Reactor

Jen Bekman’s Zombie Army

by Kyle Chayka on March 24, 2011

Watch your back, art world. There’s a dark force quietly building on the margins, slowly growing strong on a diet of affordable print editions and Tumblr posts. Yes, it’s Jen Bekman’s Zombie Army, and they’re here to EAT YOUR BRAINS sell you art!

The success of Jen Bekman’s 20×200 has created a slavish following of copiers, both of the woman and the website. We find the latest incarnation in an article in Maclean’s, which chronicles a Canadian version of Bekman’s 20×200. Just in case you haven’t noticed, Bekman also made Forbes’ list of top female entrepreneurs

Websites like EyeBuyArtArt We Love and Vancouver artist Indigo’s Cargoh.com all riding on the inroads that Jen Bekman has made into the business of distributing good art for cheap. Accessible to the every day buyer intimidated by larger purchases, these large print editions are gateway drugs into the world of art collecting. And Bekman has done a great job of it with slickly produced editions and a confident, reassuring brand.

Jen Bekman (image via 20x200.com)

But then Jen’s zombie army starts to get a little creepy, with more operations daily jumping into the print pool. In part, it’s because of the success of her business model and its elegant, populist simplicity. But it’s also about Jen Bekman herself, and the forthright, crusading figure she has cut across the worlds of art, tech and business.

Bekman gets a lot of honors and awards for her savvy. It’s easy to tell when this happens because the 20×200 founder is also a tireless self-promoter, as are most successful art people, and the nomination immediately crops up on her Twitter, Tumblr or the 20×200 website. Her latest accolade is a place on Forbes’ list of “Ten Female Entrepreneurs and Mompreneurs to Watch,” which is impressive for any art world institution. This is contemporary art out in the real world, making real money, for real artists.

Jen Bekman is a rising star of a new, slightly more democratic art world, but her imitators are never far behind. 20×200 is all well and good, but do we really need to deal with a zombie army of followers? In art, we’re always looking for something new. Jen pulled it off. Now let’s start over again.

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  • Tucker

    You seem to have completely bypassed the idea that this is simply the direction contemporary art is heading in, versus a passing trend that people need to get over. And if it is more than just a fad, isn’t it a good thing that there are multiple players coming into the game? More selection + more competition usually = better quality.

    Bekman is an innovator, no question, but that doesn’t entitle her to a monopoly. You should consider tackling the topic again, only this time maybe try a broader perspective.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Hey Tucker,

      I would totally welcome competition and innovation, but what I’m trying to say is that I see Jen Bekman and 20×200 doing it best. “Multiple players” I think assumes that different players are actually competitive instead of just imitators. By “let’s start over again” I mean I hope someone is able to rethink and top what 20×200 is doing rather than following along.

      The only people I see doing something just as interesting as (and different from) 20×200 is Paper Monster, which works at a higher price range to produce higher quality, more unique editions.

      • Tucker

        I see what you’re trying to say, but I still wonder if you can make a statement like that without having personally seen the difference between each product. If you have, then forgive me, but I gather from your article that you’ve only seen a 20×200 print.

        When an industry forms around a certain type of good, one usually doesn’t expect every “player” to reinvent the good from the ground up: just improve it, or bring some variety to it. Then quality and craftsmanship become differentiators, regardless of who came up with the idea first (you even suggest this with your comment about Paper Monster). Think of blue jeans; or hey, even just pants. You don’t see people criticizing design houses for not reinventing the blue jean (because hey, Levis sorted that one out a while back…).

        I’ve purchased a 20×200 print before and when it arrived was disappointed to find that it LOOKED like a $20 print, but I think you’re making the assumption that all the other “zombies” are of a similar caliber, and this might not actually be the case (the fact that 20×200 outsources all of its printing raises a big question mark for me off the get-go). It might, but it might not. And if it isn’t, then isn’t this flood of affordable art sources a wonderful thing? That’s all I’m saying.

        My question to you would have to be: what possibilities do YOU see as far as “rethinking” the affordable art print model?

        • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

          I haven’t seen any cheap prints outlet improve on 20×200 particularly in the area of variety, output, and aesthetic sensibility. Whatever downsides 20×200’s aesthetic has (too decorative…) it is more interesting on a weekly basis than anything else out there. The problem I have is that no one actually is reinventing it.

          I like that there are “floods” of cheap art, but wouldn’t it be nice if they were better? I think if as a group, these sites improved their curatorial practice to the level of 20×200 we’d all be much better off. Where I see innovation is in format. 20×200 sometimes has original drawings, sometimes c-prints. I see much more variety possible in different paper products, different kinds of (true, not photo-based) prints, etc.

          I think it’s clear from the article that I don’t think 20×200 is perfect, I just think it’s the best out there. If you have a better all-around alternative, please do let me know.

  • Qwerty

    Justseeds.org has been doing something like this for quite a while, on the more socially/politically engaged end of the spectrum.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      That’s not really the same thing. The key for 20×200 is scale. Justseeds is just like any other print cooperative or collective.

      • Qwerty

        Ok, depends how you’re defining scale I suppose…overall number of prints produced? Financial turnover? Maybe on those criteria yes, but people like Justseeds and Tiny Showcase for example have unlimited editions, so are potentially larger in scale over the long term in the sense of mass availability.

        Just out of interest, is this post sponsored content/product placement? Because I’ve noticed a couple of things on here lately that feel like I’m being sold to.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          No, we don’t do without mentioning the sponsorship. And I guess you don’t like enthusiasm or perhaps they were things you just didn’t agree with.

          Then again, we don’t know who you are either and you may be affiliated with one of those print companies or orgs (like Justseeds) who are just trying to promote your brand on other sites.

          • Qwerty

            Nope, I’m not affiliated to those sites. I’m all for enthusiasm, it’s just that there’s so much ‘infomercial’ type stuff on blogs nowadays that it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. Thanks for clearing that up.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            Well, we’ve heard some sites do that but I think you can usually tell by the content, which tends to be lacking of any critique in their materials. Feel free to kick us in the ass when you see us not being critical enough.

          • Qwerty

            Ok, no prob. This is still probably the best art blog around, that’s why I hoped it wasn’t going that way. But yeah, I agree, discourse is a healthy thing.

        • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

          For collectible objects, how are unlimited editions a benefit? I’d be less likely to buy something that’s just an infinite run of however many the vendors can sell. Is that really any good for the buyer?

          • Qwerty

            Depends if you value the fact that something is a limited edition or not, or just like the image. Personally I’d rather own an unlimited edition block print that the artist has printed themselves by hand, than a digital print limited to 200 or whatever. I don’t see the point in introducing an artificial scarcity into the equation, but each to their own.

          • Qwerty

            P.S, I’m talking about 10 and 20 dollar prints here, so they’re probably not designed to be collectable from a financial/investment point of view anyway.

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