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Art metrics, just like buying a pair of shoes?

Tuesday February 27 2018

Buying art online

Sotheby’s has made a seemingly momentous business decision to buy technology business, Thread Genius. Hailed by The Daily Telegraph [1] as a ‘big deal’ in more ways than one, the venture will allow Sotheby’s to take customers on an online ‘journey’ that takes information and algorithms to suggest alternative or additional works of art, based upon previous searches and choices. Everything you browse or buy contributes to your user ID and you are presented with suggestions which might look similar but cost a whole lot less than your favourite. It also judges your favourite colours, types of compositions and materials. Just the same as when you buy an item of clothing on Net-a-porter, or even the John Lewis website.

Several art platforms do similar things already. US-based site artnet has opened up the process of auctions and London-based entrepreneurs will present opportunities to create collections, including different, similar works.

But this is an interesting move in the established auction world. The hope is that this type of venture will reinvigorate the auction model and it would be good if it could. Auction houses know they are operating in a largely outmoded field which is heavily dependent upon elite contact lists to sell priceless objects to. Auction houses are trying to diversify their businesses for the wider benefit of art and culture, beyond the world of the privileged, into all sorts of more seemingly egalitarian initiatives.

Reservations from Arterial, particularly in the world of corporate and workplace art, relate to how Thread Genius will encourage individuals to consider different types of art, rather than keep on investing in the same or similar, time and time again. Do we want people to collect the same art that they always have, or just a simple variation? This is no different to clients who patronise the same specialist galleries, time after time. How will they ensure that new and cutting edge contemporary art is profiled and invested in?

The internet is great for many things but its relationship with buying art will always be somewhat problematic. In my personal experience, there really is no substitute for actually seeing art for yourself, for sharing a space with it and appreciating the unique conversation you create with it. Art on the internet can rarely deliver this experience.

That is not to say that art is not a commodity which should be privileged over others. But it is a commodity which has a deeply uncomfortable relationship with convenience purchase or metric intelligence. Mass production and sale of artworks is nothing new and opening up the opportunities for artists through the internet is obviously a good thing. But a process that takes art viewing into the same realm as buying a pair of shoes or a book might be an unnerving one in the rarefied auction world.

By Victoria Tate, Director of Arterial

[1] Colin Gleadell, Your arts desire is a few clicks away, The Daily Telegraph, 20th February 2018