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Affordable art is the new reality

At first glance, the shopping cart filled with canvases looks like it might be a work of conceptual art, an installation that equates paintings with groceries. And indeed, that’s the intent at Artspace Warehouse on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles: paintings so affordable, you might consider stocking up.

“The gallery is very unintimidating,” said owner Claudia Deutsch, who brought the concept from her gallery in Zurich, Switzerland, to Los Angeles last year. Artspace Warehouse is laid out with paintings on movable walls that flip like pages in a giant picture book. Neon-pink signs direct customers to sections organized by price, with small-scale original pieces by artists such as Berlin-based Kati Elm that cost as little as $40.

“I am sure I sell more because of the democratic price,” Elm said.

And that is the point: In this new world, advances in digital printing and Internet commerce have given emerging artists a shot at reaching and building an audience, not through an exclusive show where a few works sell at high prices but, rather, through venues where low-priced creations can sell in volume.

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While masterpieces still fetch record-breaking prices at auction, another segment of the gallery industry is still wobbly from the recession. Some dealers are recognizing that in the current economy, a market exists for consumers who appreciate interesting work but can’t — or simply aren’t interested in —spending too much.

“People are so overwhelmed by mass-produced things that the idea that you can find an original painting for $250 is much better than walking into Crate & Barrel for a framed photograph,” said art consultant Cris McCall of Hollywood-based Tinlark Consulting.

The newly opened Design Matters gallery in West L.A. offers works on paper for less $500, but one need not even look that far. A host of e-commerce art sites offer a range of alternatives. Individuals market their own photography and art on the Web, of course, but the scene is also populated with group sites such as Socurio.com, which offers original paintings and sculpture, and Artspace.com, which sells limited edition prints by emerging and museum-quality artists.

“Affordable art does not mean any lesser quality art,” Deutsch said, adding that margins are lower, but higher sales volume can help the ventures survive.

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New York City gallery owner Jen Bekman, who launched 20x200.com, has done that math. Her site’s pricing scale for limited editions gives shoppers some choices: A small photo offered in an edition of 200 might be priced at $20 per print. But a much larger version of the same photo, in a more collectible edition of two, might sell for $2,000.

The site has featured 500 works by about 200 young artists as well as household names such as William Wegman and David Bowie. It introduces a new fine art or photography piece each week, and it can be addictive to see how shoppers react — whether high-priced exclusive editions sell out before the smaller, less ocstly but ultimately more common versions of the artwork.

“The Internet is a great aggregator of attention and engagement and this is away to educate people about art and acclimate them to collecting,” Bekman said.

The experience is more than a transaction. Buying “small batch” art satisfies an itch to be discerning, Bekman said, adding that in some ways art is no different from a microbrew. It also gives consumers the opportunity to become patrons:

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“Whether you are spending $20 or $2,000, you are supporting an artist in their practice, and people feel virtuous about that,” she said, adding that her site’s sales are split 50-50 with the artists. “It means a lot to our audience that the artists benefit from the purchase.”

Plus there is something exciting about discovering someone on the way up, McCall said.

“Artists are so accessible now,” she said, “you can become a part of their lives and feel you have a stake in their success.”

As proof that consumers are responding, Bekman said her sales have doubled every year since the site launched in 2007.

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“I like to think of it as the gateway drug for becoming a collector,” she said. “It’s the first time in history where a mass audience can engage in collecting.”

Artspace.com launched in April with 110 artists. The goal: to make the work of midcareer and museum-collected artists accessible to the public, according to co-founder Christopher Vroom, who commissioned a market research study indicating about 25 million households will spend up to $500 per year on art.

“These people don’t all have access to the top artists that the commercial galleries are marketing,” Vroom said.

He said his Artspace Marketplace gives people access to the backrooms of galleries of the world, collaborates directly with artists and partners with museums and nonprofits to create limited edition prints. Of the 300 pieces available on the site, 70 are less than $250.

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The site has incorporated features found on popular fashion and home shopping websites such as Gilt and One Kings Lane. Shoppers register as members and then are kept abreast of what are touted as special prices that last for a week. New work by the likes of Chuck Close, Ross Bleckner and Andres Serrano are added regularly, and currently 15 to 20 pieces go live every week. Like 20x200, Artspace also offers smaller editions of prints at higher prices. The site also sells original artworks and recently staged a pop-up store at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood.

“Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable buying luxury goods online and our users have spent up to $7,000 on a piece,” Vroom said, noting that purchases come with a 30-day returns policy. The popularity of the site, however, is being built on accessible pricing.

“David Levinthal, whose photos are in LACMA, has pictures that sell for up to $50,000,” Vroom said. Levinthal prints on Artspace.com, he said, can start at $300.

Many websites pride themselves on curatorial expertise, but SoCurio.com operates as a user-generated marketplace akin to EBay or the craft site Etsy. Artists set their prices and handle the delivery, and the site collects a transaction fee on sales.

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“It’s an open community that any shopper and artist can join,” said founder Sasha Koehn, who launched SoCurio last year. It has 1,000 artists who build an online portfolio and then are approved to sell their work by the SoCurio staff or by members of the SoCurio community. If the work is “collected” 10 times — SoCurio’s version of the Facebook “like” button — then “that shows that people care about the work,” Koehn said.

The site has a broad scope of work: paintings, sculpture, ceramics, furniture, jewelry. Browsers can filter results by price, size, medium and style of work. Just like Amazon, SoCurio also suggests potential purchases based on a members’ web-surfing history.

Prices start at $20 and have run as high as $10,000.

“Our magic price is from $100 to $700,” Koehn said.

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“It can be a new platform for artists to grow, so they don’t have to spend their whole lives trying to get into a gallery.”

It’s an idea more artists are taking to heart. In June, interiors and fine art photographer Karyn Millet used Chase’s Instant Storefront program to launch her own site, https://www.shopkarynmillet.com, which sells images of architecture and nature. The works, which are produced in editions of 500, start at $225 for a ready-to-hang canvas print.

Interior designers and hotels already buy her work, Millet said, so she wanted to reach a different audience.

“I felt someone needed to step it up, to bridge the gap between Bed Bath & Beyond and a museum,” she said. “It seems timely and feels responsible, because we are all watching our pennies.”

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