Artsicle Lets Indecisive New Yorkers Rent Art Before They Commit to Buying

4/7/11Follow @arleneweintraub

Start browsing the artwork available for rent at Artsicle.com, and it won’t be long before a window pops up offering a real live curator to help you make your selection. The live-chat feature is a lot of work for Artsicle founders Alexis Tryon and Scott Carleton because, well, they’re Artiscle’s only full-time curators. That means they have to respond to every request for live help. But it’s worth the hassle, says Tryon, because choosing artwork is hard, and she wants Artsicle to be the go-to site for every harried New Yorker who’s looking to dress up a bare abode. “Live chat is an amazing tool. We answer their questions, and they don’t get frustrated,” Tryon says.

Artsicle has been called the Netflix of art, and the name fits—sort of. Potential art buyers in New York can browse the site and pick pieces to rent for $50 a month. Artsicle delivers the art using couriers (which are sometimes Tryon and Carleton themselves). Customers can hang the art in their homes for as long as they’re willing to continue paying the monthly fee.

At that point, the resemblance to Netflix ends. While it’s true Artsicle customers can rent pieces indefinitely, the idea is for them to eventually find something to buy. Artsicle features works by about 30 artists, at prices ranging from $500 to more than $3,000. Artsicle takes a 30 percent commission on every sale. Owners of brick-and-mortar galleries, by contrast, generally take 50 percent, Tryon says.

Ever since the site launched on March 1st, it has pulled in about one new customer every other day. Artsicle has sold 15 paintings so far—way exceeding the entrepreneurs’ expectations. “Our goal,” Tryon jokes, “was to keep the site from crashing.”

Tryon’s low expectations were probably warranted, considering Artsicle’s inauspicious beginning. Tryon, who was working in restaurant marketing at American Express, knew she wanted to start a business that capitalized on her longtime love of art. She teamed up with Carleton, a mechanical engineer, and they started experimenting with ways to reach out to artists on the Internet. First they offered micro-loans to struggling artists. But that didn’t catch on. “They weren’t comfortable taking loans that they didn’t know they’d be able to pay back,” Carleton says.

Then the pair decided to try to sell art online. In December 2010, they launched a prototype site featuring 100 works by 10 artists. That wasn’t popular either, even though Carleton worked hard to make the site as attractive as possible. After a while, he had an epiphany about why no one was buying art from the website. “It wasn’t that people were scared to buy art online,” Carleton says. “It was that they were scared to buy art. Period.”

So early this year, Carleton and Tryon came up with the rental idea, and applied for a spot at the Dogpatch Labs incubator, so they could get help bringing it to life. Dogpatch Labs, created by Polaris Venture Partners, offers six months of desk space, Web access, mentoring, and start-up help to entrepreneurs who are accepted into the incubator. Dogpatch has outposts in San Francisco and Boston, and started up a New York arm in January 2010.

Matt Meeker, who manages Dogpatch New York, says he was captivated by the Artiscle idea as soon as he heard about it, because he had just bought two pieces of original art himself. “This expands the market for art,” says Meeker, adding that he definitely would have rented his pieces before buying them if the option existed at the time. “It’s making art more accessible to everyone.”

The artists appreciate the opportunity to display their art online—and to let potential buyers mull it over before they buy. “I’ve noticed while trying to sell my paintings privately that most people don’t quite know if an artwork will fit their apartment,” says Alexander Moytl, a political science teacher at Rutgers who also paints, and who offers 15 paintings on Artsicle. “They don’t know if they’re going to continue to love a painting. The leasing model is terrific. I could have sold 20 or 30 more paintings over the last several years if I could have lent them to people.”

Artiscle’s business model continues to evolve, sometimes in ways that surprise even its founders. When Artsicle first started, Tryon and Carleton developed a marketing plan targeting female, urban customers in their early 30s. As it turns out, many of their customers are men, and quite a few are first-time art buyers. So rather than using traditional marketing vehicles, such as targeted online ads, Artsicle is planning what Tryon calls “high-touch educational experiences,” such as pop-up art shows in New York City. “If I can get 100 people to an event, they will each tell 10 of their friends,” Tryon predicts.

A variety of competing websites sell original art online, including Zatista, which was started by veterans of eBay. Then there’s Turning Art, which rents out art to people who choose the style they want, and the frequency with which they’d like each piece they’re renting to be replaced. But Tryon doesn’t consider those sites to be Artiscle’s true competitors. “We compete with that $300 wall hanging you’d find at Crate & Barrel or West Elm,” she says.

Artsicle’s challenge will be to convert the Crate & Barrel crowd into a legion of first-time buyers of bona fide art. Tryon and Carleton handpick the artists, many of whom are recent graduates of art master’s programs. “That puts them in the right price range,” Tryon says. Tryon and Carleton couldn’t predict how many of their renters would become buyers, but they’re happy with the response so far: About 20 percent of people who have rented art have chosen to buy it, they say.

New Yorker Justin Kadis, a sports-sponsorship consultant in Manhattan, is renting a piece called Black Hills, from artist Deanna Lee, who calls her style “controlled doodling.” Says Kadis: “The ability to try before you buy when it comes to art, in my opinion, is a must.”

Tryon and Carleton have bootstrapped the startup with their own money, and they say they’re making enough sales to hire two or three employees this year. They have not yet begun actively searching for funding.

Tryon says Artsicle will add one major city by the end of the year, most likely San Francisco. And they’re already testing the idea of shipping paintings to people from other cities that make online requests. But for now, they’re just trying to gain more of a foothold in the art capital of the United States. “Our focus,” says Tryon, “is making a strong impact in New York.”

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