Do we need art galleries anymore?

The Independent Thursday, 16 October 2008 - THE INDEPENDENT

As art becomes the only viable option for investors, Annie Deakin argues whether the internet is a help or a hindrance to the art market.

Damien Hirst’s decision to bypass his dealers and take his work straight to auction rocked the art world last month. With the growth of online art, the relationship between artist, dealer and gallery was already endangered. This October has been the highlight of the art calendar (Frieze Art Fair, the Turner Prize and Saatchi’s new Chelsea space) but there is a real panic - can galleries survive?
The week preceding Sotheby’s record-breaking Damien Hirst auction, I went out for pizza with my friend Becca who assists a West End art dealer. She was stressing about the impending auction: “If it flops, it’s bad news for dealers and the art market as a whole. If it succeeds, it will change everything for contemporary galleries. Will artists need galleries in the future?” With real estate such a burden and art readily available online, heavy overheads like rent are fast becoming a luxury.

It is heady days in arts cyberspace. This autumn, E-literature soared with the launch of the Sony Reader, youtube brims with clips from musicals and paintings sell fast through the web. Sites like 55 Max and The Real Art Company are cropping up and the blogging revolution discusses paintings. Among my iPod generation, if an artist doesn’t feature on a website, do they exist?

The art market seems the only safe bet for investors right now. Traditionally, in difficult economic climates, the middling art world struggles while the high and low ends thrive. The very same day that Lehman brothers collapsed and the American financial markets tumbled, Russians were blowing their billions on diamond cabinets and gold butterfly paintings. I wonder if the oligarchs actually viewed their purchases first – do they even care? I can only hope that they, at least, caught a glimpse online.

Is the internet a help or a hindrance to the art world? Traditionalists abhor that we buy paintings without seeing them in the flesh. Will Ramsay, founder of Will’s Art Warehouse and the Affordable Art Fair (23-26 October) says, “Buying art is touchy feely. You need it to be 3-dimensional and in the right light. You can’t get that on a screen.”

It’s controversial stuff for a man who runs a website selling art. “Well?” he backtracks laughing when I probe. “Online art works because you don’t need to venture into a gallery. People dislike walking into a silent, wooden floored gallery where you feel self-conscious. But if you buy art online, you need the ability to send a picture back if you don’t like it.” One in ten of Ramsay’s paintings bought online are returned. Fairs like Frieze initiate the unfamiliar to the often patronising art world. Earlier this month, I scribbled notes of artists I admired (Rosie James, Michele Del Campo) at Art London to later investigate – and self-assuredly buy from - online. The web is a springboard to art rather than a medium in its own right.

The internet helps artists grow and nascent collectors dare to spend. You can pick up a signed Hirst for £6k (rather than £100k) at Eyestorm, the leading online retailer of limited edition contemporary art, through mydeco. My friend Pia Munden, an interior designer, succumbed to their ‘make us an offer’ policy. “My husband will freak – he doesn’t know yet. I fell in love with a photo of pink roses by Vanessa Warren. It said ‘Buy now for £375 or make us an offer’. I emailed saying that I want to pay £250.” The picture is now en route from America. “I don’t know what made me do it. I’m not the kind of person to spend whimsically.” By not consciously pressing the buzzer to a daunting gallery – let alone negotiate price in person - Pia invested in a piece of art to treasure. It was probably a shrewd judgment.

Word in exhibition halls is that "art is the new gold". My father, a goldsmith for over forty years, says, “Gold has more than doubled in value in four years. People bury it in the garden and it won’t corrode. They can touch it.” In a world where financial markets are alarmingly ‘virtual’, a painting, like gold bullion, is reassuringly tangible.

True to form, Damien Hirst left the art world in a pickle by setting the benchmark for the commoditization of art. But reality is that the internet will most transform the future of the art market. Blogging, a wider market, competitive pricing and the stock market crash is fuelling the cyberspace art revolution. For infinity and beyond, art will be worth something – which is more than can be said about a Lehman share.

Annie Deakin is acting editor of mydeco