Online art business: Inspirations from Hong Kong gallery director Alice Zhang

ONLINE ART BUYING

Art Radar speaks to Alice Zhang, director of Mischmasch, the first Hong Kong art company to develop an online art buying platform, who sheds some light on the current online art selling movement and suggests some ways to make it work for you.

mischmaschonline.com in grid view. Image from mischmashonline.com.

Since online businesses models developed by art companies like Artnet, Saatchi Online, SaffronartArt sy, VIP Art Fair and Paddle8 have proven successful, it is clear that selling art online is a model here to stay. We look at a purely Asian success story, Hong Kong-based Mischmasch, which combines a physical gallery space with online sale and exhibition.

Not just sales: online art community important

After finishing her Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree at The Rhode Island School of Design in 2006, Alice came to Hong Kong and set up a design company called Plus A Design Limited. In her free time while working as a consultant in an architectural company, she started Mischmasch, an online artist community, in 2008. The next year, 2009, Alice founded Mischmasch Gallery, which is funded, trademarked and owned by Plus A Design Limited.

Mischmasch is a German word, taken from one of writer Lewis Carroll‘s periodicals, which explains why the website is often mistaken as being German. But this mistake turned out to be promotional for the online artist community, attracting many European artists to join. Now, it represents artists from over 55 regions, and “is not just about the big hubs like Berlin and Beijing, New York and London,” says Zhang. “We really have these funky places, places that nobody has heard of, which is really fun and exciting,” such as the relatively obscure locations of Transylvania and Ecuador.

The variety of art genres available on Mischmasch Online ranges from two dimensional  works such as paintings, sketches and graphic designs to three dimensional works such as architecture, installation and industrial design. Animation, experimental and documentary video works are also available for purchase and some can be viewed on the site before buying.

Mischmasch modelled on Facebook

Inspired by social networking websites such as Flickr and Facebook, sites on which artists currently share their work, Zhang wanted to create a “well-designed” and “well-branded” online community for artists.

A lot of people make websites just to get a lot of users or make a lot of money…. Our goal is never to make lots and lots of money or get lots and lots of users. I think a lot of websites miss the [ideal] outcome: How do you improve people’s lives…? So many artists don’t have a platform to feature their work, especially in China, so [Mischmasch] makes it easier to promote Chinese artists to Westerners and vice versa.

Similar to Facebook, Mischmasch’s registered users can upload as many artworks as they would like onto their personalised page. Other users can comment and vote on their works and they can, in turn, comment and vote on the work of others. Instead of using the Facebook ‘Like’ button, users vote by giving a maximum of five points for each piece. The website constantly re-arranges the listing of works on the main or front page of the site so that the more points and commentaries a piece of art receives, the higher up on the page it is ranked.

Online art buying the way forward

Zhang believes that online art business models are bound to succeed. “There’s almost a race between various people on the Internet to figure out how to make [this online art sales model] really work,” she said.

Ann-Kathrin Nikolov, 'Paradise dawn', 2010, acrylic on wood panel, 30 x 60 cm each (set of 2). Image courtesy Mischmasch Gallery.

One of the current challenges facing online art businesses is finding a way to present images online in a way that replicates or compares to the real experience of viewing an artwork.

I know that Saatchi [Gallery] have a website that’s very … similar to what we’re doing and they’re also really trying hard to figure out how to make images look good online. They came up with this like slideshow thing with all the images at the bottom. I think there are other ways to do that.

Zejian Shen, 'The Bun Merger, Pg 1', 2010 (year of upload), screen print and glitter, 14 x 17 inches (35.6 x 43.2 cm) . Image courtesy Mischmasch Gallery.

There was this online art fair called the VIP Art Fair…. It was a disaster because they tried to replicate the feel of going to a [physical] art fair. I thought, ‘Why would you do that? Why would you try to replicate something that cannot be replicated?’ … It was so unsatisfying….

Social commentary adds value to works

The Internet is a powerful taste-changing (or taste-developing) mechanism, Zhang has found. Graphic images, meaning design and illustrative works, usually receive the highest number of user comments because they stand out on the website. Zhang uses the work of Hong-Kong-based artist Emily Lau as an example,

We started working with her … when the website was launched…. She’s one of our success stories. At the end of summer [2010] she was featured in a New York-based magazine and then the senior vice chairperson [of a large banking firm in New York] bought one of her paintings. [Interest in] her work snowballed.

Emily Lau, 'Relanding of the donutian', 2008. Image courtesy Mischmasch.

Emily Lau, 'Relanding of the donutian', 2008, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 76 cm. Image courtesy Mischmasch Gallery.

[Her work became popular] because people are [now] so used to using the Internet and this type of image looks good online…. Because they’re familiar with looking at those kind of images [online] they like them even more. Then when you go to an art fair you’re more likely to see [the] kind of work [you’ve been seeing online]. I think that’s so interesting and so powerful, the fact that people’s tastes are changing because of the Internet.

Emily Lau, 'Birdie', 2008. This work was purchased by a senior executive of a large New York banking firm. Image courtesy Mischmasch Gallery.

Emily Lau, 'Birdie', 2009, acylic on canvas, 35 x 35 cm. This work was purchased by a senior executive of a large New York banking firm. Image courtesy Mischmasch Gallery.

I think graphic images, [an illustrative work with two-dimensional visuals, striking imagery and urban themes like] Emily [Lau’s] works, are definitely going to rise in value. Because it’s not just pretty, it’s pretty and at the same time it [engages in] social commentary. The more you look at it and the more you interact with it, the more you feel attached to it.

