On a balmy summer day in Manhattan, the founder of a web startup called Art.sy was about to experience what one might call an Alexander Graham Bell moment. The firm’s 25-year-old CEO, Carter Cleveland, was sitting on a sofa with his MacBook, scrolling through photos of fine art, when his lanky head of engineering walked in looking positively wobbly with excitement. “This is actually quite cool,” he said, landing on the sofa next to his boss. The engineer, Daniel Doubrovkine, produced a phone and pointed its camera at Cleveland’s computer screen, which at that moment showed an image from Andy Warhol’s Flowers series.
The two men leaned in close to watch. A few seconds passed. Nothing happened. “This thing is still a memory hog,” Doubrovkine muttered.
Suddenly, the phone completed what to a visiting journalist seemed like a miraculous set of connections. On its screen, the Warhol painting—that is, the phone’s rendering of the laptop’s picture of the painting—was now surrounded by tiny thumbnails of other artwork, painted or made by diverse artists and dating from multiple eras, including the present day. According to Art.sy, these works all share the same DNA, so to speak. Cleveland and a team of art historians have spent the past year studying thousands of works and compiling a list of their distinct and measurable elements. The result is the Art Genome, composed at present of more than 550 “genes”: attributes of fine art that range from the simply factual (the medium, the color palette) to the undeniably subjective (the “movement” a work falls into, or its “subject matter”). Using these attributes, Art.sy’s recommendation engine can evaluate a piece on the fly and suggest relationships with other works, presenting those results on any device—even, eventually, a phone.
You can’t just ask a gallery for a $10,000 work in the style of Richard Prince: You’d be laughed out the door.
Cleveland couldn’t contain himself as the screen came to life: “That’s so crazy, dude!” It was perhaps a little more casual than Bell’s famous summons to Mr. Watson, “Come here, I want you.” But within the hermetic confines of the global art market, which still operates much as it did in the 19th century, Cleveland’s technology has the potential to be nearly as transformational as the telephone was back then. At present, gallery spaces and auction houses remain the only places where high-end or even midrange fine art (so, anything that sells in the five figures or above) is presented to prospective buyers. If Art.sy succeeds, it could upend what remains one of the last cultural precincts largely untouched by the digital revolution—changing not just how art is sold but also what art is sold and to whom. By teasing out traits in artworks that link them together aesthetically and historically, Art.sy can draw on buyers’ own taste to suggest other works to them, in some cases circumventing (if not entirely dispensing with) the choices put forward by gallerists and critics. On Art.sy, a would-be collector can select a work of art and get presented with a range of “similar” work, much of it for sale. And what this will represent in practice is not just more products to buy but—potentially—future geniuses to coronate.
New Warhols, come here: We want you.
A few weeks later, in Switzerland, Cleveland and his team demo’d Art.sy at Art Basel, the world’s largest and most prestigious contemporary art fair. Art.sy’s mobile app was ready, and attendees were invited to take part in the site’s private beta. But the app ran into some trouble on the exhibition floor—it turned out that the fair didn’t have free Wi-Fi.
And why would it? After all, inside the art world’s closely guarded borders, the web hasn’t played much of a role. The notoriously opaque global market for fine art and antiques is estimated to be worth roughly $60 billion a year—more than the sales of recorded music worldwide. About a third of the art trade transpires in the US; by one estimate, a quarter of all sales of fine art at auction occur in New York City alone. While galleries sit between the artists and the buyer, art advisers are situated between the buyer and the art gallery. Advisers are often entrusted by galleries to bring in only the most “eligible” buyers; some galleries simply will not deal directly with walk-in customers, no matter how wealthy. Only a tiny fraction of the fine-art trade—4 percent by one estimate—takes place online.
In its bid to change that, Art.sy—which currently remains in private beta—has financial support from an impressive roster of tech-world angels. Google’s Eric Schmidt, Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey, Hunch CEO Chris Dixon, technology investor Jim Breyer, and others have collectively put up nearly $2 million over the past year. What’s more surprising, though, and what promises to sustain Art.sy where similar online ventures have failed, is the lineup of art market heavyweights who also have signed on. Larry Gagosian, one of the largest art traders in the world and owner of Gagosian Galleries, is an official adviser. So is Marc Glimcher, president of competitor Pace Galleries. Dasha Zhukova, Russia’s art “czarina” and the girlfriend of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, has personally invested in the company, as has Wendi Murdoch, Rupert’s wife and a prominent collector. Murdoch sits on Art.sy’s board of directors, and Zhukova is creative director.
The reason for signing on is clear: There’s a lot of money to be made. “Here’s what I say to the high-end galleries,” says Sebastian Cwilich, Art.sy’s COO and a former member of the technical staff at AT&T Labs. “If you don’t think that there’s going to be a lot more art discovered and purchased online, then you don’t need to talk to us. But if you believe that the world is changing, then you shouldn’t miss out.” Cwilich’s pitch seems to have worked: Art.sy has set up relationships with more than 180 galleries, which now allow the startup access to their collections. What the galleries will get in return is a new way to attract potential buyers for these works. Art.sy’s business model depends on turning curious browsers into buyers and on prompting existing collectors to buy more: The company will collect commissions only on actual sales. Art.sy is gambling that its genome will make connections—first aesthetic and then commercial—that would never have happened otherwise.