Selling commissioned art is unfair to artists. Here’s why a direct-to-consumer approach is the future of the art market
The enthusiasm, education and structure of my Master of Arts program was brilliant. Yet like many artists, upon graduation I was left adrift and ill-prepared for a living from the work I had spent years producing. Within six months of graduating I had my own personal exhibition with a commercial gallery, but it was a cruel wake-up call to be faced with the 60/40 split of sales, despite covering myself 100% of production costs.
I understood the role and strength of the gallery, but it seemed out of balance and that feeling grew. I was intrigued by the metric and thought: surely there is a fairer way?
Fresh off the Basel-Frieze-FIAC art fair circuit, many people I’ve spoken to lately are struck by how this return to business also means a return to a top-down world that maintains true power. artists, especially those who are not represented. I realized that I was not the only one to think: could one imagine a deconstructed art industry that allows access to the market without middleman, in which artists have greater control over their practices and sell their works, and art lovers can buy without high premiums?
The current system is not without its advantages, of course. The conventional gallery setup creates artist names, ensures their works receive the attention they deserve, and supports their practice even when they’re not selling. Art fairs, beyond aerial kisses and selfies, can be essential exercises for mid-career and established artists, facilitating access to crucial networks of curators, collectors and influencers. .
However, most of the shopping malls operate on commission-based models. According to the Fine Art Trade Guild, merchants typically withhold between 30% and 60% of the sale price. This healthy profit margin means that it is in their interests to perpetuate a system in which their work feels indispensable.
But if the paralysis caused by the pandemic has revealed anything, it’s just how unjust artists’ precarious positions are in a market so heavily dependent on the gallery-run administration. The argument for artists to consider at least one alternative path is also supported by the numbers; in 2020, Statista registered 55,000 UK registered visual artists and only 1,400 commercial galleries. If you do the math, most artists won’t find a gallery.
I created Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop in 2015 to support artists by offering them space and time to create, network and exhibit, and above all to present their studio work practices to the public. From the start, it’s been an experiment on how to support and encourage artists without profiting from it – it’s no easy feat with commercial rates and rent.
We have raised funds from patrons and the Arts Council and produced editions from donated works. Our ambition was to build a system that frees artists from the commercial and professional pressures associated with generating income for their gallery. I am often asked: Can a zero percent commission really be a sustainable business model? It works for Unit 1 so far – and more than anything, it shows that alternatives to the status quo are possible.
We are now seeing an influx of new initiatives that deliver robust and responsible business systems that put power back into the hands of artists. For example, the remarkable Artists Support Pledge (ASP), developed by artist Matthew Burroughs, allows Instagram users from all corners of the world to interact and buy directly from artists. ASP estimates that since its inception it has generated £ 180million ($ 242.7million) in sales, all of which have gone directly to artists.
The commission-free approach is also the basis of a new application that we have developed in Unit 1 from our 11 years of work in favor of artists and collectors. Fair Art Fair was launched this summer and is a platform of discovery and opportunity that reflects our gallery experience. The app promotes, catalyzes and encourages buying and selling, but never takes a discount on artist sales. Instead, it’s backed by a subscription-based model, whereby artists, collectors, and curators all pay a monthly royalty to join a community, accessing a commission-free art world benefiting from personalized tools, communication and support. Artists benefit from greater visibility and administrative assistance; while buyers, seasoned and novice alike, can discover new artists and ultimately connect and buy directly from them, fostering a direct and transparent relationship that empowers both the artist and the collector.
New digital platforms like these have the potential to disrupt because, by allowing more artists and art lovers to connect and support each other, they are eliminating inequalities in the way art is bought. and sold. In addition, the artist-sponsor formula gives rise to a new, more socially responsible approach to the collection: here, buyers can choose to buy more responsibly, in a way that directly benefits the creator rather than a unsustainable supply chain.
These models are also crucial in reaching the millennial digitally driven collector. During the lockdown, our online appetite has grown more strikingly than ever before among the next generation of art buyers. The Art Tech 2020 report found that Instagram was the number one selling format among NextGen collectors, followed by online stores and online viewing rooms.
The current art market system overlooks not only thousands of artists, but also interested art buyers who may feel insecure and intimidated upon entering a gallery of white cubes. Alternative models driven more by the artists themselves and offering accessible and transparent prices mitigate this apprehension. They are creating a new kind of consumer journey which, despite being digital, now feels more “real” than ever.
Today, the art world could finally catch up with other industries, such as retail, by converting to direct-to-consumer models. In just over 20 years, Netflix has grown into the world’s largest producer of cinematic content by introducing a simple subscription model. Bringing it back to our Fair Art Fair app, taking this approach provides a level playing field for anyone interested in art, creating the opportunity to connect the artist and the collector while maintaining a zero percent commission and generating surplus funds to support residences, galleries, scholarships and awards for its people, setting the precedent for a fairer system.
We can only hope that as we approach 2022, collectors and artists will continue to research and adopt new designs that offer more transparent and straightforward alternatives to what they have been accustomed to for so long.
Stacie mccormick is a multidisciplinary artist; director and founder of Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop in London; and the founder of Fair Art Fair application.
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