Artspace aims to create a new online art network

Catherine Levene and Chris Vroom, co-founders of Artspace

If we socialize, shop, friend, flirt and work on the internet, why can’t we show, find and buy art there too? That’s one idea behind Artspace, an ambitious young start-up which got a high profile outing at a brunch at the Mondrian on South Beach Saturday.

Promoting a virtual art marketplace at the short lived but very physical you-gotta-be-there Art Basel fair might seem a bit odd. But co-founder Chris Vroom (such an energetic name) is convinced it’s an idea whose time has come. “Art and culture are critical to our society,” he told me, sitting on a balcony at the Mondrian overlooking the pool and Biscayne Bay, sparkling on a crisp, breezy, perfect day. A crowd of about 150 enjoyed a luxurious buffet ranging from chocolate truffles to Caribbean spiced fish. “We’re trying to facilitate participation with great artists and arts organizations and potential audiences, to aggregate that ecosystem on one platform.”

The six month old Artspace is meant to connect potential art buyers, especially those who don’t have the money or knowledge to pay hundreds of thousands at the likes of an Art Basel, to galleries and even museums around the world. Prices start at a few hundred and go up to $30,000. Vroom said a study they’d commissioned showed that 26 million of the 120 million households in the U.S. bought art each year, at an average price of $250 to $500. They want to bring some of those people, especially those buying mass produced or decorative pieces, online to Artspace.

Eventually, Vroom says, they think there’ll be a $10 billion market for art online, and they want to have one tenth of that. “We think a lot of that population would be interested in buying real work from a real artist,” he said. “But it’s not accessible. Most people can’t go to a gallery in Chelsea, and the price and place are intimidating. We are breaking down those barriers.”

Will it work? Vroom’s background is as a financial analyst. His partner in Art Space is Catherine Levene, who was COO and general manager of Daily Candy, a successful style and shopping site, and also worked building the New York Times website. Both are art lovers. Part of Levene’s inspiration in starting Artspace was her experience starting to buy art as a 20-something without much money. Prices at Artspace start at $200. “We want to find the next generation of collectors,” she said. “These are people who expect to find everything online, including art…. Ultimately people want to browse art from the comfort of their own home.”

Although Vroom wouldn’t give sales figures, he said 300,000 people had visited the website in six months. Besides galleries, major museums like the Guggenheim, ICA in Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum are participating. There are some name artists as well; Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince. Non-profit galleries and art groups are participating too: the Mondrian brunch was also promoting the sale of a limited edition of prints by artists supported by the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, Russell Simmons’ foundation, and produced by Artspace. Proceeds from the sale would go to the Rush Foundation.

The work with non-profits is another, idealistic and equally ambitious side of Artspace – to engage everyone (or as close as they can get) in art and culture, to create a network that will help fund artists and art-making outside the usual mechanism of asking for money from government, foundations and the like. Vroom’s other major achievement was founding a non-profit called Artadia in 1999, right after the NEA stopped giving out individual artists fellowships following the political brouhaha that surrounded funding artists whose ideas strayed a little too far outside the mainstream. With Artspace, the hope is not only to make money for everyone involved, but to create a new financial ecosystem to support creative endeavours.

“Art is not only crucial to perpetuating our cultural legacy, but it drives economic activity,” Vroom says. “It’s important to nurture a thriving artistic community.”

Will it work? Hard to say. Will people spend significant money online? Will that many people really buy art? Can you tell what you like by seeing a photo online? But the possibilities are almost as big as the internet.


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