How buying art went digital and why it won't go back, from the CEO of digital platform Artsy

Mike Steib CEO of Artsy

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Artsy had a pretty good pandemic year. 

In data shared with Insider, the online art marketplace revealed it saw e-commerce sales skyrocket 170% last year, as the in-person art world shut down and digital marketplaces began to soar. It’s part of a broader pandemic pattern, as Insider has reported, of record-breaking activity for online auctions and sales of high-priced items such as jewelry and paintings. 

To date, the company has partnered with over 3,600 galleries worldwide and says it offers over 1 million pieces of artwork from over 100,000 artists. 

Artsy CEO Mike Steib told Insider the platform sold more art than ever last year to collectors, while galleries requesting to partner with the platform also increased. Artsy also saw a 270% rise in online gallery sales and a 497% growth in online-only auction sales. 

“I think two things have happened during the pandemic,” Steib told Insider. “The first is that more people have become interested in bringing art into their lives, and second, Artsy has made it possible for those people to come into the art world, to discover what they would love to buy.” 

The only catch is, what happens when art shows come back? 

“There’s still going to be — and should be — a physical art world,” Steib said, but he also said that Artsy has attained a new status. “Collectors have learned that in between the art fairs — at any moment of the day — they can open their Artsy app and participate in dozens of auctions, shop thousands of galleries. This year was a huge year for the digital world and next year will be an even bigger one.”

Here’s how the CEO plans to steer his platform into the post-pandemic world. 

Artsy began investing more in its app and social media presence 

Artsy has poised itself as the digital disruptor of the art world, but just how much disruption of that world is really possible? 

The art world is a “big success because of its social aspect, with the fun parties, the dinners,” millennial art curator Lawrence van Hagen previously told Insider. “Lots of people buy into the art world for the social aspect.” 

The president of Christie’s America, Jennifer Zatorski, told Insider last year that if anything, the physical and digital art worlds will just come to coexist.

Even Steib himself is longing for the day when he can see art in person again. “Going to a gallery is a nourishing and wonderful experience,” he said. “Going to an art fair is super-fun.”

But Steib has an extensive background in digitally disrupting an established field. Before taking the helm of Artsy in 2019, he worked at McKinsey, NBCUniversal, and Google, and was most recently CEO of XO Group, parent company of the wedding planning business, The Knot, which sold for almost $1 billion to WeddingWire in 2018.    

The art world is a “big success because of its social aspect, with the fun parties, the dinners. Lots of people buy into the art world for the social aspect.”

 

The Knot, which connected people with vendors for wedding events, isn’t too dissimilar from Artsy, and Steib used his expertise in connecting products with consumers to lead Artsy through an expansion of its operations during the pandemic.  

Last March, Artsy expanded to Europe and began hosting exclusive sales. It invested in its Sell with Artsy offering to make it easier for artists to sell on the platform, and it launched the Artsy Advisory to help collectors discover new artists. 

It also partnered with galleries, art fairs, and auction houses, and began offering online viewing rooms to help artists showcase their work, in addition to assisting in making galleries more traceable using SEO and social media. It began investing more in its app and social media presence as well.

The platform also began highlighting artists from those historically underrepresented in the art world. Contemporary art has always been one of Artsy’s most popular categories, but Steib said there has been rising interest in the subcategories of streetwear, works from the African Diaspora, and Black Figurative Art. 

Buyers have pivoted to becoming “activist collectors,” Steib said, citing the social justice movement that swept the US last summer. Buyers are also actively seeking out works by artists within marginalized communities in order to “support the artists and the voices that they believe deserve to be supported right now,” according to Steib. 

Transparent pricing also helped increase sales

Steib also invested in better connecting with next-gen consumers — the young people used to buying what they want, when they want, at the click of a button.

For them, Artsy put forth its buy now feature, which lets customers act on impulse and buy as soon as they see something they like. This feature has increased the total sales of the company, according to Steib, in addition to making pricing transparent.  

“Transparency is now much more the norm and the expectation of the collector,” Steib said, adding that it’s something consumers will want as the physical world reopens. 

Pricing transparency isn’t too common in the physical world. Consumers often walk into a gallery and see a painting they like, but are often left wondering what the true price of the artwork is — or if it’s even available to buy. 

“It feels terrible to see something that you like, a piece of art that you want to buy,” Steib continued. “Only to find out that it costs $100,000 more than your budget.”

As for what happens next, Artsy has no plans on slowing down anytime soon. Even if the physical art world rebounds to new heights, Steib said the digital imprint left will be long-lasting. 

“The percentage of revenue that galleries are generating online has tripled in the last six months,” Steib said. “I’ve never seen an industry go back once it’s becoming digitized. This [was] the year that the art world [become] digital.” 

SEE ALSO: Meet the Black millennial art curator who worked on a Zendaya photoshoot, had her portrait featured in Beyoncé’s ‘Black Is King,’ and was just tapped by auction house Christie’s to curate an exhibit

DON’T MISS: No more ritzy galas, dinner parties, or jet-set fairs: The art world is coming to terms with a ‘shelter-in-place’ market. 5 insiders reveal how the industry is faring — and their hopes for what’s next.

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