Wondering How Instagram’s New Tap-to-Buy Features Might Work for Selling Art? Here Are the Answers

Instagram's new Shopping features now allow users to buy artwork from approved sellers with a few taps. But will it work for the art world?

The Instagram logo, with a Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog at center. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
The Instagram logo, with a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog at center. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Exactly how long have we in the media been talking about artists and dealers selling art through Instagram? Here is one metric: anyone who entered high school during the first wave of articles on this subject has now graduated. (Or at least, they should have. I can’t vouch for their work ethic.)

Still, the definition of what it means to “sell through Instagram” has been more than a little messy. At best, the term has described posting an image of an available work, using public comments and direct messages to hammer out the terms of a deal, and then completing the transaction through other channels. Not exactly what people in the tech sector would call a “frictionless” process.

But few people in the art world realize that Instagram has been changing this situation step-by-step since November 2016. And in fact, the app completed a broad roll-out of more future-facing enhancements last month. Now, Instagram’s so-called “Shopping” features enable users to actually tap to buy items offered in sellers’ posts. No more messy human interaction to finalize a sale. Just pure-play e-commerce activated by a few touches of your mobile screen.

To get a better sense of the options and the requirements of these new tools, not to mention how they might affect the art trade, let’s do a little role play, shall we?

Hi! Can artists use these new features to sell work on Instagram?

Sorry—not quite yet. But an Instagram spokesperson promises that the company “recognizes the importance of the artist community on Instagram” and is “actively thinking about this space.” So maybe start scrolling through your feed, and by the time you look up again, enough hours (or days, or weeks, or months) may have passed that you’ve Rip Van Winkled your way into a wish granted.

Otherwise, the entities most eligible for this new frontier look to be dealers (including advisers who sell) and online art-sales startups.

I’m a dealer. What do I need to do to start using the Shopping tools for artwork?

You need to sell physical goods (apologies to you media-art specialists), open an Instagram Business account, and set up an online product catalogue—basically, a tiny database of items you’re offering for sale—through either Facebook or one of its integration partners, like Shopify.

Check those boxes, and you’re one short approval process away from enabling tap-to-buy capabilities on your account. (You can find a detailed step-by-step walkthrough of that process by clicking here.)

Banner image for the walkthrough of Instagram's new Shopping features.

Banner image for the walkthrough of Instagram’s new Shopping features.

OK, done. Now what exactly can I do with the new Shopping features?  

The details depend on whether you want to activate an old-school feed post (meaning, a single static photo that lives on your Instagram feed forever), a carousel (multiple static photos bundled together as a single permanent feed post), or an Instagram Story (a photo or short video that disappears after 24 hours).

However, in all cases, the general principle is the same: You can now add product tags or stickers for the available items included in your posts, similar to how you could tag, say, your best friend in a photo of the two of you stranded on a train somewhere beneath Manhattan because the subway system is held together by two lengths of dental floss and a 60-year-old dollop of Elmer’s glue.

Users can then tap the tag or sticker to reach a summary page (still hosted within Instagram) to find out more information about the item in question. The type of post you’re creating mostly just determines how many tags or stickers you can include—and, as a result, how many different summary pages users can get to from that post.

What’s on a summary page, and where does that page live? 

Summary pages show the price, a photo of the item, and a caption where the seller can go into more detail about its virtues. Below all this are thumbnails of other available items, each of which can be tapped to reveal its own summary page. It’s like a Russian nesting doll of e-commerce!

An example of an Instagram summary page for a designer's dress.

An example of an Instagram summary page for a designer’s dress.


But wait, I still don’t see a ‘Buy Now’ feature on the summary page. What gives? 

Patience, my friend. It’s true, you won’t see a “buy” button on an item’s summary page. But you will see a button there reading “View on Website.” Tapping that button will open a browser window that allows buyers to complete the purchase on an external website—specifically, either a Facebook Shopping page, or the merchant’s storefront on an e-commerce partner like Shopify or BigCommerce.

I thought you said the shopping features allowed in-app purchases? 

OK, so, that wasn’t 100 percent, letter-of-the-law accurate. Yes, Instagram still won’t do all the heavy lifting for you. But they’ll get users closer to the point of sale than they ever have before, with way less effort on your end.

I’m not sure if I’m ready for direct e-commerce. I’d be more comfortable if the external web page just allowed the buyer to email a gallery representative to negotiate. Is that an option?  

