When San Francisco-based UGallery came on the scene in 2006, co-founders Stephen Tanenbaum and Alex Farkas purposely targeted a demographic new to serious art: people who were ready to graduate from posters taped on their walls to unique pieces to decorate their homes and offices, but weren’t necessarily going to auction houses and storing their art in warehouses.
Buying original artwork online used to be unheard of—to pick up a new piece of art collectors usually had to head to brick-and-mortar galleries and auctions, or settle for buying prints or crafts from online stores like Art.com, Posters.com, or Etsy. But in recent years, several companies have built out online galleries that let consumers buy paintings, photographs and sculptures from afar, making it easier than ever for would-be collectors to hang originals on their walls.
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In fact, there are about 300 online sellers of original art globally, according to a recent report from Deloitte. Companies like Artsy and Artspace target the really high-end buyers; UGallery aims to connect up-and-coming artists with art enthusiasts who might not have known owning original artwork was possible for them. “Artsy and Artspace are doing great things, but they’re a liaison for the galleries,” Tanenbaum says. “They’re giving galleries a place to exhibit and sell art work, whereas UGallery is the gallery.”
UGallery works directly with artists, and prides itself on the personal relationships it has with them. Some of their artists have never sold before, and need help figuring out pricing and which pieces should be displayed on the site. “A big part of our job is to work with the artists to better understand how to grow their careers at the right pace,” Tanenbaum says.
The impetus to create an online gallery actually came from their artist friends. Farkas, the son of an Arizona gallery owner, and Tanenbaum were classmates in the entrepreneurship program at the University of Arizona when they realized there was a problem they could help solve: to give their classmates and other recent grads a credible place to exhibit and sell their artwork. Galleries have traditionally focused on artists who have already made names for themselves, and newcomers were sometimes relegated to art and craft fairs.
”The inspiration behind launching was to give these artists a place to exhibit and sell online, but also to give people access to original artwork at an accessible price point,” Tanenbaum says.
And unlike brick-and-mortar galleries, a website doesn’t come with any pressure to buy, so consumers can browse as much as they want, and search for pieces within their price range (they even have a section dedicated to art under $400).
“When we launched in 2006, there were limited means to find original artwork if you wanted it, but you weren’t a millionaire,” Tanenbaum says. “Over the years we have been able to grow and offer that to clients, new collectors and seasoned collectors alike.”
There’s also a search function, so buyers can narrow their browsing to a certain medium, style, size, artist, etc., and a virtual wall that users can customize to see what a piece might look like on their own walls once it arrives.
Today, seven years after it was founded, the company represents more than 500 artists across North America, photographers around the world, and has shipped art to more than 30 countries. UGallery offers prints for as little as $50 and one-of-a-kind murals for as much as $15,000, though pieces that big often end up in commercial spaces like hotel lobbies.
The startup has also launched a new function that allows engaged couples to register for art online, a great feature for people who already have plenty of kitchenware. “As the age for people getting married gets older and older, couples already have silverware and place settings,” Tanenbaum says. “They don’t need traditional wedding gifts. They want something more mature for their space than posters they might have had in college.”
Here’s how it works on the supply side: interested artists apply to feature their work through UGallery’s site, filling out an application form and submitting five to 10 photos of pieces of their work. Nearly all genres are welcome. Once approved by a panel of curators led by Farkas, the artist’s work is displayed and promoted on the site, and UGallery splits all sales with the artists 50/50. (A 50 percent commission is standard in the gallery world.)
“About 20 percent of the artists who apply exhibit on the site,” Tanenbaum syas. “So we really focus on the quality of the artist and artwork.”
Once purchased, UGallery ships the artwork to the buyer, who has seven days to return it for a refund, minus a 15 percent restocking fee. UGallery ships all its work in custom-built art boxes made with high-density foam to ensure it arrives safely. And so far customers seem very satisfied: only about 1 percent of purchases have been returned.
Tanenbaum himself wasn’t an art collector when he helped found the company at age 24, but he is now.
“I come from a business/finance background,” he says. “I’ve learned a ton more about art, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is if your eye is drawn to it and you love it, you don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks.”
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