Published: November 6, 2001
By Daniel Grant
AMHERST, MASS. – “The fact is, there aren’t a lot of people who collect digital, because it is often not an object and has a very ephemeral presence,” said Magdalena Sawon, director of Postmasters, an art gallery in New York City that features art created on computers. “You don’t see the market for this type of art, because it’s not there.”
Perhaps, it may seem that there is everything but a market for digital art – artists are flocking to computers to create new works (art schools offer more and more courses with computer applications in the fine art and design areas), and a growing number of museums are acquiring and exhibiting new media, including digital art.
“Currently, my work is supported entirely by museums and by grants,” digital artist Mark Napier stated by e-mail. “I have been commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Guggenheim to create artworks, mostly for display on the Web.” He added that, “I don’t know anybody who supports himself as a Net artist.”
There are some online galleries, (www.digitalartsgroup.com, www.worlddigitalart.com, www.museumofcomputerart.com and www.digital-art.org, among others) but no brick-and-mortar galleries that exclusively show digital art. There are also a variety of digital art festivals taking place around the world, which tend to be more an opportunity for artists to display new work to each other than for sales (Art-Tech Fest in Silicon Valley, California, www.art-tech.org; International Digital Art Awards in Melbourne, Australia, www.worlddigitalart.com/IDAA/2002call.html; and, International Association of Computer Graphics in St. Petersburg, Russia, www.iagr.com).
A growing number of the brick-and-mortar sort also exhibit computer-generated pieces along with more traditional media; most of the artists whose work was shown in the “Bitstreams” exhibition of digital art at the Whitney Museum of American Art earlier this year are represented by galleries. Possibly, these galleries are testing the waters or look to be in position to jump whole-heartedly into displays of digital art if this work catches on with collectors.
Postmasters also shows and sells traditional media – paintings and photographs – that provide the lion’s share of the gallery’s income, but Sawon looks ahead to collectors who have “expanded what they buy to include media-related work.” One such collector, retired Boston real estate developer Ken Freed, estimated that he owns approximately 1,400 drawings, paintings and prints and has more recently purchased videos and interactive computer-based pieces by John Simon, Jr, and Camille Utterback – who, along with Mark Napier, are among the rising stars of this young field of artmaking and collecting.
Freed noted that he initially became interested in this kind of work “by accident. I went into Postmasters to look at some work and walked into Magdalena’s office in the back. And, there on the wall, I saw a picture of me. There was a camera on the wall taking the picture, projecting the image on a screen.”
On the screen also were some letters and, when Freed pointed at the screen, “The letters moved to where my arm stopped. It looked like I was pushing letters up and down.” Delighted by the experience, Freed purchased the piece, which had been created by Utterback, for $10,000 and installed it in his home. That is to say, he bought the software that had been programmed by Utterback but then needed to purchase a computer on which to run the software and a projector, as well as remodel a room in his home in order to accommodate the artwork, adding another $8,000 to the cost.
Pay and then pay some more is not uncommon for collectors who are buying interactive or Net art. Zurich Capital Markets, a Swiss-based firm that operates a managed assets fund with offices in Manhattan and London, purchased the computer code (the actual artwork) to John Klima’s interactive “Echo Game” for $10,000 for its New York branch, but then had to purchase a computer and plasma screen on which to run the software for $20,000. Additional costs that are more difficult to track separately are the electricity needed to run the computer and a dedicated Internet feed.
ZCM also paid Klima $5,000 as a license fee to set up the same piece in its London office. For $50,000, ZCM also bought the software for a piece of Net art by John Simon, Jr, that includes the G-3 Powerbook computer and screen. That work is in an edition of three.
“Our chairman and CEO, Randall Kau, is a huge fan of contemporary art,” said Dina Schonfeld, director of research at ZCM and the company’s principal art buyer. “Digital art is always changing; it’s never the same and, as such, represents the world we live in and the way business works today. This kind of artwork fits in with our corporate philosophy.” She noted that Kau reads Wired magazine “religiously, and when he sees something that interests him, asks me to find out about it and buy it.”
Clearly, Net art is not for every taste or every collector. More people have purchased computer-generated art objects, such as a photograph that is scanned into a computer (turned into a pattern of numbers) and then manipulated through filters to alter the image. The number of galleries carrying artworks that are reproduced digitally as posters and prints, sometimes called “giclees,” is also increasing dramatically, according to a survey published in Art Business News in July 2001.
Although created by new technology, these works may be exhibited in traditional ways (on a wall, if two-dimensional, or on a pedestal if the work is a sculpture formed from a computer-designed mold). Prices for these two-dimensional pieces range widely ($100-$10,000), based on customary art world criteria: renown of the artist, the style of the work, the number of works in an edition (if the edition is intentionally limited), the physical size of the piece, the material used (a two-dimensional work printed on canvas, watercolor or photographic paper) and whether or not the piece is framed. Net art purchases are fewer in number and require a particular type of collector.
Although sales of his work are arranged by New York City dealer Sandra Gering, John Simon, Jr, seeks to “talk to collectors before they buy.” They have questions, and he has questions.
“They will want to know about repairs, and I’ll ask them if they plan to run it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “The fluorescent bulbs in the screen usually last 5,000-20,000 hours, which will last six to seven years if you turn it off when you’re not there or three to four years if it’s run continually.” Simon noted that, “in the very far future, you might not be able to find replacement parts, but I can have software written for new hardware. Hopefully, I will be able to guide the process.”
Buying a work by Simon does not only result in a bill of sale but also a contract, stipulating the need for ventilation and the responsibility for paying for repairs.
“The contract says repairs will be made by me for free up to 90 days after purchase, but I’ll actually fix things up to one year, because I want them to still be there for people to see,” he noted. A clause in the contract also limits the artist’s liability in the event that a fire breaks out: “As part of accepting the artwork,” said Simon, the 38-year-old son of a product liability lawyer, “you also have to accept the risks.”
The purchase of digital art often leads to questions rarely otherwise asked in the buying and selling of traditional artworks: Can you turn it off? Which parts are likely to break first, and whose job is it to replace them? How do you get help if something goes wrong?
“Collectors sometimes worry that they need a tech support staff and, in a way, they’re right,” said Klima. He noted that he prefers selling to corporations rather than to private collectors, because “corporations already have an IT” – information technology – “staff that will know how things should be installed, how things work.”
Conservators of the future will need computer know-how, Klima stated. He tries, however, to make his work as trouble-free as possible. “An artwork shouldn’t require maintenance,” he said. He tells people that his programs have been tested and retested, and that “nothing should go wrong. If the computer gets unplugged from the wall, just plug it back in.”
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