THE BLOG
12/24/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2015

To Gift or Not to Gift: The Problems With the Online Marketplace for Art and Shopping for Works this Holiday Season

Art seemingly can't escape the ubiquitous holiday shopping guide, as Miriam Kreinin Souccar recently pointed out in an article for Crain's New York. With the proliferation of online sites selling art, purchasing works is easier -- and often, more budget friendly -- than ever before. Sure, this can mean expanded opportunities for artists to earn a profit, but the costs are far-reaching. The evolving marketplace, which can resemble a one-stop, big box shop for artwork, encourages uninformed collecting practices, leading to a devaluation of the work and its meaning and merit.

As if the work of emerging artists -- particularly, that of female artists -- didn't need further obstacles, the last thing we need to see are platforms that make it so easy to devalue it even more. Many online sites go for volume of sales at lower price points (as the Hiscox Art Trade Report indicates). This can work to keep the value of work stuck in a price range from which it can be very difficult to rise above.

In order for the purchase or gift of art to be a meaningful one, it is necessary to discuss of good collecting practices: building a collection that supports an artist's work, and bringing some knowledge base to the selection through relationships with specialists and artists. This is what responsible online and physical galleries, auction sites and collectors, like Peter Hort, work extremely hard to do.

Peter Hort is not only the heir to the Hort Family Collection of Contemporary Art, but also an heir to the legacy of his parents, Susan and Michael Hort, whose own collection practices and Rema Hort Foundation support under-represented and emerging artists, as well as those in need inflicted by cancer. Ironically, Peter Hort is recognized in the article for his gift of a painting by Brooklyn-based emerging artist Nikki Katsikas to his 13 year-old daughter. By all accounts, this was a well-informed purchase and probably a really laudatory example of how to help young adults become educated art appreciators. Unfortunately, the notion of an easy gift-giving solution was emphasized instead.

A fair number of online auction sites for artwork are ventures by companies that already have successful online businesses. They see big opportunities to sell online and make art buying part of their customers' regular online shopping experience. They should consider that to build a new market for affordable art, they need to cultivate an appreciation for art and collecting practices among these new, mainstream audiences. Education is essential to build a new collector base, just as fostering the work of talented artists is critical for growth to be sustained. Whether or not this growth is likely to benefit artists is hard to predict.

What will be the long-term effect for an artist selling online without responsible collecting practices informing the process? For the work of emerging artists who do not yet have sufficient sales to form a reliable record for establishing value, the online marketplace may be more harmful than helpful. When it comes to women artists, again, these concerns are all the more acute. Educating the public, buyers and collectors is a key aspect of addressing the existing inequity in the value of works by men versus women. This is made more difficult when increasing emphasis is placed on serving up work because it is easy to buy and can be purchased at modest price points and where no interest, let alone commitment to a longer-term relationship with the work of an artist, is valued or encouraged.

Some online galleries and auction sites, like Paddle8 and S|2, are working to create access to artwork across price points and are also offering deeper knowledge that supports artists' work, intention and meaning, in the same way that high-end auction houses and commercial galleries do for their elite clientele. Entities doing so create jobs for those who are educated in the humanities -- art historians, curators, advisors and agents -- who are working to utilize web based interactive capabilities as tools to educate a new form of collector. This work has the potential for interaction, allowing novices to explore and learn what type of art appeals to them as they venture into building a collection at their level of affordability. Creating a new constituency supportive of emerging and underrepresented artists really can give artists a chance to at least earn a small percentage of their living from their work. This is an essential consideration and unfortunately is often overlooked in many of the online enterprises, as it is in Souccar's article.

The article, lastly, makes a sweeping connection between the growth of online galleries and auctions and the traditional secondary market for affordable art, highlighting recent record-breaking contemporary art sales at Christie's. The reality is that only a minuscule percentage of professional artists who are scrapping together a portion of their living from new online markets have a pathway to stratospheric sales potential at the highest ends of the secondary art market. Unfortunately, a much larger percentage of emerging and underrepresented artists who are struggling to gain any exposure for their work will have had to abandon their art in favor of alternative jobs to keep up with the cost of living.

Those who are taking a serious approach to the global art market, online or otherwise and intend to support its growth, need to consider the net effect of their purchases. Appreciating art is an enriching part of the human experience and to apply it to a practice of gift giving -- at every price point -- is a lovely idea to grow the art market into the mainstream, but, it needs to be treated as collecting art, and not as a trendy shopping alternative to a sweater or electronics.

True patronage of contemporary art is often a labor of informed vision, passion and a will to support work that is meritorious and significant with the potential to express something of our time.