‘The Future of the Art World Is Direct-to-Consumer’: As the Market Shifts Online, a Growing Number of Artists Are Thriving Without the Middle Man

Emerging artists, in particular, are having luck selling on Instagram.

Artists around the world are helping each other out on Instagram. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Artists around the world are helping each other out on Instagram. Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

The artist Sara Erenthal, like most New Yorkers, had a rough March. She contracted what she suspects was COVID-19 and had to self-quarantine at her home in Brooklyn. But there was an upside too: By the time she was on the mend, sales of her work were surging. The artist, who has never had gallery representation, made more money in April than she had in the first three months of the year combined.

Followers on Instagram were reaching out to Erenthal in droves. They had seen how hard the economic shutdown had hit artists and wanted to help. The artist commemorated her unexpected success in a new work, a drawing on curbside trash that read “I would never believe that a world pandemic would help my career.”

“I can’t believe the amount of art I am selling now,” Erenthal told Artnet News in an Instagram message. “I never imagined people would be spending that kind of money now.”

Erenthal is not alone. As the pandemic brought a new focus on virtual communication, many artists found themselves increasingly communicating with collectors directly to sell their work, often through Instagram.

“I have definitely had several people say to me something along the lines of, ‘I would love to do more to support you and purchase some of your work,'” said Jackson Shea Denahy, a painter in New York.

Despite her own financial struggles—which included lost income from canceled exhibitions, guest lectures, and freelance video work—New Mexico artist Valery Jung Estabrook has earned money by selling works as part of charity sales. Some of the proceeds from sales of her small coin sculptures, priced at just $50 to $100, went to organizations such as the Bail Project, Color of Change, Seeding Sovereignty, and the Loveland Foundation.

So far, Estabrook has fundraised $2,000. And “my art sales, although modest, are definitely helping me eke by during this difficult time,” she told Artnet News in an email.

Lower Prices Are Paying Off

Estabrook’s low price points may actually give her a key advantage in the current climate. “There is still interest in buying artwork during this challenging time,” New York art dealer Deanna Evans told Artnet News in an email. “In my experience so far, it is often at a lower price point.”

While auction sales overall were down 58.3 percent the first half of the year compared to 2019, the smallest decrease came at works that cost $10,000 and under, according to the fall Artnet Intelligence Report. Many online art sales, particularly on Instagram, are on the low end of even that spectrum.

Evans hosted an “Emergency Work on Paper Sale” on her website, selling works for $200 and splitting the proceeds evenly with the artists. The sale was a way to help artists who had lost income during the pandemic, and also to open new buying opportunities for collectors.

“Many young collectors are intimidated and overlooked in the acquisition process,” Evans said, “so I wanted to completely eliminate this hurdle by making all work directly available on my website,”

The brisk sales—73 of the 74 works on offer found homes—”underscored the continued support of small spaces and emerging artists,” Evans said. “I even saw a noticeable uptick in interest when the stimulus checks were sent out.”

In April, curator Lauren Hirshfield launched @temp.img, an Instagram-based sales model where all the works cost $500 or less, and 75 percent of the proceeds go directly to the artist. Prices are listed clearly in the captions, and, to make a purchase, all users have to do is send a direct message.

“There are so many folks out there who are intrigued by the art world, and find artists or cool images online that they fall in love with and want to own, but most of the time it’s way above their price point, so they feel shut out and disengage,” said Hirshfield. “The art world doesn’t do anything to educate and cater to budding collectors who can’t afford to spend more than $1,000 or $2,000.”

Temp.img staged three “shows,” each with three artists showing three works each, to fill the nine squares of the Instagram grid. Hirshfield believes that part of the platform’s success grew out of collectors’ desire to do something to help artists.

“All of a sudden, the many ways artists were used to showing and selling art had become unreliable,” Hirshfield said. “I think the pandemic will actually give emerging artists a big opportunity—where before it was only sort of a chance—to take sales into their own hands and have a thriving small business.”

“I think the future of the art world,” she added, “is carving out a bigger and permanent place for direct-to-consumer.”

Artists Helping Artists

The wave of canceled exhibitions and lost day jobs inspired Jay Gaskill, an abstract painter in Portland, Oregon, to take action.

“I was just seeing post after post: ‘I’ve lost my job. Can you help out?’ “My father’s in the hospital. Can you please help?'” Gaskill told Artnet News. In 2017, he founded the Drawing Exchange Project, a private, invitation-only artist group that organizes art exchanges a couple of times a year. “I realized that now was the time to leverage this community that I’d been slowly building over the years, and turn it into something that could provide real assistance at this time,” he said

On a Monday, Gaskill reached out to all artists who had participated in the Drawing Exchange Project in the past. By Friday, he had launched a large-scale art sale on the Drawing Exchange Instagram account. Works of art from 50 artists were priced between $50 and $900, with some artists pledging to donate the proceeds of their work to charity, or to pay it forward by purchasing another work from the sale to support a fellow artist. (Gaskill did not take a commission.)

The sale raised about $13,000 in two weeks. “The response was just really overwhelming—it was a really beautiful time,” Gaskill said. “Everybody who was collecting was just so happy that they could do something for the artist.”

An Imperfect Model

The direct-to-consumer business model is not without its drawbacks. For one thing, a good deal of Instagram outreach doesn’t necessarily translate into completed deals, many artists say.

“A lot of the time when I am contacted through Instagram, the sales fall through last minute because of a disconnect in messaging,” said Denahy, who typically earns about half his income selling his art. “I think what I may have seen was a large increase in interest, and a decrease in actual sales.”

Plus, artists now have to take on the time-consuming business of communicating with collectors, negotiating sales, invoicing, and shipping—all services that a gallery traditionally provides.

View this post on Instagram

“Drive” Oil on canvas 9×12 in. 2020

A post shared by Jackson Shea Denahy (@jackson_cares) on

“It’s a bit exhausting now. answering so many emails, scheduling—I’m a one-person show,” Erenthal said. Today she’s “having trouble staying on top of sales” while still painting murals.

Gaskill had a similar experience while running the Drawing Exchange sale. “It really took over my life there for a little while,” he said. “But I will absolutely do it again if I feel like the community needs it.”

“This is a really unique moment in history, where artists, gallerists, curator, critics, and collectors can remake the art world into how we want it to be,” Gaskill added. “I hope what comes out of this is a more equitable art world that’s more transparent, less opaque, more open to new collectors, and more welcoming to artists and other members of the community who are arts curious.”


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