Smart website layout is key

Mischmasch was originally developed as an online international artist community and because of this, social interaction between users has always been a key focus.

What other people think of an image [will] determine the way that it looks [to one person]. … I want to be able to throw the images around and see what other people think of [them].

The current layout of the website is essentially user-controlled – “social networking and the Web is so open and democratic,” says Zhang – with the images that are most popular, selected by users via the various voting and comment systems made available to them, appearing in prime viewing spots on the website, such as on the front page.

You really have to reinvent the users’ experience when viewing images online…. You could say that it’s a kind of ‘bubble up’ [experience]. [The content] bubbles to the top; the [highest ranked images] are the ones with more points and the [lowest-ranked] ones are the ones with less points, less clicks, less votes, less Tweets, and less Facebook [‘Likes’]….

Fhung Lie, 'Portal #008' from the "Dream Archives Series", 2009, altered KOLO Havana Box, acrylic on canvas, 32 x 7 x 25.5 cm. Image courtesy Mischmasch Gallery.

Fiona Ho, 'Cityscape 1', 2010, acrylic on linen, 4 x 4 ft (30.5 x 30.5 cm). Image from mischmaschonline.com.

Challenges of online art business

While Zhang is making it all sound so easy, she does acknowledge that there are a number of major challenges to running a successful online art gallery. Chief among them are…

Establishing a good name

Figuring out how to make people trust us [Mischmasch], because [gaining] trust on the Internet is not a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. You have to give trust before you can get it [back]. So we’re all about transparency. We’ve never intimidated people into buying anything [because we know] we are never going to educate anyone [that way]. So we lay out all the information [on our website]. You can read the artists’ biographies, you can read other people’s comments, you can read what we have to say about them….

Emily Lau, 'Circus of Spring', 2011, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 68 cm. Image courtesy Mischmasch Gallery.

Breaking down art world elitism

You have this contradiction: social networking is open, anybody can make comments, and then you have the art industry, which is closed and hierarchical; it’s really elitist in a way. Artists who have completed a full year [at] art school or who have finished a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at a really prestigious school might not be happy that ‘kids’ are uploading their work online and selling it and getting [art] shows. There will always be people who are angry with what we’re doing.


The world is big enough now, I think, for everybody to play in. We have artists who have never gone to art school but we also have artists who have an MFA, who’ve held a dozen shows.


[In] the art world there are no rules; it’s the most irregulated market ever. Maybe it’s a good thing that there’s no formula [for how] to succeed and no formula [for how] to promote an artist. But whenever there’s a clash of fundamentals, this openness and closeness [of the art market], really interesting things start to happen.

Jacques Pellegrin, 'Woman on seaside', 2011 (year of upload), acrylic on canvas, 160 x 120 cm. Image from mischmaschonline.com.

Physical versus virtual

In May 2011, Art Radar published an article that questioned why Saffronart and Artnet had recently opened new gallery spaces or otherwise established a physical sales presence. Was their online business format not standing up to the more traditional gallery model? For Zhang, a physical presence is essential to gaining the trust of artists and, most importantly, collectors.

This space [Mischmasch Gallery in Hong Kong] is really a part of the promotion of the brand. I would say that now, especially in Asia and in Hong Kong, it’s important [for people] to see that we’re physical. We have an address and we have a phone number.


I am able to sell works to people that I’ve never met, that I’ve only emailed, and to people from very different cultures, [from] New York and LA [Los Angeles], and I think I was able to sell to them because they trust me. [They know] that I’m in Hong Kong, not in some obscure city in China, and that I went to an American art school…


We have regular shows that bring people in to Mischmasch and that’s a stepping stone to getting [them] into the … online experience. Plus it’s good to be able to have people come in and ask questions. We have a very comfortable environment; we’re not intimidating in any way so anyone can ask us any question.

Paintings hand inside Hong Kong's Mischmasch Gallery. Image from farm5.static.flickr.com.

Paintings hand inside Hong Kong's Mischmasch Gallery. Image from farm5.static.flickr.com.

Market value of art sold online

Past transactions conducted on Mischmasch Online fall somewhere in the range of HKD2,332 to 8,000 (about 300 to 1000 USD). But Zhang admits to the success of some websites where works go for thousands of dollars, or more, in the case of Saffronart’s summer art auction in June 2011 where Indian artist Tyeb Mehta‘s Untitled (Kali) sold for USD1,317,161.

There’s already half a dozen websites that are doing well selling art online, with different degrees of price…. UGALLERY sell paintings for 2000 US dollars. I’ve always thought, ‘Would you really buy a painting that’s worth 2000 dollars US on the Web? But apparently that happens. And Saatchi Gallery has always had an online platform, which they curate,… and most of [the works on that website] are worth at least a thousand dollars.

Scott Chan, 'Boy', 2011 (year of upload), mixed media, 60 x 50 cm. Image from mischmaschonline.com.

While the Internet provides an alternative way for the sale and auction of art, Zhang doesn’t think that it will ever replace the traditional art business model. “I don’t think the big auction houses and gallery companies are ever going to go away. I think they exist for each other, kind of feeding each other.”

Mischmasch is currently undergoing phase two of its development. Soon, it will put on a different skin and launch an online auction system. A simplified smart phone-friendly version of the website will also be launched:

What better way is there to promote an artists’ work than through something that people carry with them, an iPad, an iPhone… ?

CBKM/KN/HH

Related Topics: promoting art, market watch – auctions and galleriesart and the Internet

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