On his Facebook page Magnus Resch writes: “We are disrupting the art world by making it more transparent.” and “You cannot stop our movement.”
I recently helped our team field requests from our many gallery partners regarding their Artsy images, metadata and pricing data appearing in the Magnus iPhone app. I sampled a sliver, 100,000 works from the 8 million in the Magnus app and found 9856 works directly scraped from Artsy, our copyright included, which was 10% of their dataset. The process of taking down those “crowd-sourced” works was not straightforward, and went on for weeks. Similar complaints by other companies eventually caused Apple to take down the app, which was the sensible thing to do. Much has been written about this, including Artnet, HyperAllergic, GruenderSzene and The Gray Market.
The Magnus.net FAQ states that all its data is crowd-sourced. It’s a bold claim when at least 10% of your data is scraped from Artsy and pricing data is obtained by asking the galleries for data they don’t want to share and publishing it online.
The Magnus case is not that important, but as the CTO of Artsy my job is to think a lot about data. I wanted to share some personal thoughts on data access, and on democratizing the art world.
A Quality Worthy of Art
I was born in the Soviet Union. Art has always been accessible in Russia and it was very important. In fact, it was the most important thing, far more important than money, although maybe less important than building communism or fighting imperialists. Having emigrated in the 90s, I remember getting my first CD with high resolution images from the Tretyakov gallery when I was 12, and I remember how happy it made me feel. I felt the same when I heard about Artsy’s mission of Bringing the Art World Online over 5 years ago. It seemed worthy of my time.
But I’ve also seen my share of failed revolutionary ideas. And reminding myself that the Soviet system was a failure, and an illusion carefully crafted by the propaganda machine, I was skeptical. Once on the inside I found an incredible group of people who were genuinely trying to democratize the art world without picking up pitchforks. It was simple and brilliant: find a real world problem (millions of works that will never be seen because of limitations of the physical world), offer a solution uniquely enabled by technology (the Art Genome project) and iterate until a business model emerged that served the existing art world (galleries pay Artsy to get access to hundreds of thousands of collectors world-wide, which ultimately globalizes their brand and hopefully sells more art). Furthermore, just like myself, everyone cared so much about art, quietly building a product that was worthy of the art itself.
Data Wants to be Free, Please
Data is not something abstract. It’s rows and columns of information that someone had to put into a database, probably by hand. Some, like ArtFacts have been doing it for over a decade. In its early days Artsy begged galleries to upload an artwork or two and a team of art historians spent countless hours classifying these works manually (they still do today). I believe that transformed, cleaned and organized data should be protected like any copyrighted work, and used only with permission from those who own that data. And that owner is often not even Artsy!
Artsy has a public API which currently allows for access to 26,000 public domain works with all their metadata and images. In theory, I would like all of Artsy’s data, including pricing, to be available for everyone to use for free for educational purposes, and maybe license that data for commercial use to non-competing businesses. I believe in open data, but I will always respect the choices of those who own the data: the thousands of galleries and auction houses we partner with.
Transparency in the Art Market
I strongly agree that the goal of bringing transparency to the art market is worthwhile, and I think that in the long run more technology innovation will bring many new collectors to the market. Transparency is a natural trend that already has great velocity. Five years ago museums were afraid that by making the art available online their foot traffic would suffer. Today it’s clear that the opposite is true - making works available online drives more people to visit the real thing. Galleries are still afraid that by publishing pricing information they will make less money. Looking at actual data I now know that the opposite is true, galleries with published pricing on Artsy sell a lot more art, for a lot more money.
It’s important to be earnest. Artists, Galleries, Art Fairs, Auction Houses, Museums, Institutions, Dealers, Advisors and Collectors are all very important players in the art world. They are imperfect, but each plays an essential role in an ecosystem that took a very long time to emerge. Let’s not disrupt the art market by taking shortcuts, but serve it patiently by creating something new, useful and timeless.