Pricing Pixels: Breaking Down the Barriers of Selling Digital Art

Pricing Pixels: Breaking Down the Barriers of Selling Digital Art

On October 10, the Internet showed up at the door of Phillips auction house. Over 600 people packed the Park Avenue room to capacity, likely the biggest crowd the contemporary art-focused company has ever drawn, and the youngest, in the aging world of high-end art sales. The guests had arrived for a history-making event: Paddles On!, the world’s first major commercial auction of work by digital artists.

'So many of these artists are representing themselves,' Howard says.

Both an exhibition and a buying opportunity, Paddles On! was presented by Phillips and the artist-friendly social network Tumblr alongside Paddle8, an online art auction house, which hosted a mirror of the event on its website. “We want to bridge the art and tech communities, and what better way to do that than to bring people together over art?” says Annie Werner, Tumblr’s Arts Evangelist. 

Paddles On! gathered a group of 18 artists who work with digital tools and on the Internet, including Rafael Rozendaal, who makes animated single-serving websites, Alexandra Gorczynski, a digital painter and installation artist, Nicolas Sassoon, an acclaimed GIF-maker, and Casey Reas, who works with generative abstraction driven by algorithms. It was curated by Lindsay Howard, the esteemed curatorial director of the Brooklyn new media gallery 319 Scholes. Howard worked with established galleries like bitforms and American Medium, but in many cases, the curator had to go straight to the source: “So many of these artists are representing themselves,” Howard says. 

That Howard and her artists drew a crowd wasn’t surprising, but the final results of the auction may have come as a shock to those who still believe digital art doesn’t have a place in the wider art market. The 17 lots that went to the block sold for a grand total of $90,600.  

Witnessing the auction was “crazy, surreal, unbelievable,” Kelani Nichole, the curatorial director of Transfer gallery, says during a recent afternoon at the gallery, which focuses on “artists working with computer-based practices.”

Nichole watched as Gorczynski’s PLUR Piece, a glossy, abstract digital painting print with screens embedded in its surface, that play short animations that the dealer had helped produce through Transfer, escalated in price. “There was a pause at $4,800…then someone bid again, and it just kept going up,” Nichole says. Estimated at $7,500, the piece went for $9,500. Was the dealer surprised at the price? “Definitely.”

For so long, the seemingly insurmountable barrier to selling digital art was the perception that no collector would willingly buy a GIF or a JPEG, or purchase a website simply for the idea of owning it. It now appears that there was just a lack of easy-to-access supply of digital work to buy.

For so long, the seemingly insurmountable barrier to selling digital art was the perception that no collector would willingly buy a GIF or a JPEG, or purchase a website simply for the idea of owning it.

Gorczynski’s work was one of the higher-priced lots, beating the better-known Rafael Rozendaal’s ifnoyes.com ($3,500), but it wasn’t the highest by a long shot. Americans! a software-driven animation by Casey Reas, sold for $11,000. Jamie Ziegelbaum’s luminous Pixel wall sculpture went for $15,000. The star of the show was Addie Wagenknecht’s Asymmetric Love Number 2, an angular chandelier made of security cameras, went for $16,000.  

These numbers are a far cry from the auction records reached by more traditional media like painting and sculpture. Over one night in October 2013, Christie’s sold nearly $700 million worth of art, including a $142.4 million Francis Bacon triptych. But unlike modernist painting, digital art is an untested market—many of the artists in Paddles On! don’t even have gallery representation, let alone auction records.

Phillips is a smaller auction house than Christie’s or Sotheby’s and thus more willing to test the waters of the new digital art market. By doing so, they also have a chance to dominate the relatively open field, where major sales are still a rarity. At Paddles On!, “Everyone did really well, because otherwise [artists’ work] wouldn’t have been sold at all,” Nichole says. 

“After every lot everyone clapped, even for the $800 pieces, which never happens,” Lindsay Howard recalled. “There was the feeling that every time the gavel went down, that artist was going into the history books somewhere.” Paddles On! was a test of the nascent market for artists working with new technologies. The numbers suggest that Howard and her collaborators have come upon a new way to turn a profit for artists whose presences are online rather than in museums or galleries. 

“For 20 years it’s been universities and non-profit organizations that have been the primary support system for digital art,” Howard says. “Now there’s another opportunity available where it doesn’t need to be those systems; the auction can be another potential avenue for these artists.” 

New York arts non-profits like Rhizome and Eyebeam, which give out grants, curate exhibitions, and commission new work, supported technology-based art in the days that increasingly seem like its infancy. Those same artists are now being integrated into the larger art market and finding other sources of support that may actually fit their chosen medium better than slower, more academic institutions that rely on grants themselves (a portion of the proceeds from the Phillips auction went to Rhizome).

Technology entrepreneurs, a prime audience for buying digital art, have different requirements than the art patrons of the past—namely, something they can tweet about.

Howard argued that Paddles On! was helped, rather than hurt, by its ephemerality. “The auction provided this reason to buy, an urgency, the social experience of being in the space and lifting your paddle,” she says. Technology entrepreneurs, a prime audience for buying digital art, have different requirements than the art patrons of the past—namely, something they can tweet about. At the auction, “it’s not just you walking into a gallery,” the curator explained. “You can publicly show your support for the artist, which is more fun and it gives [buyers] a little bit of cachet to show that they’re on the cutting edge of collecting history.” 

