Wouldn't it be great if we had a Pandora for art? It would! You'd be introduced to hundreds of new artworks you actually liked and some you might even be able to buy. Cool. So, to accomplish that, we're gonna remove the names of all the galleries you can purchase work from, make sure you can't look at any video, and only include a fraction of the 20th century's most important artists in our database. Wait, what?
WHAT IS IT?
Art.sy is an online database that recommends art to users based on their preferences. The site is still in beta but at present they list 3,000 artists from more than 200 galleries, museums and private collections — approximately 15,000 works in all. Most are for sale.
People care about the Art.sy because, unlike the music or film world, in the art world there's no site that makes it easy for users to find art they might like. Also, there are a lot of fancy people involved: Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal and a board member at Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, creator of Twitter, are both investors, and the venture has enlisted high-profile advisors like Larry Gagosian, Pace Gallery President Marc Glimcher, and Joe Kennedy, CEO of Pandora.
HOW WILL IT MAKE MONEY?
So far, the answer has been has been VC funding, which isn't exactly the same as making actual money. However, once the site launches, Art.sy will work on commission-based sales. The company takes 15 percent on the first $10,000 of any purchase, and 10 percent of anything beyond that. In this way, it differs from the VIP Art Fair, which asks galleries to shell out for the limited-time use of their software, but charges no fee for any sales that occur.
Another difference between Art.sy and the VIP Fair—and one we suspect will hurt Art.sy in the long term—is the amount of verbiage dedicated to the art. Whereas the VIP Fair encourages galleries to upload oodles of press, videos, and CVs for the artist, almost none of this is made available on Art.sy. Only a small blurb under each artist tells users about their career; one 75-word biography begins, “American painter Agnes Martin built her oeuvre around the search for sublime beauty and serenity.” Frequently the “Additional Information” category is left empty or reads only, “Price includes frame”. Needless to say, there’s not much on this website that would sell a collector on a work that they weren’t already interested in.
Overall, the site is fairly easy to use, which is something of a miracle when you consider the vague header menu. Want to search for an artist or art work? No problem! Just choose from one of the following headers, “Search”, “Browse”, “Artworks”, “For You” and “Collection”. We had no idea what any of them meant, but after a bit of trial and error we figured it out.
The site's usability is helped by a design architecture that resembles sites we're already familiar with. Their Netflix-style recommendation list is a good example of this, the working concept here being that if you liked this Mircea Cantor rainbow installation, then you might these six works using “symmetry”. As with the headers, the copy on this site could use some help; the words “if you liked X then you might like Y and Z” never appear, so it takes a minute to figure out that you’re looking at recommendations rather than just other related artworks.
One hopes that as Art.sy works its way out of this early beta phase, they will develop better tags and search catagories. Right now, only basic sorting through color, size and filter combinations exists. You can search by one color, but not two, you can include add a filter such as “austere”, but can't add an option like “emphasis on line” or “large brushwork”. As such, the search results that are brought back don't feel that specific to the user.
There's also a “taste test”, which asks users to identify seven pictures they like to help them determine their preferences. Again, it's based purely on images, and never asks a number of crucial questions—chief among them a preferred size (a priority for many collectors).
Ultimately, the system seems wasteful. We take Art.sy at their word that this is a goliath mathematical enterprise, and their job postings for developers, which refer to “real-time search in 800 dimensional space (one dimension for every art historical category)”, show that their algorithms are complex enough to be more specific. The user interface, though, fails to make the scale of that computation apparent.
Compare this to the taste preference tools at Netflix, which are known for their specificity despite being based on much simpler technology. AFC's Will Brand has a recommendation category titled “exciting crime movies from the 1980s”, which seems highly specific but is merely a combination of three likely tags—exciting, crime movies, and the 1980s. Netflix looks a whole lot smarter than it is, and Art.sy would do well to follow their lead.
Art.sy is a ridiculously accessible site for art newbies, with a vast treasure trove of large, high-resolution images. This is amazing. The site is fairly easy to use and does a good job at making its users feel a little more sophisticated after having spent a bit of time on it.