Well, don’t you think it kind of defeats the whole purpose of tap-to-buy if you can’t actually, you know, tap to buy?

In other words, no, that’s not an option. Sorry!

An example of a product sticker in a designer's Instagram story.

An example of a product sticker in a designer’s Instagram story.

Fine. Is there anything else I should know?

Apart from Instagram stories, Shopping features aren’t just applicable to new posts. You can also go back to old posts and activate them by adding product tags retroactively. (You cannot, however, actually travel back in time to save yourself the dozens of hours you spent direct messaging with people trying to pump you for maximum information before disappearing like a magic trick.)

As of my writing, Instagram is also testing the inclusion of a Shopping channel in the Explore tab. In theory, this means a whole new crowd of users could stumble onto your artwork purely because they’re in the mood to buy something of some kind, and your artwork happens to get aggregated into the stream of shoppable posts.

What about in practice? Will direct sales through Instagram be a good look for me? 

Well, that depends on who you ask. Right now, the responses I’ve gotten aren’t very encouraging if you want to be taken seriously in the art world.

In an email, Benjamin Godsill, the New York art advisor and former Phillips contemporary department specialist, defined Instagram’s Shopping features as a solution in search of a problem” when it comes to artworks. He acknowledged that Instagram has sometimes been a useful tool in making initial contact with collectors who would later go on to acquire work. He just thinks there are distinct limits to the audience willing to bite on these new fishhooks.

“I may be proven wrong, but I don’t envision the types of clients I work with and the types of galleries I do business with being interested in selling their wares in the same manner of knock-off frocks and watches,” he writes. “There may be some bottom-feeding secondary dealers and purveyors of ‘street art’ and decorative contemporary bric-a-brac that find it to be a relevant sales channel, but I don’t see it acting as a disruptive, or even iterative, agent in how high-end, investment-grade contemporary art is traded.”

Alex Logsdail, international director of Lisson Gallery (and spearhead of the business’s expansion to New York), agrees. “Every gallery does a lot of business based on emailing images of artworks (which used to be slides, faxes, transparencies—none of this is new),” he wrote in an email. “But there is a big difference in my mind between being offered a work personally by someone you know or trust and seeing a work at a high price that is broadly available to anyone who sees that image. Deep personal interaction is one of the most unique and important driving forces in the art world. Without it, I don’t know what is left.”

The painting Leonardo DiCaprio allegedly purchased via Instagram: Jean-Pierre Roy, Nachlass (2015).

The painting Leonardo DiCaprio purchased via Instagram (in a manner of speaking) in 2015: Jean-Pierre Roy, Nachlass, 2015. Image courtesy of the Creators Project.

Ouch. What about serious galleries that aren’t as big or starry, though? 

There have certainly been some well-publicized blips on the radar in the past four years, including when Leonardo DiCaprio agreed to acquire Jean-Pierre Roy’s Nachlass by phone in 2015 after seeing the painting on Instagram. But the single-location dealers canvassed for this story were cool to the possibilities.

Similar to Godsill, Postmasters co-founder Magda Sawon, who has proved willing to be an early adopter of some digital patronage innovations in the past, noted that the app has helped her gallery both find artists (including Alex McLeod, the subject of Postmasters’ next exhibition) and sell works. However, she highlighted that Instagram privileges photogenic artworks. And in her estimation, “most good art isn’t very photogenic.”

“I’m all for easier transaction models, new markets, and new people,” she writes, “but tagging all content as ‘Buy It Now’ would be a no for me. A little too much like a used car salesman.”

Meredith Rosen of her namesake Manhattan gallery reinforced this theme. “When you show the kind of work I do”—an emerging and mid-career program that stretches from conceptual artist Jennifer Rubell to new-media dynamo Theo Triantafyllidis—”you tend to develop deep and long relationships with collectors, often educating them about work that has not been widely seen,” she says. “It’s an incredible process and I can’t imagine it happening with the tap of a touchscreen.”

So what’s the bottom line then? 

Instagram certainly seems interested in finding ways to make a positive impact on the art market. As of now, though, its Shopping features are much more likely to appeal to recreational buyers of (very) low-priced works, not established galleries and advisers with more traditional clientele. Maybe that will change someday. But if so, it will take more than a few convenient taps in 2018.


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