Oscar Wilde described art as the "most intense mode of individualism that the world has known."
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Georgia O'Keeffe said in painting she "found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way... things I had no words for."
And Pablo Picasso believed the "purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls."
Art is and has always been a mode of intense expression and pure subjectivity, and even though it's systemically democratic by nature, critics have often argued that the art world can be exclusive and intimidating. Twenty-six-year-old Carter Cleveland, along with his early-stage startup Artsy, is trying to change that perception and make art as available as music or movies are today.
"Artsy’s goal is to make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, whether it’s for education or for collecting,” said Cleveland. “We are partnering with all the major galleries and museums around the world and make all their art available to our user base, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, from the privacy of their own home.”
Artsy.net, which has digitized over 21,000 carefully chosen works so far, has gotten more than 75 million page views since launching four months ago. And it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Artsy now has more than 100,000 registered users, $7 million in funding and some well-known investors, including Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, Google (GOOG) Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Wendi Murdoch (whose husband Rupert Murdoch is Chairman and CEO of NewsCorp, the parent of Fox Business).
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Discovering new art is a big component of the site. Similar to the way Netflix recommends movies or Pandora recommends music, Artsy has many of its employees devote their time to categorizing art pieces into more than 1,000 different subsets that they refer to as genes -- from movements like Pop Art and Cubism to themes like mythology or youth.
“If you ask people today who their favorite artist is or what’s the last show they’ve been to or what they think about art, you will actually encounter a lot of negative emotions,” said Cleveland. “It’s very different than when you ask someone about music. And we are hoping to help people engage in art and remove the negative emotions and replace them with what art is really about which is shared human emotion.”
“If you ask people today who their favorite artist is or what’s the last show they’ve been to or what they think about art, you will actually encounter a lot of negative emotions,”
It’s certainly true that Artsy can be engaging -- and somewhat addicting. After choosing artists you want to “follow,” users are shown what seems like an endless amount of images and you can easily wind up looking at a work of art by a person you’ve never heard of. Cleveland says, that's the point.
“By educating, you are going to be creating a whole new generation of collectors and you’re going to be expanding the market,” said Cleveland.
Artsy isn’t trying to create collectors purely for altruistic reasons; it’s good for profits, too. So far, Artsy’s revenue model is based on the predicted 1% of its users who are using the site as a vehicle to buy art -- and the rationale is the bigger the potential customer base, the bigger the potential profits could be down the line for the company, which is not yet profitable.
Cleveland started Artsy out of his dorm room at Princeton, but he swears that’s his startup’s only cliché and he never even had a lemonade stand as a kid. Instead, he did math problems for fun, with dreams of being a theoretical physicist. He didn’t become a physicist, but he certainly has a theory when it comes to the way a business should run.
With all Cleveland has to do overseeing the daily operations of his 40-person startup, he spends a surprising majority of his time searching for the right employees.
“I’m looking for the smartest, most talented, hard-working and most humble,” he said. “I reach out to people personally, trying to bring them into the fold and I think when that’s the driving dynamic behind a workplace, it changes everything because if I’m going to try and hire people that are smarter and better than me, it no longer makes sense to have this hierarchical top down management structure.”
Cleveland isn’t just spouting management-speak about giving others power—and what many would consider room to breathe and do good work. If you’re considering applying to a position at Artsy because you like art or because you want to work at a startup but you’re on the fence, you may reconsider after finding out employees there don’t have hours. They can take as much vacation as they want. And if working remotely works better for you, the founder says go ahead.
“I am pretty determined as we grow not to let any rules or policies creep in,” said Cleveland. “Imagine one day you go into work and your boss said, ‘It’s time to grow up and from now on everyone needs to wear a button-down shirt at the office or some absurd rule like that which many companies have. What does that do? What value does that create? All it does is add more bureaucracy and more inefficiency.”
Much like the artists it promotes, Artsy seems to be imagining its own design.
Six Shooter Q&A with Carter Cleveland
What is your favorite quote and why?
"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe" -- Carl Sagan
It reminds me to see depth and significance even in the simple things.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
Steve Jobs. Secondarily, Jeff Bezos
Artsy is a great idea. But how do you plan to make it profitable?
By growing the art market and capturing a percentage of all sales we generate.
Why do you think it has taken so long to bring art into the Digital Age?
Art and technology usually don't co-exist very well. Technologists are often skeptical of art, and vice-versa. Bringing art into the Digital Age takes a team of people who fundamentally believe in art and technology coming together. At its very core, Artsy is about bringing together art and science.
What do you hope Artsy will be in a decade?
I hope Artsy will be the Amazon of the art world. I hope everyone in the world will have their favorite artist, just like they currently have their favorite band. I hope that far more people are collecting art, and most importantly, I hope far more artists are going to be able to make a living doing what they love.
What is the best part about being an entrepreneur? What is the worst?
The best part is that you could die tomorrow with no regrets -- knowing you did everything in your power to make the world a better place. The worst part is that during your darkest moments, dying tomorrow doesn't seem like such a bad option. I'm lucky that I have a naturally optimistic personality and use meditation and CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) to get through my most stressful periods. But entrepreneurship isn't for everyone, and its risks should be taken particularly seriously given several recent tragedies in the startup community.
Follow Christina on Twitter @ChristinaScotti