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This Man Is On A Quest To Put All The Art Of The World In One Place. Here's Why

If Spotify or Apple Music’s goal is to have all the world's music in one place, what would be the equivalent for visual art?

That’s the space Carter Cleveland wants to fill with his website Artsy.net, the largest online database of contemporary art. It also partners with galleries to sell art.

Cleveland spoke with WLRN’s Wilson Sayre about Artsy.net's aspirations of making art much easier to discover and enjoy. Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation: 

WLRN: Explain what Artsy.net is.

CLEVELAND: Artsy is kind of a startup cliché. It started in my dorm room in college with a very simple idea -  that in the same way that there's one place you can find all the world's music or all the world's film online, there should be one simple website where you can find all the world's art, whether you want to learn about it, buy it or sell it.

What do you mean by that, make all the world's art accessible?

Well, we're starting with the most established part of the art world. So if you walk around the art fair in Miami or Basel, pretty much every single gallery you see at that fair, every work you see in those galleries booths, those are all in Artsy’s app.

Artsy offered previews of some of the art fairs happening during Art Miami.

But it's not just art fairs. You can actually see art aggregated from over 2,200 galleries all around the world, many of the top 50 auction houses in the world. You can bid directly into Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips auctions. You can check out museum collections. Basically, everywhere in the world that there is art from, we make it all accessible with just a few taps of a button.

You could check out massive Jeff Koons balloon dogs, like $50 million Blue Dog. We've got them on Artsy. They're not necessarily for sale, but we also have this thing called the Art Genome Project, which maps all the characteristics of art and artworks based on different art historical movements. So say, you know this work is like an 80 in sculpture and 90 in Cubism and 40 in, like, photorealism--actually I have no idea what work would actually match those criteria--but the point is it uses the categorization to recommend other similar works in that criteria. So you might start off with something really expensive, that you can't afford but that you're interested in, and it might actually guide you to a work by emerging artists whose work is much more affordable, but still kind of fits your criteria, your style, what you're looking for.

Artsy offered previews of some of the art fairs happening during Art Miami.

But it also seems that your goal is sort of larger: to make an educational clearinghouse for art and have truly everything possible on there. Explain that goal.

The way we make money is by aggregating people who want to buy or sell art and we just help them do it a lot faster and a lot more efficiently by tapping into our global audience. But this commercial aspect of what we do is really just the foundation of a much larger mission.

We believe that by making art a lot easier to discover and to purchase, we think a lot more people are going to do it right now. So we think by making it a lot easier, by making the information more transparent and by removing a lot of the barriers to entry that keep people out of the art market, we can not just make the market more efficient, but we can dramatically expand that market. And in doing so, we believe that that is the foundation to support a much larger, much more vibrant art ecosystem.

We talk a lot about a world where art is as ubiquitous a part of the culture as music is today. We think expanding the market is a stepping stone to making that vision a reality.

How are you using the Art Genome Project through Artsy?

You start by looking at one artwork and then it will recommend other similar works. Maybe they're from the same genre or the same period. But there's also really interesting connections, like you might get a connection between like Damien Hirst, who's obviously a contemporary artist, and like a Renaissance altarpiece because both Damien Hirst and that Renaissance altarpiece are maybe referencing themes of religion or themes of mortality. And so you actually get sometimes these really interesting connections that transcend local space and time.

So where are you in that goal to get everything online?

We're making progress. We now have over $30 billion of commercial inventory aggregated on our platform, which is by far the most art that's ever been available on a single website. That doesn't include our institutional partners like the Louvre and the Met and the Guggenheim and their collections, of course, because those are not for sale.

We have ancient Egyptian relics, we have rocks brought back from the moon by Neil Armstrong. So it's quite a diverse inventory base. In terms of making a world where art is as ubiquitous as music, well I think it's obvious to everyone that we're still a very long way away from that. But I think it's an exciting time for art.


Art collecting--a lot of that is taking place this week--often makes art inaccessible. People buy it, they put in their private homes, they put it in their storage facilities. So how do you square these two seemingly competing interests of buying art and taking it out of the public eye and access to art?

I think it's all part of the ecosystem. I think that there's an exchange basically between the kind of private, commercial market of art and also the more public, educationally-oriented aspect of art, and they basically support each other.

At Artsy, we really believe in the convergence of those worlds. We think the more people who are educated about art, the more people who attend museums, the more people who read about art on Artsy, the more people are going to buy art. You now have more patrons and more funding and more money flowing into the ecosystem, not just to support new emerging artists but also to support the institutions.

How did your art appreciation begin?

I was very lucky. I have a father who is an art writer, so from a very young age he would take me to galleries, to museums, and just talking to me about art in a way that I feel like most people probably grow up being exposed to music or film. It's never perceived as this big deal or this thing that you are somehow not cool enough for, that you're an outsider too. And I always felt very at home with art, the same way I feel at home with music or film. I love looking at it, I love talking about, I love asking dumb questions about it.

It was only when I became older that I realized that, actually, that's a very rare and privileged experience,  that for most people, art feels like this other world that they don't have access to, that they're not a part of and I think that's really awful. When do we get so programmed to think that somehow we're separate from this or we're not worthy of this?