How Artsy laid the foundation for art tech to thrive in New York City

October 20, 2016

New York City has long stood as the capital of the art world, where tens of thousands of artists have worked, struggled and created art for decades. As such, the art industry is rooted in insular, relationship-driven practices, and when it comes to adapting new technologies, has been traditionally slow to the uptake.

However, over the past several years, art tech has become a prominent sector in its own right within New York’s larger tech community, upending traditional auction houses and creating digital repositories for the art world at-large.

At the forefront of this movement is Artsy, one of the earliest technology companies aimed at disrupting the art industry.

Artsy was founded in 2009 by Carter Cleveland, a Princeton University computer science graduate who launched the company during his senior year of college. Artsy’s founding mission, which the company abides by today, is simple: make the art world easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Now, the company has over 150 employees, 400,000 artworks in its database and a full suite of tech products behind its platform, all in the name of access.

Over the past seven years, Artsy has morphed into the most comprehensive resource for learning about and collecting art from the leading galleries, museums, art fairs and auctions all around the world, powered completely by technology. In fact, the company touts itself as a ‘digital platform worthy of art,’ and heavily invests in technology that makes both offline and online experiences, like buying art, more informative, engaging and efficient. Through its website and mobile apps, Artsy also offers the world’s largest online database of contemporary art, which includes works of art, architecture and design.

“All of the works on Artsy, whether they’re for sale through galleries or they're just up for exploration, are part of the same central database that allows us to give a unified view of the art world, whether you’re on Artsy commercially or whether you’re on to learn and explore,” said Engineering Lead Alan Johnson. “Our auction software is also built out of that.”

And while a number of technology startups are dipping their toes into online auctions, this is what sets Artsy apart. As both an art historical reference point and destination for collecting art, the company is a one-stop shop.

“Artsy is a platform player, which means that any true brick-and-mortar auction house, such as Phillips or Doyle, can depend on us to help them tackle online auctions,” said Devang Thakkar, Head of Auctions. “It’s not about trying to replace a place like Sotheby’s or eat away their business in any way — Artsy is a platform for them to do their business in, because we understand the online audience better than anyone else.”

Back in 2015, Artsy expanded from solely hosting benefit auctions to hosting commercial auctions on its platform, and partnered with Sotheby’s to host a major collaborative online-only auction. In June, the company launched a live auction integration platform for its auction house partners, designed to allow users to bid on works in real-time — on desktops, mobile and tablets — from anywhere in the world. As a result, Artsy even facilitated a $1.4 million sale through its iPad app last year, which the company hopes is the first of many large-scale transactions facilitated by technology within the art world. 

“Today’s audience is more comfortable discovering things online,” said Thakkar. “People now feel more comfortable making these transactions, and the art buying experience has just changed. We imagine a world where, in five years, every $1.4 million piece will go through an app.”

This goal may not be far off for the Artsy team, where world-class engineers work in tandem with art historical professionals to carry out the company’s founding mission. The company is currently focused on building out its new platform for auctions, as well as continuing to spin out its existing technology at scale.

The Artsy team is headquartered in downtown New York City, and has global offices in Los Angeles, London, Munich, Berlin, and Hong Kong.

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