Although the architecture of the site still seems crude, Art.sy manages to introduce visitors to works and artists they wouldn’t have found otherwise. I found Max Janson's “Rainbows” simply by clicking through the Contemporary Art category, so the site works. Notice that the boobs with rainbow nipples double as a viewfinder to the ocean. It's like they magically knew what would appeal to me!
Speaking of which, my Art.sy recommendations have always led with Canadian artists, even though I have never shared that I'm Canadian with the site. I'm about 60 percent sure that this is just luck—there are no options to connect Facebook or Google Plus—but this user, for one, enjoyed it.
One final note on the site: Art.sy looks like it was designed by a developer, which is to say, it doesn’t look designed so much as it does laid out. This isn’t so bad relative to most art websites, which are either overdesigned to the point of uselessness or haven’t been updated since the early 2000s.
Oh man, where to begin. Art.sy feels like it’s still in the early stages of beta, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the company hadn’t launched back in 2009. That’s an awfully long time to be tweaking algorithms, but I guess when you’ve got 7.25 million in venture capital you can afford the time.
A few basic observations: At the risk of stating the obvious, the search functions don't work well enough yet. I talk about a lot of those details in “The Use” section of this review, but past all that, it's worth noting that the database is still too small to be useful. There are only 15,000 works in the database, which sounds like a lot, but feels particularly incomplete because if the art's not for sale, there's far less chance the work will be in the database.
To wit, Chris Burden has 15 entries, but “Shoot”, the canonical performance in which he had his assistant shoot him in the arm with a .22 caliber rifle as a response of the Vietnam War, is not pictured anywhere. I can read about it in his bio, but I can’t add it to my collection. Worse still, Vito Acconci, arguably the most influential performance artist of the late 20th century, has no entry at all. Arguably, there's a fair rationale behind these decisions– why waste resources on entries that can’t lead to commissions — but the company shouldn’t be calling itself the art genome project if it’s not making an attempt at being one.
It's hard to overstate how big this problem is, but it may not be the company's largest. Oddly enough, the only way to find out what gallery represents what artist is to contact an Art.sy representative about individual works. I suspect this is the site's way of making sure that they receive their commission, but it's needlessly complicated and bad for sales. It took Art.sy more than 24 hours to return my request for additional information, a push button service on the site that doesn't even allow me to ask a specific question. The email I received from the company simply asked me to specify the nature of my request.
I suppose that kind of customized service will make for a good spam filter, but it's not worth it. Galleries do a lot of work to place their artists in museum shows and commercial venues and their names are tied to their artists' success. Failing to list the gallery's name is a little like selling shoes and removing all the brand names. I don't know how anyone ever thought this was a good idea.
Luckily, this is a relatively easy problem to fix, as are many on the site. For example, it wouldn't take too much for Art.sy to offer embeddable video in the video art section. All they offer is high-res stills, which, given the lack of text on the site, ensures that no video art will ever be sold through Art.sy. Also, it's unclear if social features will be built into the site—none exist yet—but they certainly encourage use. At present you can follow an artist for updates, but you can’t follow or share collections with your friends. And finally, there’s the buggy “view my collection” function, which rarely loads all the images, and offers no sorting options. I can’t figure out how the slides are currently being arranged, other than that it’s not alphabetically, chronologically, or by date favorited.
That basic sorting like this is a problem for a website branding itself as the master-sorter does not bode well. Many of the site's current issues may have easy fixes, but there's enough of them to suggest that there may yet be months of work ahead before the site is anywhere close to ready for the public.
SHOULD I TRY IT?
Not yet. We like what Art.sy is trying to do here, but if the company wants to succeed, they're going to have to make a lot more changes. That should start with a way to make money that doesn't get in the way of user experience and end with providing better recommendations and search. People like to know why images are being suggested to them because it tells them something about themselves. Art.sy does nothing of the sort.