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Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Digital Art + the Auction House

I'm currently working on some editorial which explores the place and value of 3D printed contemporary sculpture within the art market context. As part of the essay, I interviewed Megan Newcome, Digital Strategy Director at Phillips Auction House in NYC - and found her responses so insightful that it'd be a shame not to post them here on my blog.

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1. To what extend is it important for auction houses to respond quickly to technology trends?

It's critically important for auction houses to embrace technology and understand the impact of what is, essentially, the digital transformation of the art world. Compared to other industries, like music and publishing, the art world was very slow to respond to technology trends because its economic model, premised on scarcity and objecthood, wasn’t drastically impacted by the Internet. But I think the biggest elephant in the room is digital art. It challenges the fundamental economic principles and rules of the art market. Traditional, commercial art world modes of exchange are now being challenged by the global networks - decentralized distribution, new forms of ownership, even new currencies.

2. Why do you think it was important for Phillips to host both issues of Paddles ON!?

I think it was important for Phillips to host Paddles ON! because we understood that the auction would potentially be a groundbreaking moment for digital art - and that it would require a different approach than our other auctions. It was very collaborative - we partnered with Tumblr, Paddle8, Rhizome, OK Focus, and ArtsTech Meetup for the New York auction - and Dazed, Opening Times and Arcadia Missa in London. It literally took a village! We understood that the success of the auctions would depend a lot on engaging and galvanizing the digital art community.

I like to describe it this way: Tumblr brought the digital art community, Phillips brought the ‘art world’ muscle, and Lindsay Howard brought the vision. It was important for us to have Lindsay on board who curated both of the auctions. She understood how to put together a collection of works that had both commercial appeal and were important because they were expressions of different digital practices - animated GIFs, websites, software, 3D prints, digital paintings, videos, and installations.

It was also important for us to have an educational component - we produced a series of videos with artists discussing their practices; we staged a reading room in our London gallery where visitors could access a collection of printed and digital texts; and we hosted a series of panel discussions in New York and London focusing on what it means to create, sell and collect digital art in the 21st century.

We also worked directly with artists and galleries who provided a lot of guidance in terms of pricing, handling and exhibiting the works. In both auctions, the proceeds went back to the artists. In New York, artists recieved 80% of the hammer price and the remaining 20% was donated to Rhizome. In London, artists recieved 100% of the hammer price and a portion of Phillips’s buyer’s premium was donated to Opening Times.

3. Does the fact that a 3D printed sculpture can be re-printed make it a less important collections piece?

I think your question is at the heart of the larger discussion around how the ‘digital object’ is made, valued and collected. This paradox of the ‘digital object’ is very challenging to galleries, auction houses, collectors who have a traditonal view of ownership - how is it possible to sell something that is either impossible to ‘own’ or can be copied? But the fundamentals of ownership are changing. Global networks, open source, crowdfunding, the economy of attention, are creating alternative forms of value that rival one-to-one ownership. New technologies, platforms, and artists themselves are exploring creative ways to monetize digital art.

4. How do audiences respond differently to digital design / does digital work attract a different audience?

Historically, digital art was very niche - you had to be a computer geek or hacker to ‘get it’. Now, the world is increasingly engaged with technology. Audiences are more likely to share screen-based art and cultural experiences than IRL experiences. And this is an important benefit that digital art has over traditional art - it connects artists directly to an audience. It puts more power in the hands of artists and less power for institutions and galleries. When people talk about ‘democratizing the art world’, I think that is what what it means.

5. What are your thoughts towards the value of 3D printed pieces of contemporary sculpture?

One of my favorite recent quotes is Carter Cleveland (founder of Artsy) who says, “The art of tomorrow is the technology of today.”

Artists are using the tools that are ‘contemporary’ to them - 3D printers are a perfect example. I think 3D printed sculpture, in many ways, is the most elegant manifestion of the ‘digital object’ - something a traditonal collector could understand both as a physical object and a digital object. We sold a 3D sculpture by Sophie Kahn in our London Paddles ON! auction - and it, by far, recieved the most inquiries from collectors visiting the gallery.