It is a boom time for new media art, but the artists themselves have not necessarily been the beneficiaries of the gold rush — the web is brimming with talented work of all kinds, and on many platforms. The problem is that few, if any, of these new media artists have been able to create a sustainable career without corporate support. Though if curator Lindsay Howard has her way, that may change.
Howard is one of the best young curators of new media art working today. She is a curatorial fellow at Eyebeam in Manhattan and curatorial director of 319 Scholes in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but her latest project is Paddles On!, a digital art auction co-organized by Tumblr and the Phillips auction house. Featuring 20 works by 18 artists, including Rafaël Rozendaal, Molly Soda, Joe Hamilton, and Petra Cortright, the small show has the potential to open up a market in the world of auctions that didn’t really exist before. While digital works do occasionally appear at auction, a concentrated effort like this is rather unique, and Megan Newcome, director of digital strategy at Phillips, says that they believe it might actually be “unprecedented” at this scale.
“We wanted to bridge the art and tech world because there’s been a lot of talk recently about the two worlds not connecting,” Tumblr’s art evangelist Annie Werner says, “and we thought what a better way to get them talking then through digital art.”
Werner, Newcome, and Howard met through ArtsTech, which is a local Meetup started by Julia Kaganskiy in 2009 that has brought together members of the arts and tech communities for years.
“Annie and I started meeting one another in an organic way at ArtsTech. We met up one day and talked about how Phillips can work with Tumblr, and she was moved by the space and suggested we do something there. That’s how the idea was born,” Newcome says.
“We wanted to bridge the art and tech world because there’s been a lot of talk recently about the two worlds not connecting, and we thought what a better way to get them talking then through digital art,” Werner says.
“In my mind, I thought I see this [interaction between tech and art] all the time, and being part of the ArtsTech community I thought what a funny notion that the art world isn’t engaging with the technology world and vice versa … we thought why not invite the art and tech communities into the auction house and demystify the auction house a little bit while having an opportunity to show some work,” Newcome added.
Soon after they decided to co-organize an auction, Newcome and Werner agree that Howard would be the perfect person to make it happen. The idea for a digital art auction dovetails nicely with Howard’s ambition to help new media artists have long and significant careers, and she says most artists are glad to see that an auction house is interested in their work.
“I think the resounding feedback [from digital artists] is ‘finally.’ Like we did a studio visit with Mark Tribe last weekend and he was saying ‘people have been talking about this for 15 to 20 years,” Howard says. “The one missing piece [for most digital artists] is a strong market. The main feeling for them [about the auction] is excitement, a little uncertainty, and a ‘finally’ kind of moment.”
Why Tumblr would be involved in this auction may seem odd for some people, but Annie Werner thinks it’s a natural fit for a dynamic social media platform that some have called an “art project.” “We officially call ourselves a media network, and we want to be a cultural leader,” Werner says. “Even after the Yahoo! acquisition, they see us as cultural leaders who are bringing that voice to that company. If we want to be a major player in that cultural space we want to support works like this because it is the kind of work that lives and breathes on our platform.”
For Phillips, Paddles On! appears to be an experiment that has helped them prepare for a future where digital art is more of a norm in the auction market. “We had to respect that this art is so different from art that has come before, so we just can’t squeeze that into a standard contract or a standard agreement,” Newcome says. “It was great to have that flexibility and I think out of that emerged at Phillips a better understanding of the nature of what’s coming, and the next wave of contemporary art, which will be informed by technology, clearly … Let’s prepare ourselves now, because it’s coming … This was for us the first exploration of what’s to come.”
Curator Lindsay Howard admits that she specifically sought out artists that brought often difficult concepts about ownerships, sales, and pricing to the table in order to make this auction experiment more interesting. She spoke to collectors, gallerists, and artists to see how they all are coping with the changing landscape of digital art and as a result learned a great deal on the subject in the course of organizing this exhibition and auction. Artist Petra Cortright, for instance, bases the pricing for her web videos on the number of views on YouTube, which changes all the time, while someone like Rafaël Rozendaal sells URLs for his websites, which, he stipulates, will always be accessible to the world. Howard believes that by helping to create a market, digital artists will have a brighter future.
“For me personally, I did this exhibition on art micropatronage last year, which was a much smaller but very sincere exploration into monetizing online work, and in the past four years I have had close interactions with artists at 319 Scholes. However, the instances of when I’ve seen an enormously talented digital artist get swooped up by Coca-Cola or Nike or a digital agency to hire them to push product have been so disheartening,” Howard says. “These are exceptionally talented individuals who have a lot to offer the art world and the creative community in general but, because of economics, they are forced into situations of needing to work for larger companies. I’ve made it my mission to build out this market so that artists don’t have to do this, so they can be recognized as individuals for their creativity and talent.”
And this exhibition, she believes, is just one step in the process of making that dream happen, though she’s aware that this type of market for digital art isn’t for everyone. “I hear the concerns [of some digital artists who are critical of the market] and there are artists who wouldn’t be appropriate to put them in an auction, because it is not a goal of theirs, but for the artists who are working in contemporary art and do want to have a longer career, the artists I curated into this auction, they are all artists that I strongly believe will be around in five years, 10 years, 20 years, and they are on the precipice of really important careers, and it is really important to bring in the right voices at the right time because they are going to be the ones that influence the next generation.”
Paddles On! will be on display at Phillips Auction House (450 Park Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) until October 12, 2013, and the live auction will take place on October 10 at 8:30pm.