Decoding Design

Q&A: Lorenzo Thione, cofounder of Artify It

Q&A: Lorenzo Thione, cofounder of Artify It

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Art for rent? That's the concept behind Artify It, a web-based subscription service for people who appreciate art but can't -- or don't want to -- buy it.

During October of 2011, Lorenzo Thione traveled from his home in San Francisco to Mexico City in order to visit with his longtime friend Alessia Armeni. Armeni, an artist, had traveled from her home in Italy to Mexico to prepare for an art show. The trip exposed Thione -- an entrepreneur with a long list of successful startups, including the search engine Powerset, which Microsoft purchased in 2008 -- to the inner workings of the art world.

He found those inner workings to be odd, and he and Armeni later decided to launch Artify It as a antidote to the complexity of, and high financial barriers to, art collecting. The company uses technology to change the way art is enjoyed -- and how it changes hands. The startup has already raised $800,000, mostly from Silicon Valley investors. We asked Thione for the particulars.

Smart Planet: What specifically troubles you about the way art is bought and sold?

Lorenzo Thione: When people approach spending $2,000 to $10,000 on art, they do this with the knowledge of it being a good investment. But the likelihood that it will be a good investment is low -- below 1 percent, across the world, maybe higher if you only look at gallery sales.  The buyer is wondering "Am I making the right investment?" rather than “Do I love this piece?” When they realize they don’t know, that’s when they get an adviser.

There’s a lot of overlay in the experience of buying art that has nothing to do with enjoying the art.

Plus, when they price their work, artists have to consider more than the cost of material and time, but also how many they expect to be able to sell within a year, to ensure that they can support themselves.

The only way galleries can realize a return is through making art a scarce resource. But art that speaks to you is not [necessarily] a scarce resource. It’s scarce only through an artificially constrained field of “good art.”

So we started by asking: “How do we open up the experience of art to all the people who would love to buy it?” They already love to decorate the spaces they live in. That’s why people often have prints of original art that they can’t afford.

So how does Artify It work?

We started with a web-based subscription service that removes the idea that art should be owned. Instead, it can be an experience or a service. What you pay for is not something that in the future might be worth more, but instead you pay for the experience you get out of living with a great piece of art. It’s just like the way you might pay for cable TV.

But there are people out there who also want to own the art. There are also artists who want to feel like their work is becoming more valuable over time.  For this part of the business model, we have a feature called Artify Scout. If you have a piece in your house or office that you are subscribing to, people who visit you are seeing it. If someone who sees it decides that they'd like to buy it, the subscriber gets a 20 percent commission on the sale. You could also do it this way intentionally -- you can go out and scout for work, and then place it in your home or office with the intention of selling it.

This is a very interesting proposition for businesses -- especially hotels, where the guests could purchase the art in their rooms just as they might purchase the hotel's terry cloth robes. Some small businesses have tried to make similar arrangements, for example you'll sometimes see art for sale in a café. But there's nothing like this [at the scale Artify It is seeking].

Some staging companies rent art to put in homes on the market, and people who look at the homes sometimes want to buy the art. So this could be an additional revenue stream for staging companies or real estate agents.

How disruptive could Artify It be to the current gallery model?

You might say it’s wishful thinking, but I think we are really creating an opportunity for a portion of the art market that doesn’t exist. We are not pitching ourselves against galleries.

That said, galleries often have a tremendous amount of art -- much more than they can show. So we envision a time when we would partner with galleries and then share the subscriptions and sales [of a portion of their inventory] with the gallery.

So we are disrupting [the way art is sold] but we are addressing a new market, creating more social conversation around art. There is a whole section of the site where we want to create an educational experience as well, with artists' videos, and ways to follow the artists on social media, etc.

The information around the art becomes part of the process -- if you go to a gallery you don’t see that.

You're planning to officially launch the Artify It website June 1, but you've been in beta testing for a while. How's it coming along? And how is the artwork selected?

We have 300 pieces in the catalog already and we think we’ll have 500 within a couple weeks of launch. As for selecting the art, I gave ultimate power to decide to [chief art officer] Alessia, my cofounder. She is the custodian of quality. We have to be perceived as having high quality art from artists who are professional. When we work with an artist, we won’t artificially constrain the amount of their art we show, which is what galleries do in order to drive up the costs.

Subscription memberships start at $50 per month, depending on the value of the art selected. Most of the art is valued between $2,000 and $10,000, but over time I think we'll get a bigger spread.

So how has Artify It been received by the art community?

We get a healthy dose of skepticism at first. Artists wonder if participating in this will hurt their chances of being shown in galleries, etc. This is a very valid concern. But my point of view is that if someone is willing to part with their money because they love a piece of art, that’s already a validation of the art [even if it's not a purchase of the art].

The artists make money on monthly basis, and they still own the art in the catalog.  A lot of artists sell pieces for, say, $300 at an early point in their career, but later those works might be worth $10,000 or more. Artify It gives the artist a way to hang onto the stock while it appreciates, but still make money from it. So over the artist’s lifetime [the art] might generate more revenue than it would otherwise.

Images (from top to bottom): Lorenzo Thione, used with permission. From Artify It catalog: Great Chain of Being by Daniel Goldstein; Nectar by Tobias Tovera, both used with permission.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure