Saatchi Online (@SaatchiOnline) combines curation, technology, and a global brand to “democratize” art sales

In a spirited and wide ranging interview with Lori Kozlowski of Forbes Magazine at Social Media Week LA yesterday, 27 September 2013, Rebecca Wilson (Chief Curator) and Margo Spiritus (Chief Creative Officer) clearly articulated the Saatchi Online digital strategy and mission: to apply traditional curation skills, technology, and the Saatchi brand to connect emerging artists with collectors worldwide. In the process they believe they can democratize and make transparent the often “murky” and “intimidating” world of art sales.


[Video: Go to for the LiveStream recording. The interview starts at 03.00. Times are given in the text below to allow fast forwarding to items of interest. The Twitter feed for the session is at #smwsaatchi. ]

History of Saatchi Online

Wilson began by clearly placing Saatchi Online in the context of the Saatchi Gallery in London which Charles Saatchi started in 1985 with a mission to “support emerging artists all over the world” – a phrase Wilson also used to describe Saatchi Online. [04.00] Planning for an online presence began when she joined as Director seven years ago, and resulted in a non-commercial platform in 2006 for emerging artists to use [04.40]

to showcase their work under a very powerful brand […] The Saatchi name is completely synonymous with emerging art of a very high standard, so it has this very, very powerful resonance amongst artists.

Two years ago, the site was broken off as a separate company from the Saatchi Gallery, and is now based in Los Angeles. Spiritus, with a background in “venture backed startups and building lifestyle brands” moved to LA from New York to build up the business, and from January, Wilson, too will work full time from their headquarters in LA.

The Saatchi Online proposition

Saatchi Online now offers a commercial service for artists to sell their work to an international audience of art collectors – tied to a globally-recognized brand. This is a key differentiator for Saatchi – “facilitating connections directly between artists and people who want to buy their work” in a “carefully curated” environment [07.30].

Spiritus reported the business is “really starting to take off”. In terms of numbers, there are artists from over 100 countries on Saatchi Online, the number of artists has doubled in the last year, and works have been sold in the last year to collectors in 80 countries [07.40].

Following a humorous description of high-end ‘bricks and mortar’ galleries where the visitor is too intimated to ask ‘How much?’ and the gallerist most likely wouldn’t deign to sell to them anyway, Wilson turned to the democratizing impact of technology on the art market [08.45]:

We want to cut through all of that. We want to broaden it out to as many people as possible. We want to sell to all kinds of people, get them fired up and excited by contemporary art and that’s something that’s already happening […] I really feel it’s something that’s only possible online.

Spiritus was clear about what makes Saatchi Online unique. It’s not just a traditional gallery model online where the artist/collector relationship is mediated, but “a marketplace” [09.45]

We have direct relationships with the artist, we’re working directly with them, we’re connecting consumers all around the globe to artists all around the globe […] You’re buying the artwork directly from the artist’s studio. It’s a very direct transaction between the consumer (the collector) and the artist.

More online features are planned. Online exhibitions, either curated or self-organized by artists themselves (“often the best curators”), virtual walkthroughs of artists’ studios to see how works are created. Wilson continued [11.35]:

That’s all part of this mission that I feel really passionately about. That we should break down those traditional hierarchies that exist in the art world, and bring more people in, open it up and make it this much more transparent world. It has a long tradition of being very murky, not just from the financial side, but what is that process that an artist goes through when they’re making their work?

Business model and transparency

Spiritus picked up the topic of transparency in terms of the Saatchi Online business model [12.25]:

When you’re asking how we’re different from others. I think that transparency is a really critical element for both sides of the equation, for the artist and for the consumers. For the artists, we’re very clear, they set their own prices, we’ve a very clear relationship with them. The moment something sells they are told immediately. The commission is paid in a very specific timeframe. And when you’re a consumer and you’re buying on our site, you know that it’s completely transparent. The artist, they’ve worked with Rebecca or they’ve worked on their own and they’ve set their prices, so there’s no grey area.

So is the business model working? Saatchi Online is generating “considerable amounts of money” for their artists – 70% of sales price (a fact picked up in the Q&A by a gallery owner who was forced to shut his 12-year contemporary art gallery and who could never have afforded such a generous commission.) Prices range from $100-$30,000 – the cap is the cut off for what they consider “emerging.”

