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The Art of Content: How Artsy Brought a $64 Billion Industry Into the Digital Age

By Nicolas Willson September 9th, 2016

Last October, Artsy teamed up with auction house Sotheby’s for a digital art sale. To bid on a Richard Prince piece replicating an Instagram selfie, estimated to be worth between $100,000 and $150,000, you didn’t have to turn up in a blazer or heels, champagne flute in hand, discretely raising an auction paddle. All you had to do was open the Artsy app from your couch, as if searching Amazon for a new tennis racket.

Artsy has become the world’s largest online database of contemporary art, allowing users to browse artwork, access artist biographies, research art shows, connect with galleries, and even bid on pieces. Since the company was founded in 2009, its goal has been to break down the exclusivity barrier of the $64 billion art industry. What better way to do that than through the internet?

“In the art world, there comes a lot of doubt online,” said Marina Cashdan, Artsy’s editorial director. The industry is still dominated by traditional print magazines, and much of the allure comes from a perceived insider status. The internet changes all of that.

At the core of Artsy’s strategy is original content.

“When I came on in 2011, there was practically no writing on the site, no words, mostly images,” Cashdan said. The early content focused on short introductory summaries about an artist’s career, influences, previous shows, and exhibits. These bios now number over 9,000 and have been regularly picked up by galleries, museums, and auction houses. “That’s really where we started to define our voice. The art world has a tendency to be very esoteric and elitist in terms of the writing style.”

Artsy’s mission statement is simple: Make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The platform is powered by the Art Genome Project, Artsy’s classification system. Each artwork is mapped by certain characteristics (known as “genes”) which can then form a connection to other artists, artworks, and movements. This commitment to digital is what sets the company apart from the rest of the art world.

A photo posted by Artsy (@artsy) on

“We’re really lucky to be a part of a very robust tech company,” said Alexander Forbes, Artsy’s deputy editor. “I’d be pretty confident in saying that we’re the only art publication with an in-house custom content management system, built exactly to our needs.”

Around 2013, the content team began experimenting. At first, they tried user-generated content in the hope of driving greater engagement. “I think we were too young to really support that,” Cashdan said. “Then we started writing pieces that were really pure editorial, like show reviews.”

Initially, Artsy’s coverage included writing about some of its gallery partners. Although Cashdan was adamant that partners did not have any say in what was published, the conflict of interest still clouded the site’s editorial direction.

“As a startup, we went down that path,” Cashdan said. “At some point, I started to say this doesn’t work. We can’t go down that pay-for-play route. We are just starting to become a voice in this community—let’s revert.”

In early 2015, Forbes came on as deputy editor, and Matt Domino joined as managing editor. The editorial team grew to eight. Cashdan believes the decision to become editorially independent is behind the publication’s 400 percent growth in the last year. Artsy currently gets 550,000 readers per month, with the audience spending about two and a half minutes per visit. The U.S. is the site’s biggest source of traffic, followed by the UK.

“Another goal of ours is to make sure we’re not so deep in the art bubble and try to bring out global topics,” Cashdan said. “These last quarters I have stories in Vietnam, in Ghana. As we grow, we would like to have a more global editorial team.”

Last year, Artsy began experimenting with sponsored content, starting with a series of educational short films about the Venice Biennale, one of the biggest global art events, in partnership with the financial services company UBS.

“We’re being very thoughtful and careful about sponsored content,” Cashdan said. “It’s very much about finding brands who are already invested in the arts; supporting the art; and, instead of selling a product, telling the stories we mutually want to tell.”

The editorial team has now increased to 13—including two interns—with about 20 freelance contributors. They publish two or three stories a day and plan on increasing the output later this year.

“In the last six months, for the first time we are getting the exclusives, the stories with major artists that I’m sure others are going after,” Cashdan said. “They’re doing it because they are happy with the pieces that we’re producing. It feels good.”

Artsy now focuses a lot of its effort on evergreen content. “It’s such an important part of what we do and what a lot of smart publishers out there are doing,” Forbes said. “You’re not just running after clicks every month, you’re building up the database.”

Articles range from the the educational (“The 100 Most Expensive Artists at Auction“) and lighthearted (“Could This Piece of Wearable Art Help You Live Longer?“), to what you would expect from an art history thesis (“Rediscovering the Radical Feminism of the Neo Naturists“), without the verbosity, of course. The tone, at once intelligent and straightforward, reveals a lot about who Artsy is after: both seasoned art collectors and newcomers, curious and wanting to learn.

“So much of the art world is totally inaccessible to a wider audience,” Forbes said. “It’s our job to help open that up.”

Little by little, that world is opening up. Look no further than one current live auction: “San Francisco Cinematheque: Benefit Auction 2016.” You can research all of the art and artists directly on the platform, find articles about relevant topics, and start a thread with a specialist who can offer help and expertise. Bidding closes at midnight on September 11. And if you want an Ed Ruscha estimated at $4,500, you can get it right from your phone, no auction paddle required.

Image by Artsy
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