It’s not just artists and collectors who are benefiting from this introduction into the rigors of the market. With its cutting-edge aesthetics and proven ability to draw eyeballs online, digital art is great for both buyers and sellers to look relevant in the Internet age. Phillips managed to beat its competitors to hosting a significant sale of digital art, burnishing its reputation for innovation, while Tumblr is positioning itself as the global home for digital creativity. “Art lives and breathes on our platform; it’s powerful,” says Annie Werner. “It’s a community that grew up with us.” 

Though Tumblr has a clear connection to art created on their website, the company’s tie to actual art sales is tenuous. The curating of Paddles On! didn’t focus specifically on art or artists connected to the social network, which speaks to a degree of distance from the sponsor, yet the auction was a marketing initiative for all parties involved. “It’s about getting people to associate you with certain other things,” Werner says. “We just want to be in people’s brains.”

Tumblr is like the geocities of art,” Jereme Mongeon, the managing director of Transfer gallery, says. Originally, Tumblr put out an open call for submissions to the exhibition and auction. “I don’t think it was taken very seriously,” Nichole added. Transfer benefited from the auction, netting a portion of Gorczynski’s sale price, but Nichole and Mongeon aren’t sure of the digital art auction’s lasting significance.

Tumblr and Phillips, along with Howard, are planning a series of digital art auctions, next in London during Spring 2014. The move makes Paddles On! more closely resemble the auction house’s other yearly sales in genres like contemporary art and photography. “If the digital art auction were this annual thing, I don’t know how I would feel,” Mongeon says. “It felt like the work was coming to auction to early, but in the context of first ever, it did feel special.”

'I think we will see digital art becoming a part of mainstream art,' Rozendaal argues. But in the meantime, art driven by technology has become a kind of badge of cool for those associated with it.

For dealers, digital art auctions could lead to inflated prices and expectations for artists whose work they are still figuring out how to market and sell. “If they come in under estimate it can be really bad for them," Mongeon says. Yet the Phillips auction was a game-changer that signals potential business for the digital art market as a whole. 

Transfer, which opened in Brooklyn in March 2013 with an exhibition of Alexandra Gorczynski, is slowly building a reputation as the go-to space to see and buy young digitally-oriented artists. After a few seasons of well-received programming, they are now representing Rollin Leonard and Lorna Mills. “When we started, it was a one-year experiment,” Nichole says. “Market attention came after.” 

The gallery does mostly low price-point sales, with most pieces going for around $1,000, but “it’s getting up to $10,000 for an average sale in 2014,” Nichole says. By taking a sales-driven approach to running a digital art gallery, Transfer is carving out a niche for itself that’s independent both of corporate brands and slow-moving institutions.

Howard argues that there has to be multiple ways to approach selling digital art. “We need to go from non-profit to for-profit and make sure artists have all these opportunities available to them,” she says. “We can be developing a market here, supporting the artists, not just talking about them.”

Rafael Rozendaal was grateful for the auction’s efforts toward building a market, though he was initially nervous—the space and the context “felt very formal.” “It's important to create interest and economy so I can be a fulltime dreamer,” he explained. Petra Cortright, another Paddles On! artist who makes webcam-style videos, was surprised by the auction’s high numbers. “One of my digital paintings sold for over $9,000. I have never sold for that much before, it was crazy,” Cortright told DIS Magazine. Yet she also felt divorced from the event. “I don’t feel like it’s up to me what the value of my work is,” she says. “It’s decided by all of these other people.” 

“I think we will see digital art becoming a part of mainstream art,” Rozendaal argues. But in the meantime, art driven by technology has become a kind of badge of cool for those associated with it.

In the non-profit space, museums are latching onto technologically-inclined art as a way to stay relevant and access a body of funding not previously available: the deep pockets of technology kingpins. As the Paddles On! auction created the right environment for tech entrepreneurs to personally invest in digital art, both the New Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are opening technology-art incubators (a term popularized by Silicon Valley) that are backed by board members and companies like NVIDIA and Google. The New Museum space will provide a home for artists and businesses alike, though the museum has not clearly stated whether it, like other incubators, will be taking ownership in the projects based there.  

'There were all these new, different complications to owning digital art that we had to smooth over,' Werner says, citing issues of how to display and store non-physical artworks like websites and software. 'Now those things are smoothed over—it was an important step.'

There remains the possibility of conflicts when art and commerce come so close together in an institutional context. Museums are venture capitalists of a sort, investing in artists at an early stage and benefiting in collection value or reputation as the artists grow. But turning that into a literal commercial relationship is much more problematic. That the New Museum hired tech-art impresario Julia Kaganskiy, who is familiar with treading the line between the corporate and art worlds through her work at Vice, as director of the incubator, is a step in the right direction. She has a ground-level view of the changes that are happening in the digital art landscape and the difficulties facing young artists working in the field.

Just as occurred with conceptual art over the past several decades, the extent to which the medium of digital art is uncommodifiable was vastly overestimated. There is a clear demand for the work that these artists are making, whatever its format, and that demand was given a public supply by Paddles On!. “There were all these new, different complications to owning digital art that we had to smooth over,” Werner says, citing issues of how to display and store non-physical artworks like websites and software. “Now those things are smoothed over—it was an important step.”

That the smoothing over was accomplished so quickly is perhaps the only surprise. After all, it was bound to happen; rebellion is the art world’s hottest commodity. Money seemed like such a distant concern only a few years ago. The currency of the day was respect, entrance into online archives, and a bunch of likes and comments. It paid no bills, but a sustainable digital art community needs both critical dialogue and an outlet to the market to keep it going. “What’s there to lose?” Nichole asked. “For a lot of people who haven’t sold at all, it’s like, what’s their gamble?”  

Stay Connected with
Complex Art+design
Tags: digital-art, phillips-auction-house, art-market
blog comments powered by Disqus