Global reach

Wilson then emphasized their global reach in a world where, for the next generation of up-and-coming artists emerging from the world’s art schools, “There just aren’t enough bricks and mortar galleries to go around” [13.45]. For those lucky enough to be taken on by galleries, Wilson acknowledges that many galleries do a great job for their artists. But even so, the artist has limited exposure, jockeying for exhibition time, and at the end of the day gets 50% commission.

Given Saatchi Online’s genesis in a traditional bricks and mortar gallery, Wilson is conscious of the offline/online dynamic, and turning today’s model on its head, plans to provide offline exposure as just another of Saatchi Online’s services [15.00]:

I’m very conscious about the relationship between online and offline […] Next year we will actually start to do some offline exhibitions. I appreciate the value of that to both artists and collectors, and the way that can then drive traffic back to the site.

Global curation

Saatchi Online emphasizes its curated approach as much as its brand and reach. Wilson looks at every item uploaded every day – that’s sometimes “in the hundreds”.  Whereas physical galleries have a particular aesthetic or vision, a globally curated online service gives the curator and collector a global view [17:00]:

What I love about Saatchi Online and what’s pulled me away from the Saatchi Gallery, is I’m seeing […] all manner of works. If you’re interested in finding out what’s going on in different cities over the world […] you can see it all […] That’s the kind of experience for a collector that would just never happen if you just relied on going to exhibitions in galleries.

Recently Saatchi started an art advisory service, usually a service available only to high end art investors. A user emails in a brief – either very specific or not – and Saatchi work with curators and others around the world to respond with suggested artworks. “It’s another way to try and help artists to make a living from the work they love doing.”

Saatchi versus Amazon

In response to a question from Art Market Technology via Twitter on their view of Amazon’s entry into the art market, Wilson, laughing, pulled no punches:

Does anyone want to buy a piece of art while they’re buying an iron or a toaster? At the moment it’s very much an aggregation of works from galleries. There isn’t any curation, there’s no vision, there’s no feeling you’re buying work from a carefully thought out environment which is very particular to the “product” as Amazon would call it. Buying art and dealing with artists is a very particular thing with all kinds of subtleties, and it just doesn’t sit easy with me the idea that you’re going to pick up a piece of art while you’re shopping for cups and saucers […] I find the quality of the work is a little suspect at the moment. Maybe that will become better. Maybe it will help smaller galleries.

Spiritus added:

From a business perspective, it clearly speaks to the size of the business opportunity online, and that speaks to what we’ve seen over the last two years, the growth that we’ve seen in our business and how much opportunity we believe there is to really make contemporary art accessible to a worldwide audience.

Our take

Saatchi Online has a clear vision about both its business model and mission and articulates it well – not surprising for a company carrying the Saatchi name. It’s perhaps a sign of digital maturity that their strongest USP is not technology – it’s curation – something traditional galleries know all about.

The Saatchi brand is certainly a powerful one, but could it dominate or compromise the emerging artists it purports to help reach a global audience? Or will the emerging artist be lost in the global crowd on Saatchi Online? A traditional gallery perhaps still offers greater promise to help an artist establish themselves, but as Wilson points out, there is a hopeless disparity between the number of bricks and mortar galleries and young artists looking for representation.

In many ways, the approach of Saatchi Online echoes how Charles Saatchi conducted his art collecting career: buying degree shows in leading UK art schools, or exhibitions of emerging artists en masse. In the process he created, among other things, a generation of Young British Artists. Some of those YBAs have escaped Saatchi’s Sensation-al tag; some haven’t. Saatchi Online is making a similar play to ‘own’ the contemporary art market online using the Saatchi brand.

What’s beyond doubt is Saatchi’s business acumen. Online platforms are creating a rapidly growing art sales market. Emerging art is an exciting, and potentially rewarding area for collectors. For Saatchi it fits perfectly into a strategy that focuses on global reach. (Setting up Saatchi Online in LA rather than the ‘easy’ option,  London, seems like a stroke of genius.) Some of today’s emerging artists will be tomorrow’s stars, and establishing a relationship with artists early in their career has always been valuable. Combine all that with access to the sales metrics, and user (read art collector) behaviour which a global online platform provides and it’s a powerful mix.

It may be digital rather than bricks and mortar, but it seems like Charles Saatchi has just created the first global contemporary art gallery.

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