Moving the high-touch and cliquish art business online was always going to be a challenge, but several female founders are managing it.

By Suhair Khan (Co-Founder, Developyst)

Bringing the international art market online was never going to be a simple proposition. Buyers were firmly attuned to the all-encompassing experience of the gallery, art fairs, and sometimes auction houses. They were often very dependent on dealers, who provided carefully curated guidance, background and customized support in facilitating art purchases. But over the last few years, a few startups have been able to cross this divide, providing a sleek, rich online experience for art collectors and growing in scope, inventory and services as buyers have cautiously begun to embrace the diversity of online options. Providing the opportunity to learn about new work, styles, artists, movements and buyers’ own tastes, some art platforms have demonstrated that this elite multi-billion dollar market and its relatively small coterie of buyers may soon be engaging with the internet in a big way.

Murakami at Your Fingertips: Artspace and Fine Art Online


Catherine Levene is undoubtedly the leading woman founder in the world of art startups. Artspace is one of the few platforms where you can buy, directly from the site, artwork from many of the finest contemporary artists in the world. The beautifully designed site is supported by a team of curators who collaborate with top museums, galleries and cultural institutions to source artwork. In addition to a broad, global inventory, Artspace’s personalized recommendations and support, regular newsletters, and industry-specific articles and interviews provide an insiders’ glimpse into the international luxury art market.

Levene has worked hard to break through the “friction” that exists in the art world today: “you need to aggregate because the work is located all over the world, curate because people need advice and help collecting, offer transparent pricing, and finally, provide the immediate ability to transact globally for an international client base.”

Spanning genres (street art, photography, sculpture), listed artists range from established luminaries (Anish Kapoor, Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel) to rising stars (Dustin Yellin, Tapp Francke, even JR). Prices, ranging from a few hundred to over $150,000, are affordable in the context of today’s fine art world metrics.

The company’s mission is lofty: Artspace is changing the way the world experiences art. Enough people are inspired by this, and in January this year, the platform raised $8.5 million in growth stage VC funding, most of it from Canaan Partners. The young Russian Art collector and entrepreneur Maria Baibakova also signed on as investor and director.

Having grown up with a family of New York art collectors, Levene was not intimidated by the notoriously cliquish art world, and she also intuitively saw the opportunities for growth. She studied Art History at university in Paris and Madrid and began collecting in her early twenties. After Harvard Business School and a successful stint as COO of Daily Candy, Levene was looking for a change in trajectory in a category she was really passionate about in a big market segment with room to scale. As an $80 billion industry which had been largely undisrupted for decades – the art market seemed like a natural fit.

Unlike with many other tech startups, Artspace’s central strategy has not veered since launch in March 2011; the only real change has been a customer base which is increasingly comfortable with online buying (they are helped along by features such as the Artspace Gift Guides and the even cooler “Art 101” guide; one of the more tongue-in-cheek examples: “How to Pronounce Artists’ names”).

Top international museums, gallerists and even artists have come on board with hopes of tapping new sources of revenue, connecting with a far larger audience, and selling pieces they traditionally have a harder time offloading, including prints and artwork that had been stuck in storage.

Split evenly between technical and industry-specific skill sets – the Artspace team comprises technology and internet marketing experts along with curators and writers with years of experience in the art world. But despite having a seamless user experience down to an artful science, and having been called the “Amazon” of the Art world, Catherine is very aware of the niche-specific difference in the Art industry: the importance of the Network. Artspace has strived to protect the prestigious brands of partners and has gone further in demonstrating this vision with collaborations with the likes of the very well-connected Baibakova.

According to reports, there is now $100 million in online inventory on Artspace, but earnings from museum partners only is at $1.5 million. The biggest challenge appears to be tapping locked up revenue which continues to flow through more traditional distribution channels. Artspace is pushing past that with its concurrent emphasis on bringing in younger buyers just beginning their collections, knowing they are more willing to explore and buy online and are excited by taking risks on new and unknown international talent.

Promising that “lots more” is on the way, Levene is excited about the future. Based on the trajectory of Artspace so far, the time I’ve spent scrolling through their articles (among them reviews of New York’s Armory show, and profiles on recommended New Artists to Discover) and tons of interviews (Nick Cave, Gilbert and George, James Franco and Gonkar Gyatso), browsing artists, and playing with the site, I have to confess that I am as well.

Beyond Artspace: Revolving Collections and Emerging Talent

Even as Levene’s Artspace continues to break important ground in the online art world, there are other exciting concepts gaining traction. A number of startups have found the art rental market to be a workable and rapidly expanding niche. Most prominent among these is Artsicle, which allows users to discover, rent and buy original artwork from emerging artists online. For buyers, the discovery process is driven by a custom algorithm so that each user sees a unique set of curated pieces when they log on. Founder Alexis Tryon introduced the concept of art rentals to facilitate art acquisitions for younger and newer collectors, and rentals comprise over 70% of the site’s revenue.

Artsicle’s innovations have spawned a range of entrepreneurs that have taken the art rental concept into niche markets. Nahema Mehta, founded the members-only “club” Art Remba. Offering “accessible monthly rates” on pieces from coveted artists, the platform initially focused on South Asian-centric work, and now has expanded to offer what is billed as a “global” selection of emerging fine art to clients in New York. But Art Remba is a side project, and as a graduate of Sotheby’s Institute of Art and with a BA and MBA from Columbia, Mehta works full-time as a portfolio manager an India-focused art fund.

In many ways, Mehta’s story reflects the still nascent nature of the online art industry. There is a massive market, potential for change, and a clientele which is slowly but surely embracing the value proposition of online art discovery.  In the age of the Google Art Project and, this is an industry which, traditional as it is, is being inevitably pulled towards engaging with the online world; and Catherine Levene and her contemporaries are leading the way forward.

Women 2.0 readers: Which online art startup are you most excited about?

About the guest blogger: Suhair Khan is a Co-Founder of Developyst, an education-focused social enterprise that started in Pakistan. She currently works at Google and lives in San Francisco (but feels like she is always on the move). She writes regular columns on art, travel, style and technology for Vogue India and Google’s Women in Tech blog. A social entrepreneur, she is excited about the nexus between technology and social impact. Follow her on Twitter at @SuhairK.