Bill Jackson’s photographs are doing well with online photo gallery, Troika Editions. Images © Bill Jackson, courtesy of Troika Editions
Galleries that sell photography prints online are opening up a new market of emerging collectors and, in the process, challenging received wisdom about how artists edition their work.
Author: Miranda Gavin
04 Apr 2011 Tags: Intelligence
If photography galleries have been making a rather late flourish in cyberspace, there’s good reason why. Collectors are understandably wary of buying prints they haven’t seen in the flesh and, given the variation in approach to sizing editions, and the arbitrary nature of ascribing monetary value to art, it takes time to build trust.
Nevertheless, an increasing number of galleries have been giving it a go online, and they have some distinct advantages over their bricks-and-mortar counterparts – namely, there’s no need for a Mayfair address. That means lower overheads but, also, there is less of the snob factor, and many have launched hoping to reach out to a wider audience, offering a less-intimidating approach and selling larger editions of prints at cheaper prices. And improvements in the quality and consistency of digital print, twinned with easier-to-set-up ecommerce tools and print-on-demand lab services, have made it relatively simple to launch.
However, as Eyestorm found out, three years after starting up during the height of the dotcom bubble in 1999, you need presence. It splurged millions on marketing and advertising before going bust in 2002 and then relaunching under the same management. Having failed to ignite an emerging collectors’ market with its promise to democratise the art world, it tried a “clicks-and-mortar” approach, introducing real-world galleries that encouraged people to come in, hang out and browse.
Ultimately, the more cautious investment environment following 9/11 sealed the first chapter of Eyestorm, but its adapted strategy has been adopted by others with increasing success. Lumas opened its first gallery in Berlin in 2004, and recently opened its 13th in London and 14th in Vienna. It may have begun with modest aspirations but, like Eyestorm, it saw a gap in the market for affordable art.
“Galleries normally sell single-edition, large-format works in a series of three or four, for a four- or five-figure sum to experienced collectors, institutions and museums,” says PR manager at Lumas, Dr Jan Seewald. “Lumas created a new space with the aim to make museum-quality art photographs affordable for everyone, even in large formats. The German press called it ‘democratisation of the art market’.”
The gallery showcases a diverse selection of work by around 160 established artists, including Nobuyoshi Araki, Michel Comte and Nan Goldin. All prints are hand-signed by the artist and available as editions ranging from 75 to 150 as colour Lambda prints on Fuji Crystal Archive Paper, “which has a true-to-colour promise certified for 75 years”. Lumas also offers Premium pigment prints on Hahnemühle William Turner paper, available custom-framed.
Prices range from a couple of hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on the individual price of the edition, while Open editions are cheaper, as they are neither limited nor signed. So-called “artist proofs” are also available and can be sold at higher prices once the edition has sold out. Current favourites are superwide panoramics by Larry Yust, Sabine Wild’s painterly abstractions and stills from some of arthouse movie director Werner Herzog’s best-known films. Lumas differentiates works based on the career stage of the artist, and bases its price structure on a calculation of “how well-known the artist is, the significance of the work, its size and the number of prints”.
Yellow Korner has adopted a similar approach with its eight galleries, six of which are in France, and the other two in Brussels and New York, though it says its prints are less expensive; currently the prices range from €25 to €1500.
Among the 80 photographers whose work it sells are Bert Stern, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Slim Aarons, Nadar and Man Ray, alongside up-and-coming talents such as Laurent Baheux, Kourtney Roy and Xabi Etcheverry. Japanese 19th and early 20th-century work is selling “quite well” according to founder Alexandre de Metz – “a lot of Kimbei and Beato”.
“We don’t sign exclusivity with the artists,” he adds, “because our goal is to help them. We’re happy when they become famous because of us and can sign a contract with an art gallery.” It sells photography works “more like a book or music edition rather than like an art gallery,” says de Metz. “When you buy a book, the price is almost the same, whether it’s a famous or an unknown writer. It’s the same for us; famous photographers are a little bit more expensive, but not that much really.”
The price is right
Putting less emphasis on the career stage of the artist and using a single price-per-print, regardless of edition number, creates a flattening out of the price structure and, with it, room to experiment with new models, he says.
Perhaps the most successful of new models, using a tiered pricing structure, was pioneered by Jen Bekman, who founded 20×200 in New York in 2007 to offer limited-edition fine-art prints and photographs exclusively online using a basic equation: “(limited editions x low prices) + the internet = art for everyone.”
“Eyestorm and Lumas have been around for a while selling at a much higher price point,” says Bekman. “But I think that we were among the first to bring in tiered-edition sizes, and limited-edition prints introduced via a newsletter. Since we started, a lot of sites inspired by us have started to pop up.”
