Democratizing art

By Felix Salmon
November 18, 2009
20x200 last week -- a woman who has just raised $825,000 in venture funding to help expand her project of bringing art to everybody. "I want anyone who's educated and even remotely affluent to feel self-conscious if they don't have an art collection that they can talk about," she says, and to that end she's selling limited-edition art starting at just $20 for an 8"x10" C-print in an edition of 200. (Hence the name.)

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I had a very interesting lunch with Jen Bekman of 20×200 last week — a woman who has just raised $825,000 in venture funding to help expand her project of bringing art to everybody. “I want anyone who’s educated and even remotely affluent to feel self-conscious if they don’t have an art collection that they can talk about,” she says, and to that end she’s selling limited-edition art starting at just $20 for an 8″x10″ C-print in an edition of 200. (Hence the name.)

The editions are limited not because that makes them more likely to rise in value, necessarily, but rather because it helps to infect her buyers with the collector bug: they are incentivized to buy now, before an edition sells out; they get an experience which only a small number of other people will share; and they feel as though they’re part of a select group of people who are supporting a particular artist. (The artists get 50% of all 20×200′s revenues, and retain copyright in their work.) What’s more, a lot of young artists today come to prominence with one high-profile image; limiting the editions that flow from that image helps to push artists to create more new work.

More generally, limiting editions helps to brand them as being non-generic: artisanal, rather than mass, culture. While 20×200 is certainly curated by Bekman, it also has a broad enough range of art that it allows her buyers to exercise their individualism and feel that they’re buying something uniquely suited to themselves and few others.

And yes, there is a chance of price appreciation too. 20×200 features a lot of artists, and it’s statistically probable that eventually one or two of them will become art-world stars; at that point, their early work will be worth much more than $20 or $50 or $200. And the biggest pieces — Bekman sells 30″x40″ prints for $2,000 and occasionally goes even bigger than that — could conceivably become seriously collectable.

But like any good gallery, 20×200 is all about getting enjoyment out of what you’re buying, rather than speculating on future price appreciation. Most art doesn’t go up in price, and certainly not small works on paper which, due to the limitations of digital printing, are unlikely to last out the century. The thing I really like about 20×200 is that it’s both elite and accessible: it’s not a free-for-all like art.com, without a curatorial sensibility, but at the same time it’s not a forbidding white cube either.

Jen has a real retail sensibility: she’s got big plans for the post-Thanksgiving rush, and she’s more than happy to recommend prints which go with the sofa. Most art is decorative; there’s no shame in that. She’s not even particularly high-end, as retail goes. She’s just trying to persuade the woman with the $2,000 handbag that $500 is not an excessive amount of money to pay for a print. It’s a struggle, sometimes, but she’s going about it in a great, accessible manner. I wish her — and her investors — all the best.

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