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Affordable Art Finds a Retail Market

Three years ago, art advisor Chrissy Crawford Malone was at the heart of the art boom. She traveled around the world to attend frenzied contemporary art fairs and inspect potential acquisitions for her wealthiest clients. She helped young bankers establish fledgling collections.

Chrissy Crawford Malone, founder of the online affordable artgallery ArtStar.
Photo: ArtStar
Chrissy Crawford Malone, founder of the online affordable artgallery ArtStar.

But when the economy tumbled into a recession, it took the art market with it. In 2009, the world’s largest auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, saw the totals for their evening contemporary art sales decline by 75 percent. Art galleries were going out of business. Crawford's clients’ budgets dropped dramatically.

Today, she is involved with another boom—this time in affordable contemporary art. The 31-year-old just launched ArtStar, an online gallery that caters to sophisticated tastes while pricing its limited edition prints at $25 to $250, and original works at under $5,000.

“Art got so expensive and so exclusive,” says Malone. “It became almost impossible for anyone of normal means to own original artwork. We’re trying to open the art world up.”

ArtStar is just the latest of many affordable art enterprises to emerge in the past few years.

Jen Bekman pioneered the field in 2007 when she started online gallery 20x200to sell collectible prints at prices as low as $20; last year she raised $825,000 in venture capital.

Zatista arrived in 2008 and features original contemporary art. This year also saw the launch of Art + Culture Editions , an offshoot of the art and design portal Art + Culture, with pieces starting at $50, and Los Angeles-based newcomer Edition One Hundred, where limited edition prints are priced at—surprise—$100.

"I think the success that we’ve had has definitely served as encouragement to other people to start endeavors," says Bekman.

Other factors are driving the growth of affordable art, including technology, the economy and changing tastes.

The Internet gives galleries a global reach, but also, Bekman points out, "digital technology allows us to produce high-quality prints at affordable prices."

At the same time, people have become increasingly design-sensitive and have been seeking out items for their home that are more unique and full of character, says Judith Pineiro, director of Affordable Art Fair NYC, a four-day annual event where art is priced from $100 to $10,000.

“People are looking beyond that poster on the wall,” Pineiro says. “They’re taking more interest in something unique.”

After seeing record attendance and sales in the spring of 2010, the fair is now taking place twice a year. The next round takes place May 5-8, 2011.

Prada Marfa, a photograph by Noel Kerns that is available as aprint on ArtStar for $25 to $250.
Photo: ArtStar
Prada Marfa, a photograph by Noel Kerns that is available as aprint on ArtStar for $25 to $250.

The market for affordable art—and the sellers—is obviously not just online.

After suffering a major slowdown at the end of 2008, New York gallery owner Jessica Porter asked her stable of emerging artists to submit smaller works—under 24 inches—in the hope that they could be marketed as gifts and priced under $500, rather than the $10,000 level.

“It was a big hit,” says Porter, who expanded her ART2Gift program at her Raandesk Gallery with a request for submissions from new artists.

“It’s not a situation where we take things that are priced higher and price them lower,” says Porter.

Indeed, nearly all of the affordable art sellers are offering works that were specifically created for the market.

Jason Bryant, one of the artists Porter represents, usually fetches some $6,000 a piece, but for Raandesk's ART2Giftprogram, he offered up a piece for just $150.

Earlier this year, 20x200 reportedly sold $100,000 worth of prints by famed dog photographer William Wegman, with prices starting at $100 rather than the thousands he normally commands.

ArtStar's roster of emerging talents includes figures in the super-hot Chinese contemporary art movement such as Shi Lifeng and Liu Jin.

“You could be buying the next art star," Malone says. "Pay $125, and if you hold onto it for five years, it could be worth much more.”

Of course, there are no guarantees that will be the case, and it is still unclear if affordable art prints will have lasting success.

Bekman, however, has no doubts.

"In fact, our gallery is performing extraordinarily well, in part because of the exposure that our artists get on 20x200. People are finally starting to realize that there is an appetite for this—and there’s a lot of opportunity."

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