A ‘Shazam’ for Art Fairs? The Company Behind Art Basel Looks to Own the Future With a Cutting-Edge New App

PRNCPL makes its debut this month at the first-ever Art Düsseldorf, also run by MCH Group.

A visitor snaps a picture of "Untitled 2016" by Rirkrit Tiravanija during Art Basel Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images.

Switzerland’s MCH Group, which owns the prestigious Art Basel, is turning to tech in its bid to stay at the top of the art-fair pyramid. Its new app, PRNCPL, is an attempt to create a “Shazam for art” specifically engineered for a fair context. Describing itself as “a new technology platform for the art industry,” it promises to let smartphone-wielding visitors to Art Basel’s partner fairs aim their phones at any artwork on view and call up all its details: title, artist, medium, gallery, and—in some but not all cases—price.

PRNCPL makes its debut this month at the first-ever Art Düsseldorf fair, part of the MCH Group’s Regional Art Fair portfolio, which is set to come to the former factory complex Areal Böhler, November 17–19.

In a press release, PRNCPL co-founder Moenen Erbuer noted that “the art fair experience hasn’t evolved much in recent years,” adding that the industry is “ripe for sweeping digital innovation.”

Ben Sledsens, Cawing Crows, (2017). Courtesy of Art Düsseldorf.

Ben Sledsens, Cawing Crows, (2017). Courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp.

artnet News gave the beta version of the yet-to-launch app a spin in our offices. Since Art Düsseldorf remains a few weeks away, we were limited to scanning hi-res artwork images from our computer screen.

In that limited and controlled situation, at least, it worked. Fairly quickly, the app loaded up all of the aforementioned info, albeit sans pricing information, for which it instructed us to contact the gallery. (You can try out scans of the pictures embedded here after downloading the app.)

Though the technology did not strike us as particularly revolutionary feeling, it certainly will help eliminate some steps that are all too familiar to regular fairgoers, such as photographing both individual works and wall labels to keep track of potential favorites.

PRNCPL’s proponents list a variety of advantages offered by the app: its professional photo replaces “poorly framed and badly lit mobile photos”; the data within the app is easily shared; its “frictionless experience” potentially increases gallery sales; and, since the image-recognition technology works entirely offline, it allows visitors to access contact information quickly, without any pesky data roaming charges.

The app’s co-founders concede that not every artwork at a fair will be easily recognized. In particular, sculptures, videos, and the ever-popular reflective works all present challenges.

Label of Ben Sledsens' Cawing Crows, (2017). Courtesy of Art Düsseldorf.

Label of Ben Sledsens’ Cawing Crows, (2017). Courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp.

As a company, PRNCPL evolved out of its sister platform Curiator, which was co-founded by Erbuer and Tobias Boonstoppel in 2014, and was acquired by MCH Group in 2016. Its core product is a database system for art fairs, promising to help them better manage and utilize their data.

Despite PRNCPL’s debut in Düsseldorf, don’t expect to use it at MCH Group’s more prominent fairs, like the upcoming Art Basel in Miami Beach—at least not just yet.

“We are mainly focused on the regional art fairs which we consider a more ‘experimental’ platform,” a representative told artnet News. “There is no plan in place to implement this for Art Basel in the near future, but this might happen later on.”

This is not the first attempt to make a “Shazam for art” work. Recently Smartify, which can identify artworks in the collections of partner museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hermitage, has drawn headlines

MCH Group has recently been on an ambitious acquisition streak of regional art fairs. It took a minority stake in Art Düsseldorf earlier this year, following the announcement of their majority stake in the India Art Fair in fall 2016.

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