"How fantastic to just be here," says Rebecca Wilson. She has lived in L.A., specifically in Venice, for about six weeks. Before that, she had spent a year commuting back and forth from London's prominent Saatchi Gallery, helmed by Charles Saatchi of ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi and known since the 1990s for championing new talent. There, she had worked as one of the brick and mortar space's directors.
The move to L.A. came as Wilson officially became chief curator and director of artist development at Saatchi Art, the website that had been known as Saatchi Online until December of last year, and works out of a Culver City office with newly commissioned purple gorillas on the walls.
Saatchi Art allows artists from anywhere to upload and sell their work - Saatchi takes a 30 percent commission - and has been based out of L.A. since the end of 2010. But the staff and budget allocated to the venture had initially been quite small, and it was only a year ago that Wilson and her colleagues at the gallery start to realize that sales online were dramatically outpacing sales at the gallery. So what would happen if they did make a concerted effort?
"I started to curate the site, looking at everything," Wilson says. She would organize uploaded work into specific groups, or highlight groups of recently uploaded works. "It seemed to be working."
When she joined the London gallery as a director in 2007, after working as an editor at Art Review and Modern Painters, Saatchi had just redesigned its gallery website and launched Your Gallery and Stuart (short for "student art"), two features that allowed any artist or student to upload his or her own work onto the same site of the same prestigious gallery that launched careers of Damien Hirst (bankrolling his formaldehyde-encased shark) and Tracey Emin the decade before. A twenty-year-old printmaker in Iowa could then have a page with the same coloring and general look as the page for, say, artist Banks Violette, who had just shown his Hate Them series of minimal, death metal influenced sculptures in Saatchi's "USA Today" exhibition. It gave aspiring artists outside of big cities a sense of closeness that, in certain ways, wasn't that far from the closeness you'd feel as a young artist at an opening in New York or L.A., glimpsing Mark Bradford, Ryan Trecartin or Kara Walker from across the room.
Wilson was hired specifically to expand that online presence, and the New Sensations prize, an annual collaboration with the London-based Channel 4, was part of that effort. Any recent bachelors or masters graduate from a UK or Irish school can upload a profile, then judges narrow entries down first to twenty and then to four candidates who will all be commissioned to make new work. That new work is then judged to determine the winner of an ultimate cash prize. As with the Your Gallery site, the idea was to cast the net wider, beyond the typical crowd of "in" artists from places like Hirst's alma mater Goldsmiths College. "It was always pretty arbitrary," says Wilson of which artists received attention after graduating and then got picked up by galleries. "We wanted to give artists from all over a platform."
Around 2010, an investment fund, Balderton Capital, became interested in Saatchi Gallery's website, and Bruce Livingston, who had sold his site iStockPhoto to Getty Images, helped launch a new version of the site from L.A., where he then lived. This new version would stand alone from the Saatchi Gallery website and be specifically for artists to present portfolios and ideally begin selling their work. Livingston became the first CEO and, when the project launched, called it a "new frontier" that would be generated by "a dream team of caffeine-fueled developers, creative conceptualists, . . . and self-professed 'artoholics.'" The whole venture was based in L.A., at first out of the same little Chinatown enclave where alt space Human Resources started out. The site had a slicker, more commercial look than the previous gallery website had, with a white background and black banners, not unlike the sites of Art.sy and Paddle 8, two of the other more rarefied online fine art selling ventures launched in the past few years.
"We found a couple fantastic people here," says Wilson. "There was a wonderful kind of synergy between the art world and tech in California, both North and South. . . . It makes total sense to stay here." After Livingston resigned in 2012, Margo Spiritus, the former vice president at Celebrations.com (which runs 1-800-Flowers), took over as acting CEO until until October 2013, and current CEO Sean Moriarty, formerly of Ticketmaster, took over. By the end of 2013, the staff had grown from about five people to twenty-five, mostly to bolster the engineering and logistical side - when an artist from Lithuania sells a print to someone in, say, Tokyo, someone has to manage shipping and handling and make sure packages arrive on time. In December, they moved from temporary space at the Real Office Center in Santa Monica, where they'd been since leaving Chinatown in March 2013, to their 6,000 square foot Culver space, where Venice-based street artist Isabelle Alford-Lago would paint her gorillas.
Since transitioning to her new role a month and a half ago, Wilson also hired Bridget Carron, who formerly worked at Blum & Poe and at Kayne Griffin Corcoran in L.A., to help her curate the site and establish the new art advisory service, currently a free offering for collectors planning to spend at least $2,500, and wanting to consult with experts. "Many people love the anonymity [of buying online, with no gallerist or consultant as a middle man], but this gives people who really want it something more personal," explains Wilson. "We're very, very lucky to have the Saatchi name. Obviously, that's a really strong draw."
But it's still necessary to build confidence among prospective collectors. The guest curator project, to which LACMA's Franklin Sirmans just contributed by selecting a collection of works from what's available on the site, is one strategy. So are brick and mortar shows, like one at the Hyatt Regency's The Churchill Hotel in London and the first show curated from work on Saatchi Art to be held at the London Saatchi Gallery opens on April 1.
When the site first launched, Livingston, the first CEO, remembers Charles Saatchi telling him that only about 2,500 to 3,000 artists had international reputations, and everyone else was disenfranchised. Saatchi wanted to go after those disenfranchised artists. "Coming from a gallery that has a particular aesthetic," says Wilson, "you do end up seeing similar kinds of work." And there's a tendency for similar kinds of works to pop up at fairs and in contemporary galleries throughout major cities. Working on the site, she's paying attention to what artists from about 100 different countries upload and what collectors from 80 countries buy. "There's a real sense of liberation in terms of broadening what I would normally be looking at."
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