Getting creative online

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 09:15 27/08/2012
Antionette Ratcliffe
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ

ARTIST: Antionette Ratcliffe sees internet art sites as a good way of directing buyers to her own websites.

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Want a red picture to match the curtains, or a fantail print for nostalgia's sake? No problem, they're cheap and very plentiful. How about a Shane Cotton work, such as Hopa, painted 1998, $70,000-plus? Well, Hopa is gone, but there are plenty more from that artistic stratosphere.

They all have in common that they're available, or have been, online, in a burgeoning internet art market that is as controversial as it is wide. Is it possible to tell what a picture is like from a picture? And what happens if you hate it when it arrives?

Ebay lists around 70,000 paintings, from the sublime to the ridiculous and everything in between, like Hot sale modern abstract huge wall art flower oil painting on canvas - pay as much as you think it's worth. Trade Me has hundreds of paintings available, including $15 fantails on leaves, tui on kowhai branches and fern fronds.

Ocula's Auckland-based art auction site, which went online last year, auctions one artwork each day, from a connoisseur's range of works from artists of the calibre of Colin McCahon, Milan Mrkusich, Ian Scott and Shane Cotton. Cotton's fortune-fetching Hopa went off- line from Ocula recently to an expatriate collector in London.

The latest to join the cyberspace art world - and offering works ranging from art to make the bank manager blench to prints cranked out by the hundred in Hong Kong - is artFido. It is the Melbourne-based venture of Juan Garcia, 30, who "used to be a lawyer". He is still a lawyer by qualification but has turned his enthusiasm for collecting Australian and New Zealand art, originally a happy pastime, into selling it.

The project is backed by Geoff Harris, one of three founding directors of Flight Centre and an art lover.

Since it was launched a few months ago artists have been able to register on the site and sell their work for free but once it's well-established there will be a fee, though much smaller - as is common for virtual galleries - than it would be if the works were sold through a conventional gallery.

More than 200 artists have registered with artFido since the site launched in April, and almost 1000 works are currently listed. Garcia has about 50 New Zealand artists in his virtual stable, including 17 from Wellington.

Artist and illustrator Sarah Powell, 25, is a fine arts graduate currently completing a degree in museum studies. She sees her art as a hobby. She's had several pieces on artFido and has already sold one, "to a lady in Melbourne, which was really cool, an illustration of a fox, in ink and watercolour. We started emailing and she gave me the money and I sent it. It's just really good to get artworks out there."

Antoinette Ratcliffe, 32, a part-time veterinary nurse, part-time artist creating mainly sinister-to-quirky animal sculptures, sees the site as "another exercise so people can find you in another way, another good platform to direct to my own website".

She didn't immediately put work on artFido but plans to. She doesn't count traffic to her own website, which has a contact page rather than a direct selling pitch, but thinks there are probably 15 to 20 visits each day.

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Garcia says there were 200 or 300 hits every day to artFido until National Radio ran a piece on it last month and for several days they more than doubled. Now, he says, there are more than 1000 hits daily and five or six works sell each day.

ArtFido's art offerings can be searched by subject, style, medium, size, price, artist or a range of galleries, and in any of 14 colour-ways. There are expensive pieces to appeal to a wider market, like a handful of works from Australian artists such as Brett Whitely and a lithograph by Sidney Nolan but beyond that there's no problem matching the artwork to the decor, and Garcia intends this.

Better to buy an original piece of art from an up-and-coming artist for a few hundred dollars, he reckons, than a print from Ikea for the same price, or one of the mass-produced prints that tend to flood more mass-selling sites such as Ebay.

One of the catalysts for artFido was that as a beginner art-collector himself Garcia found art galleries and auction houses potentially intimidating and almost entirely the preserve of "older" people.

"I was the youngest person there by 20 or 30 years. I wondered where the next generation of art enthusiasts would come from."

Garcia believes in the perennial argument that buying a first, modest artwork leads a lot of young people on to a mature obsession with art. Since 99 per cent of artworks never appreciate in value, he says, he doesn't buy in to the the idea of investment. People, whatever their budget, should buy what appeals, so when they wake up and see it they enjoy it. They should "appreciate it on a visceral level".

But how do you experience art on a visceral level as a tiny internet picture? Some others in the art business believe an artwork needs to be seen in real life to be appreciated, even if it is first viewed online.

Mark Hutchins sells work from some of the country's finest artists in his Wellington Gallery which, like most galleries, has its own website. He is also listed with Ocula's portal website, companion to its auction website and described by its co-founders as a curated art portal for browsing through the stockrooms and galleries of the most influential galleries in the region.

Hutchins' gallery is there from Wellington, along with Page Blackie Gallery. From Auckland, Sue Crockford, Michael Lett and the Hopkinson Cundy Gallery are included. Artists, beginning with A, include Et-Al, Gretchen Albrecht and Billy Apple. They go on to Stephen Bambury and Britain's Tracy Emin.

Hutchins has Gretchen Albrecht on his books. He wouldn't expect anyone to see an image of one of her new-car- priced paintings online and buy it without viewing it, for all his internet presence and exposure on Ocula.

"Art imagery is a lot more freely available but my experience of my clients is that people respond to physical art. I would never suggest people buy off the net. Most gallery websites let people view the work we've got and encourage people to come in and look at the real object.

"I wonder about accountability. If you don't like something when you do receive it what guarantee is there? I wouldn't want clients to buy something online unless they personally know the dealer. I'd caution my clients about buying anything online over the net, cheap or not. You can waste a little money as well as a lot."

Simon Fisher, of Ocula, does sell in his auctions off the net as well as linking clients to more than 100 top-end galleries such as Hutchins'.

"People say you have to see the artwork but collectors who see lots of an artist's work need to know the provenance is right and that they're buying through a reputable auction house. That's the way a lot of art deals are done these days."

Fisher is supportive of a business like artFido. "They're a very different business to us and [useful] for a lot of artists representing themselves."

One of the first things Olivia McLeavey did when she took over her father Peter's longstanding, high-end gallery in Cuba St was to give it an internet presence with a website, which was launched 18 months ago. She sees it not as a place to sell art from, but "to encourage people into the gallery space for a direct encounter with a work of art without committing themselves.

"We have canvases by Darryn George at the moment and you can smell them. They must be fresh off the easel because the whole gallery smells of paint. It's a beautiful smell.

"The website sets the tone and feel of the gallery. It gives people the look and a sense of the gallery and how we do things. It's not click-now-and-buy-this work."

It's possible, she says, for someone to buy, say, a work by Bill Hammond, off the internet, "but they normally come in and spend time".

"People still want to come into a gallery for a one-off experience and have the context of the work explained."

Christina Barton, director of the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University, sees the value of artFido.

"The affordable art market forms a sort of parallel economy to the serious art market.

"To some extent people are aware they are paying money for a work they might like that is competently made but may not necessarily increase in value. There's a broadening of the art market across various platforms. What's generally supposed is that because of the numbers of people interested the hope is they'll move on from entry-level buying .

"Working at the university I very strongly believe that the more you know about art - solid knowledge, history of art - the better equipped you are to enjoy art as a deeply meaningful contribution to our culture.

"There was a system of values in previous times where there was more certainty about what had value and what didn't. Now high art is seen to be for people who can indulge themselves. Before it was seen as great works everyone could enjoy to have their minds enhanced."

She is supportive of artFido's venture, although she wouldn't buy anything for her own walls that she couldn't "walk in and see".

So what guarantee is there if the red picture bought via artFido's site turns out not to match the sofa?

The guarantee, artFido spokeswoman Lainie Blusztein says, is "that you can address the issue with the seller and it will be resolved every time". No-one, so far, has complained.

Blusztein is confident that sellers "will go out of their way to ensure the buyer is happy". Besides, what's wrong with changing the cover on the couch to match the new artwork?

- © Fairfax NZ News

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