Point, Click, Collect: Amazon.com has entered the fine art biz

In October, adored and anonymous British street artist Banksy—whose work customarily fetches tens of thousands of dollars—set up a simple stall at New York’s Central Park and offered his own original spray-painted pieces for $60 each. He staffed the booth with a nondescript older man wearing a baseball cap and a vest. No sales happened until 3:30 p.m., when a woman bought two pieces for her kids, bargaining the seller down to $60 for both. At the end of the day, eight pieces had sold for a total of $420.

The art prankster was making a point about context: How big a role does setting play in the price tag and perceived quality of art? How does a viewer’s experience change when art is displayed in a traditional gallery setting versus in a street stall, versus on the website of a billion-dollar Internet company that sells everything from books to lawn mowers to, now, a Banksy screen print. (At press time you could one-click it on Amazon for $7,500, plus $75 shipping.)

Amazon launched its fine art store
 (amazon.com/art) in August, built on partnerships with a preselected group of 150 gallery owners and art dealers nationwide—including seven in Seattle—who submitted 40,000 paintings, photographs, drawings, prints and other two-dimensional work for sale. Prices run from $10 to $4.85 million (for an original Norman Rockwell painting); Amazon takes a cut of each sale based on a sliding scale that decreases with the price of the work. The art store uses the same template as other Amazon departments, such as appliances, beauty and electronics. Customers can read the “product specifications” for each piece of art (size, condition, frame) and award a star rating (becoming instant art critics). And if you buy a piece of art and are dissatisfied once it arrives, you have 30 days to pack it up and return it. For 100 million or so Amazon shoppers, this context is second nature—and for many, a lot more comfortable than walking into a traditional gallery.

Presenting, buying and selling fine art online was commonplace before Amazon got in on the action. Local gallerists have been showcasing work on their websites for years, often with prices included. Big aggregator sites, such as Berlin-based Artnet.com and New York–based Artspace.com and Artsy.net, work with high-end galleries and dealers to sell art online via auctions and direct sales. But Amazon’s entry into the art business marks a shift: It is the first time a retailer of this size, with such a huge range of inventory, has made a full-court press into the fine art business. (Issaquah-based Costco has a fine art section online, too, but it currently has fewer than 100 pieces.) And since Amazon has changed the way we buy pretty much everything, there’s a good chance it’s going to change the way we buy art.

Whether you think this is good or bad determines your side in the debate that Amazon’s art launch sparked among Seattle gallerists—some contending that introducing artists (particularly Northwest artists) to Amazon’s immense customer base can only be a win for artists and galleries, and others believing that Amazon’s take on art is too corporate, too indiscriminate and generally a dubious way to experience art.

The marriage of art and corporate commerce has always been wrought with tension (see books, music). Artists worry that their work may be cheapened by mere proximity to commodities that don’t require an artful eye to be understood (e.g., toilet paper). But is the desire to sell work to people outside the traditional art circles necessarily selling out?

“Amazon is a great equalizer,” says Catherine Person, a Seattle art dealer for the past 26 years who had her own gallery in Pioneer Square from 2005 to 2011. “Art sites like Artnet and Artsy are great for people who already like art and know about art,” she says. “But I’m really glad [Amazon] is doing this because it’s not just an art site. A lot of people who would never consider going into a gallery will see it.” While confident that brick-and-mortar galleries are in no danger of disappearing, having owned one, Person clearly remembers how difficult it can be to broaden the customer base. “Thousands of people walk by on game days, but don’t even glance inside.” (Above: Longtime gallery owner Linda Hodges is making some of her artists’ work—including paintings by Seattle artist Jennifer Beeden Snow, whose “Palm Springs Pool” is seen here—available on Amazon Art.)

Person was among an exclusive group of Seattle gallery owners and art dealers invited to attend a meeting with Amazon earlier last summer, in advance of the launch. At the meeting—where attendees were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement preventing them from discussing the art store prior to launch—Amazon staff presented the details of the new store and invited galleries to join the beta version. Person decided to embark on the “grand adventure,” rounded up 10 of the artists on her roster, and spent months helping them select artwork to appear on the site and inputting information about the art into a giant Excel spreadsheet. “I filled out 54 columns of information for each print,” she recalls. Acknowledging that she could’ve chosen to include fewer details, she says, “It was our choice to go big.” Her painstaking efforts seem to be paying off—Person sold three pieces in the site’s first three months online.

“We are asking galleries to provide a lot of data for each piece of art, because our customers like that,” says Peter Faricy, vice president of Amazon Marketplace (which oversaw the launch of Amazon Art). He is well aware that the gallery experience isn’t fully replicable online, but the extensive information gathering from galleries is an attempt to anticipate the questions a shopper might ask gallery staff or art dealers in person. “You can never replace the experience of being inside a gallery—it’s wonderful,” Faricy says. “But our mission is to create something as close as possible to that experience.”

On the Amazon Art site, customers can sort by 10 categories, including color—15 unique colors, plus “clear” and “multicolor.” “People love searching by color,” Faricy stresses. He recalls getting feedback from an interior designer who said she works with people who’ve been collecting art for years. “She says one of the most difficult things is finding original works of art to tie in to the color of a room,” he reports. “Being able to search by color is a game changer in the world of interior design.”

Customers can also sort by subject, which includes straightforward subheads such as “Still Life,” “Animals” and “Figures,” along with some puzzlers such as “Social Issues,” “Stolen Moments” and “Emotions.” “I’ve never seen any site in the world that divides the search this way,” Faricy says with enthusiasm. (Artsy and Artspace allow users to search by the same criteria as Amazon—although their “subjects” are fewer and less mystifying.) Faricy points out that being able to sort and browse by subject and price point are things Amazon Art can offer that can’t be done in a physical gallery.