The Russian Online Art Market: When Birch Trees Are Not In Demand
Ekaterina Drobinina 16/03/2015
It is a sunny day, and I am going to an interview with a former journalist who has set up an online gallery selling the works of young Russian artists. She has invited me to her showroom in the center of Moscow. On the doorstep of a Stalin-era building, I receive a telephone call from a friend. “A story about online art sales?! Who would buy art online?!”.
A lot of people would. Buying art online is becoming increasingly popular. In 2014, publishing house Phaidon – which specializes in books on the arts, photography and design – bought Artspace, an online platform that brings buyers from around the world together with galleries that deal in works by contemporary artists – from Picasso to Marina Abramovic. Sotheby’s has also started selling art pieces via eBay, the largest online auction site. Finally, Christie’s announced that the revenues from their online sales in 2014 surpassed the $35 million point – alas, not yet an astounding figure compared with their total sales revenues of $8.4 billion.
However, while the Western art market has been enjoying more or less steady growth in recent decades, the Russian art scene is still in an early development stage. Most art-market experts tend to complain about the scarcity of galleries, the poor infrastructure (i.e., transportation, insurance, etc.), and the lack of available information. Many collectors-to-be are set off by either the snobbish attitude of gallery owners, or by the high prices of the art works.
Understandably, the cheap paintings exhibited in tourist hot-spots found in the center of Moscow definitely do not fit into the interiors of anyone who claims to be a connoisseur of art or a tasteful interior designer. Landscapes with birch trees placed into kitschy, heavy gold-plated frames only attract a few tourists and the provincial nouveau riche.
Tririan. Vitrian Priorum Roy, 2012
“Now is the right time to enter the market”, says Ekaterina Polozhentseva, founder of OilyOil, an online gallery with price tags that do not exceed 100 000 rubles ($1600). “I am sure that had I started the website three years ago, it would have been a disaster! But now people are starting to buy more than just kitchen appliances online”, says Ekaterina when we meet in her showroom. Her choice of works vary from abstract paintings to realism. My favorites are a series of blue-ink pictures on square paper – some look like doodles, while others remind me of Moroccan-style tiles – by an artist who calls himself Tririan.
Another pioneer of online art-trading in Russia, Maria Kovalevskaya, who used to work in Sotheby’s before setting up her “White Walls Problems” gallery of prints, says that people have begun to show an interest in buying art for a while now. “I see people around me who say that they want to buy something else besides an IKEA print. They are eager to spend more money on art, but people from the galleries are often snobbish, and they do not always explain the art that they exhibit”, explains Kovalevskaya. “White Walls Problems” sells prints by Russian and Western artists that range in price between 40 and 160 dollars – including the works of Danila Tkachenko, a nominee for the famous Russian Kandinsky Prize.
Online galleries that sell printed art and photographs in limited editions have a larger presence in Moscow than galleries that offer canvases or collages.
In 2013, the Paris-based Yellow Korner galleries came to St.Petersburg; a year later they were followed by the Lumas network of galleries, which entered the Russian art-market by opening a gallery in the center of Moscow.
Maria Burasovskaya, director of the Lumas gallery in Moscow, agrees that Russians are ready to spend money on limited art editions; however, they would prefer to buy from a physical gallery rather than online. “Buying art is a ritual. A customer wants to see the work and to feel it. It is often an impulsive, emotional act, and if the customer has not seen the work in a gallery, it would be hard to study it from a screen”, explains Ms. Burasovskaya. She admits that Lumas sells most of its works via their brick-and-mortar gallery.
Ilya Khuroshvili. Fragmented Refractions
Experts say that most people in Russia who buy art online do it as a way to decorate their apartments. Knowing this, some online galleries bring their artworks to retail shops that specialize in decor and design, reveals Ekaterina Shebanova, a co-founder of KK-editions – an online gallery that sells prints of limited editions. “The most important drawback of the art market in Russia today is that people lack information. They do not have a basic knowledge of art, so they do not understand what modern art is”, says Shebanova, whose gallery offers works for less than $100.
According to several market-research studies, such price tags should satisfy most potential customers – who are reportedly ready to spend around $150 per piece. More pricey works, such as for $1500, only attract about half of online art-buyers. The notion of 'affordable' is not yet common among Russian customers, and they take time considering buying something so expensive.
While higher prices apparently scare away unprepared young collectors in Russia, in the more established markets, 50% of all buyers spend from GBP1000 to GBP10 000 – according to the British insurance company Hiscox Group.
AKim. Three banana variations, 2012
"My customers are well-educated young people in their 30s with an above-average income", says Ekaterina Polozhentseva. She agrees that serious collectors – of the kind who look for works by such well-known contemporary artists as Pavel Pepperstein or Gosha Ostertsov – are not likely to visit her website.
High-profile artists – whose works hang in the most popular art centers and museums around the globe – are rarely traded via online galleries (though there are, of course, exceptions). "Art sales, in general, are about two things: trust and privacy. Online sales, in my opinion, do not provide these two essential factors yet. Especially when you are dealing with items that are worth 40 000 € and more. That's the reason why presently, 'high-end' transactions are mostly offline", says Olga Shmitt, who represents the soviet non-conformist artist Oleg Tselkov. For young artists who are struggling to find gallery representation, online sales may offer a solution. "The internet can bring them the opportunity to build a community of 'friends and admirers', which can lead to possible sales", adds Shmitt.
Anton Totibadze. Grandma Aglaya, 2014
However, one should keep in mind that what today advantageously serves as being open and free for everyone, tomorrow may become a disadvantage leading to an overloaded market with numerous works of dubious quality. It does not take much time or money to open a profile on most websites. "I guess everybody has some artworks on those sites”, says the young artist Anton Totibadze, whose work can not only be bought via Russia's OilyOil and the US-based Saatchi Art Online websites, but also is part of the collection of the Russian Museum in St.Petersburg.
Although buying art online does not threaten more traditional forms of business, the rising number of galleries that offer different formats of art prove that interest in them is growing. Moreover, it shows that art is becoming more affordable without having to become vulgar or distasteful.