themselves as independent curators for the Internet, although their sites tend to be commercial enterprises. They understand that disingenuous disdain for commercialism is an art-world badge-of-honor. Their "pitch" emphasizes that the Internet is more conceptual, less market-driven, than the actual art world. Some samples:

--"Four or five years ago, people started thinking seriously of how to step out of the artworld. Even though that system was not functioning too well, it keeps going, because no one ever has the guts to a find a new model. The web is a completely different kind of production. It is a distribution of concepts, not products" Benjamin Weil (echoing video artists of the seventies.)
--"I wanted to deal with 'culture generators,' not Sunday painters. The trick is to be dynamic enough to communicate why people do this [contemporary art], rather than always be confused by it and have the art world benefit by this process," Troy Maier.

Meanwhile, these developers have recreated in cyberspace the very positions they held in the art world as middlemen between artists and audiences. Their stated intention is to balance cachet with access. They need the cachet to attract and maintain corporate sponsors from other up-scale industries--having fallen back on the network-television model of sponsored content. Art-site developers are shopping for sponsors outside the art world because they have not received financial support from within it. ada 'web snagged Big!, a British fashion magazine, as its first sponsor. ArtNetWeb, Art City and Contemporary Art Site are also currently seeking such support. Meanwhile Cirincione, like a television producer, must deliver content that meets with the approval of her mega-sponsor, Microsoft.

Ironically, cyber-firms outside New York have been more successful at getting gallery support than their more prestige-minded counterparts in Gotham. Some, like ArtResources in Seattle, have found clients in second-tier galleries across the United States. Offering listings for a fee, these sites have gained the attention of galleries without much access to the the international art market.

57TH STREET IN CYBER-SPACE


In the fall of 1995, Sotheby's, Christie's and PaceWildenstein inaugurated their homepages. At the same time, the Art Dealers Association of America established a committee on new technology, headed by Impressionist dealer Gerald Steibel, and ArtNet added a gallery database boasting a bevy of blue-chip dealers to its- auction database. These well-funded operations hardly required the assistance of downtown website developers to go on-line; they simply added another item to their advertising budgets.

Waldo Pacheco--a multimedia designer who worked at Thea Westreich's now-defunct Artix and currently works at Centrox's $10 million ArtNet--observed that galleries regard an e-mail address or web page as an "image enhancement"--"it shows people you're not passe," he told me--but the web page is still an "additional cost," rather than a substitute for a print advertisement. This means that successful galleries or auction houses can afford the additional cost as part of their overall advertising budget--Sotheby's spent approximately $250,000 on its website--without demanding a short-term financial return.

This uptown cybercrowd is primarily interested in the Internet as a marketing tool--not for selling art, but for attracting collectors from other industries. They are fascinated with the demographics of the Net: college educated, median age 35, income over $60,000. Cyberspace to them means access (yes, the culturati is suddenly using the word access) to a new base of young collectors.

"The Internet is bad for selling art," states Marc Glimcher of PaceWildenstein, "but to buy art, you need a lot of information, and that's where the internet is good." For a gallery like PaceWildenstein, the Internet augments advertising, catalogues, musuem loans and exhibition announcements. But in keeping with Orwellian Net-speak, Glimcher calls this "public education," rather than marketing.

"Public education" is the rationale most often invoked by uptown dealers and auction-house spokespeople for venturing on-line. They rarely use the more common "access to information," perhaps because for them access is a one-way street. Like other upscale infomercials-as-websites, the 57th Street homepages offer a modicum of interactivity, of course. But the real information about business goings-on is sealed off behind a veritable firewall.

Keeping information off-limits is deeply rooted in the culture of the high-end art market. So much so, that many dealers and auctionhouses initially featured that the Internet would enable hackers to break into their records. But, by 1996, most had at least fallen in love with e-mail--"a more polite way to close on a multi-million dollar painting", says Steibel--and I've even heard rumors of an international BBS for Old Master and Impressionist dealers.

ArtNet has emerged as the largest, and perhaps most successful, on-line service tailored to the upper echelon of the art market. ArtNet began as a comprehensive auction data-base. (Auction results are public information.) It was able to attract major players to its gallery data base, like Knoedler and Gagosian, by portraying on-line subscribers as members of a private club. Meanwhile, CEO Hans Neuendorf piqued the interest of subscribers (5,000 joined in the first six months) by announcing ArtNet's mission to offer access to information on the primary, as well as, secondary art market. According to Neuendorf, "It [the open culture of the Internet] has happened in all other industries and now will inevitably take place in the art world."

Alas, the ArtNet database turned out to be surprisingly thin and, well, uninformative. Once again, the viewer sees only thumbnail sketches--comparable to the commercial slide registries--with few prices or sales records.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

The brave new artworld, which in early 1995 seemed to be emerging on the Internet, now looks remarkably like the not-so-brave, old art market. For some, it was surprising that the art market even went on-line, given its traditional resistance to change. (After all, this is an industry which has yet to adopt the credit card!) For me, it is more surprising to see how quickly the artworld has replicated its non-virtual hierarchy in this new techno-sphere.

"Anyone can open a website," was the artworld mantra of 1995. Such euphoria took it for granted that the Internet would be a more open environment than the gallery system. But, let me fill you in on a dirty little secret: Anyone can also open a gallery, anyone can make art or be a collector. It's locating one's web-site or gallery or artwork or collection within the cultural hierarchy that remains a daunting obstacle for those seeking visibility and validation.

Barbara Pollack is an artist and editor of the ARTnewsletter.


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