The “initial configuration” for the editions is “mostly based on standard paper sizes”, she says. “Increasingly, stuff is printed off rolls, but the conventions still exist.” Its signature edition is its 10×8-inch prints made as a series of 200 and priced just $20 (hence the company name). Other sizes include a 16×20 priced $200 and limited to 20 prints, and at the top end, editions of two at 30×40, priced $2000, and she’s become more flexible about editions since starting.
“Our early success meant that editions were selling out and people were disappointed,” she says. “There started to be chatter that, if you didn’t know me, you wouldn’t get a print, and that was the antithesis of our goal. So we introduced an 11×14 print in an edition of 500 for $50, which was somewhat counterintuitive as, traditionally with edition sizes, as the editions sell and get smaller, the price goes up. We’ve had editions that have sold out at every level, and it depends on how the edition is structured. Normally, if we have both a $20 and $50 print, the $20 sells out first, which drives sales of the $50 print. I wish that I could say that it’s an exact science for us, but it’s not, and it’s still evolving.”
Popular sellers include the Starn Twins, Joseph Holmes, Beth Dow and William Wegman who, like all the artists, get a split of 50:50 on sales revenue. “It’s quite interesting, as it’s changed the amount an artist can make from a single image,” she says. “It’s possible to make $10,000 from a lot of small transactions, rather than pinning their hopes on a single one”. Some artists have made tens of thousands of dollars, and Bekman has written cheques for as much as $50,000. “I wouldn’t say it’s the exception, but it’s definitely an outstanding performance. Others get cheques for $1000 per month, and some for $200 a month. There is usually an initial burst when an edition is released, then it sells steadily over time – one photographer has sold consistently every week and is now close to selling out. But, as we’re still relatively young, we don’t have a sense yet of how things will play out over time.”
The best of British
Using a similar model, Bridget Coaker set up Troika Editions in the UK last April, securing nearly 40 artists in her roster so far; among them, a few names who have appeared in recent months, including Iveta Vaivode, Noemie Goudal and Victoria Jenkins. The work of Bill Jackson, an early pioneer in digital, is proving popular, and Jan Dunning’s Precarious Rooms “has generated the most money in small and medium editions”. But Coaker says she’s found the process of sizing and pricing editions “fairly arbitrary”, having started out with a fixed model, which she has now adapted as she has gone along.
“We launched the gallery with a very democratic process – same sizes, same prices. But then we did some research and found that it didn’t make any difference to visitors to the site whether we differentiated on price, so we maintained the affordability and started playing around with sizes and prices. By not always doing the smaller, affordable editions, we can access better-known photographers, which has given us traction in terms of attracting attention. Troika currently has an edition of 300 at 10×8 for £35; an edition of 30 at 50×60cm for £350; and an edition of three at 120×100cm for £2500.
Another newcomer, Milim Gallery, set up last year as a print sales division of the picture library, Millennium Images (which sells artists’ works for commercial and editorial usage). It has also come to the conclusion that the affordable market is still evolving, especially as competition among new online galleries increases, and artists continue to adopt different approaches. “These things take time to set up and to build a wide client base who still value great photography when they see it,” says Kiri Scully of Milim Gallery.
“Traditionally, photographers have been quite strict with editions and won’t make different sizes, but others will do an edition in one size, then, if it sells out, make an edition in another. There has been the rare occasion where we’ve shared the same work [with a competitor], but under a different edition size.
“It can get quite competitive, not to mention pretty complex. One photographer sold a print to a woman in the US, who then found out we were selling the same image, but in a different size. She wasn’t happy, saying it was devaluing what she’d bought. We didn’t know that the photographer had previously sold this image. Another photographer was more transparent and told us he had the same image with Troika Editions.”
Milim now has an agreement with Troika Editions, whereby it shares the edition – selling the same size, at the same price – but on a 40:30:30 basis, rather than the 50:50 basis it usually works on.
Nova Gallery, which also set up in 2009, takes a philanthropic approach. It is revamping its website and has plans to offer “more targeted collections where individual charities can receive a larger proportion of sales income”, says gallery partner Simon Courcha. The current donation is 10 percent shared between six charities, and it offers prints in editions of 200 at 10×8, 30 at 16×20, five at 30×24. Another, Contact Editions, aims to help photographers fund new personal work, releasing a new edition every month. Work by around 15 photographers can be bought from as little as £30 in editions of 200 at 11×14, and 100 at 20×30. “We have exclusivity of the images and sizes we sell,” says co-founder Anna Stevens. “After all, that constitutes an edition. But we only expect exclusivity on the single image we represent. We’ve been set up to help photographers sell and promote their work, not limit those opportunities.”
In the world of affordable art, no hard and fast rules are set when it comes to editioning. Traditionally it has been tied to limiting the number of reproductions of images in an entirely physical world. Now that we can trade in cyberspace and produce digital images, these conventions are being reworked.
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