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How Instagram, start-ups are leading the art movement

Metropolitan Museum Instagram
Source: Metropolitan Museum | Instagram

Digital media has done more than bring the world closer together: It's managed to revolutionize the art world. Now, tech start-ups are combining data and social media with artistic vision to help expand art appreciation—as well as find lucrative buyers and potential investors.

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For example, Aura uses "big data" to help art lovers keep track of all the works and exhibits they've seen, and helps them share what they love on social media. It's worked with the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio to create a tech-meets-art world experience, and was featured at the Association of Art Museum Directors meeting this year.

"It's like a Waze for art people so they can remember what they've seen and start sharing that with friends," Aura founder and CEO Christina Noren said.

A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 81 percent of arts organizations that have received grants from the National Endowment of the Arts said the Internet and other technology are "very important" for furthering appreciation of arts.

The realization that the digital world could help the art community was fueled by the popularity of Instagram, according to Dave Krugman, a social media consultant who now works as social editor for the ad agency BBDO. He explained that media had always been a catalyst for promotion in the art community. In the past that meant getting in an influential magazine or paper, but he believes Instagram democratized that process.

"(Social media users) can really publish to their own audiences, can be their own editors and can be their own storytellers," he said. "This has empowered a new generation of artists."

Before his current job, Krugman had been tapped by places like Ellis Island, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Danziger Gallery in New York to promote their works on Instagram and other social media platforms. He said museums and galleries were interested in working with him and other social media influencers because of their massive reach online as well as their ability to build online communities. (Krugman currently has 173,000 followers on his Instagram.)

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Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said social media and art-related apps have allowed the New York museum to expand the reach of its art in the world. The museum's director and CEO, Tom Campbell, is especially active on Instagram, promoting not only its works but art he sees around the world. Sreenivasan said it's common to look at the comments on the posts, see people tagging their friends and setting up outings to the Met to see the art in person.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has designated hashtags for all its exhibitions so people can share their photos, and also uses digital platforms to showcase additional items.

"Art-related apps have been very important in the museum world as a way to expand the reach of our art in the world," Sreenivasan said. "What we're trying to do is expand access to our collection."

Having a large presence on digital media can also drive sales and museum visits. A survey conducted by art app Artsy found that more than half of art collectors who are active on Instagram have purchased a work from an artist that they found through the platform.

And, instead of artworks being purchased at art fairs, they are being negotiated before the events start. For example, during this year's Art Basel there were 506 inquiries through Artsy for purchases as of June 15. Art Basel didn't kick off until June 18.

Artsy is an app that aims to make art accessible to anyone who can go online. It works as an online database of more than 300,000 works in galleries and museums as well as The Art Genome Project, a system that logs similar qualities between artists and artworks.

"Additionally, we built Artsy to help galleries reach more collectors and, as more people learn about art, become passionate about it, and want to live with art and support artists, to help those people find art they love and want to buy," Artsy's head of communications, Michelle Finocchi, said. "The success of Artsy's commercial business supports our educational mission in a way that allows us to provide free access to all of the content on our site and avoid the need for a membership fee or advertising."

Krugman pointed out that social media likes and favorites can also give art collectors a sense of the popularity of a piece, which can help them determine potential value of the work. It has also been used by galleries to figure out which pieces to feature in their exhibits.

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The Auraverse app
Source: Auraverse
The Auraverse app

Then, there's the fact that these wealthy art collectors are exactly the type of investor these start-ups are looking for. The New York Times reported that Christie's had its first $1 billion week in May. Although Aura's Noren said the main motivation of the app is to combine the power of data with the art world, she said art purchasers are the kind of investors they are looking for.

"We're interested in smart money and smart investors, and we feel like those conversations with those people will be there virtuously," she said. "But, we're focused on the product, not trying to making it a fit for a luxury market."

Similarly, Artsy's Finocchi said its investors come from all walks of life, but said "Art fairs are fantastic opportunities to connect with gallerists and collectors."

The biggest problem facing these apps may be from the art community itself. It's split on whether allowing pieces to be featured on digital platforms devalues the work. Krugman said he often argues with other artists whether smartphones—and in turn, apps like Instagram—have actually benefited the art community.

He said it's a good thing when he sees the average person taking more pictures of their everyday lives, because at least it makes them aware of the power of photography.

"When Instagram first came around, people said now everyone is a photographer so no one is a photographer," he said. "But it means that people are more visually literate, and everyone can enjoy this world that was pretty walled off."