A Peek at’s Much-Anticipated Beta

The art world may be coming around to the idea of as an e-gallery, but the Art Genome Project still needs work.
artsy screencap A Peek at Art.sys Much Anticipated Beta screenshot. March 23, 2012

Betabeat signed up for on January 24, 2011. “Right now we’re in closed beta, but we look forward to launching in Spring 2011. And because of your early interest, you’ll be the first to know when invites become available,” we were told. But it must have been a struggle to get the app running and populated with artwork, because we didn’t receive an invite until March 2012. (Wired got a sneak peek in November.)

At any rate, as of two weeks ago, we’re in. is an art shopping catalog, comprised of works from 2,400 artists from more than 200 galleries, museums and private collections, something like 13,549 works. Not all are for sale. The site includes high resolution images of the artwork and blurbs about the movements and artists; “American artist Alexander Calder changed the course of modern art by developing an innovative method of sculpting, bending and twisting wire.”

For each painting, sculpture, installation or film, you’re shown some basic information and given the option to see more information, save the work, or follow the artist. If the work is for sale, you’re given the option to “view in room” or “request more info,” which means will connect you to the gallery. If the work is not for sale, you’re able to page through to the owner’s website.

The core of is the Art Genome Project—a deeply-researched, hand-built recommendation engine often called “Pandora for art.” came up with a list of 800 characteristics, or “genes,” of art—”Cinematic;” “Group Portrait;” “Technique: Documentary Photography;” “Content: Private or Personal Spaces”—and assigns each piece between 30 and 40 genes, with a rating of how strongly the particular gene applies to the particular piece. uses these genes to power the “For You” section, which shows a small collage of works in categories. You can help with a “taste test,” in which shows you works and asks you to pick a favorite.

The Good doesn’t ask anything of you. It doesn’t want me to fill out a profile. It’s dead simple and it looks pretty. There is no app for users, but it loads quickly (most of the time). I have already selected two desktop backgrounds from its offerings and learned about Alexander Calder. I feel more sophisticated already.

Casual collectors who buy in the lower ranges of zeros—the work on ranges from $150 to $1.5 million—find the site useful for discovering artists they like. Dan Gellert, an audio engineer in Los Angeles who has a collection of about 40 artworks and is a self-described “gallery rat,” told Betabeat he discovered the service in a news article and got hooked. “If I don’t feel like doing anything else I’ll just browse around,” he said. He also enjoys reading the descriptions of the movements. “I don’t know much about most of them,” he said. “The big ones, of course—minimalism and impressionism, I know more about. But there’s a whole lot of them.”

This all reinforces’s pitch: helping the more pedestrian art appreciators among us find their way to artists like Sherin Guirguis, a young Egyptian artist whose abstract paintings resemble fractals and eyeballs.

“I was communicating with a gallery in China,” Mr. Gellert said. “Communicating through I would never have any reason to know about this gallery in China, except for this connection.”

It also seemed to strike a chord with members of the design community.

The Room for Improvement

The first obvious thing: not enough art.’s well-connected investors have helped it secure partnerships with Gagosian and other prominent galleries, but much of the art world is still wary of the cutely-named startup. The second thing: users don’t all agree on the category system for the artworks. There are also still a few bugs: a salmon banner proclaiming a 503 error popped up for Betabeat when we checked in on the site today. Small. Solvable.

Where runs into real trouble is with the underlying model. Now that they’ve seen the product, galleries are complaining that they would rather put their current offerings online in one batch at and have customers browse through them there, one source familiar with the art world told Betabeat, and that doesn’t seem to understand the business of art. “I feel like this web site combines the worst parts of a Google image search (a complete lack of organization coupled with a wholly superficial and associative way of making connections—’color similarity’ (?)) with a dangerous glossing over of the subject matter therein (“arguably Minimalism’s roots lie in Russian Collectivism”) that results in nothing but a meaningless bombardment of images,” the source said in an email. “Beyond that, the work that is for sale is mostly minor. In short: it was a dumb idea with a lot of funding and I still don’t get the point.”

Fine art is usually sold via an art advisor, a high-end interior decorator—or a speculator, depending on your aims. Mr. Gellert’s wife, a former American painting expert at Christie’s auction house, pointed out to him that “it’s been shown pretty much up until now that real art, real fine art above $10,000, doesn’t really sell on the Internet, or hasn’t in an important way.” Though he’s been connected to a few galleries, Mr. Gellert has yet to make a purchase. “There is something about buying a piece of fine art for a whole lot of money in front of you as opposed to on a screen,” he said.

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