Is This Real Life?

It's a Thursday night: you walk into a gallery, grab a cup of wine from the counter and head into the opening. You explore the space, maybe chat with a friend about the unfamiliar emerging artist. You find the work interesting: the subjects, the colors – everything speaks to you in someway. It's a good show. Then you turn a corner and see it: the one. Your spine tingles, your heart soars, and as you catch your breath you feel lucky that you didn't drop your glass. The price tag says that it'll cost you two months salary. You resolve to eat ramen noodles for the rest of the year and will cover your couch with a blanket so the painting won't clash – but none of that matters, you have to have that piece.

This experience, which for a large number of art enthusiasts has been the driving force behind many of their acquisitions, is going the way of the dinosaur for major collectors. In a study conducted by analysts ArtTactic for Hiscox, 71% of collectors make their purchase decisions from digital images, without ever having seen the work in person. On top of that, 89% of the surveyed galleries confirmed that they sell pieces directly from JPEGs, and these are not small ticket items either. A quarter of online buyers spend well over €50,000 on a single purchase.

From Hardware To Software

This somewhat unsurprising fact is the inspiration for Winkleman Gallery's Send Me The JPEG exhibition, which, despite its lighthearted exterior, seriously considers the nature of art ownership, purchase and, above all, experience. A wide selection of the gallery's artists are showcased, though none of the pieces are physically present. Instead, visitors watch walls of flat screens cycling through JPEGs of art, which have been dropped into web-style formatted frames, complete with the gallery's branding, social media, and all of the details that would usually be reserved for sales tools.

"Send Me the JPEG," installation view. Photo: Etienne Frossard. Courtesy Winkleman Gallery, New York.

On one hand, this creates a simple and practical means to display an array of work, which in reality ranges greatly in scale and scope. The gallery explains that there would be no way to exhibit all of the works together in one show – from room-sized installations to live performances, they simply wouldn't fit. However, Send Me The JPEG also holds up an important mirror to the collecting process based on the data from ArtTactic, and creates a thoughtful and self aware statement from those in the business of selling art. 

Gallery owner and director Ed Winkleman tells Art Parasites, "Send Me The JPEG is a lighthearted summer group show with a few themes running through it, (including) a celebration of the artists, who were willing to be part of such an experiment. On one hand, the show can be read as a satire of the overestimation of the power of online channels to replace brick-and-mortar galleries for selling art."

Is this the future of experiencing art? Photo: Meredith Caraher

It is an incredibly sensitive and brave subject for a gallery to approach: exposing artists to potential collectors and making sales is at the heart of the business, which online selling obviously increases the potential for. Yet there is the concern that by removing the need to see physical work for the sales to occur, the institute of the gallery will no longer be needed.

For most of us, namely the ones without warehouses full of high ticket masterpieces, this could never be the case. Sure, some investors with tremendous bank accounts and a love for the arts won't bat an eye at signing over the cost of a McMansion for a painting they have never seen – and may never unwrap – but I have a hard time imagining an art community where at least some of the gallerists don't live for the thrill of putting on an amazing show. If anything, the increase of gallery sales in the online forum should free up the administrators to focus on the happenings in their space, and push even further into the realm of real life experience, which Winkleman has courageously done with their Send Me The JPEG statement.

 Will The Art Revolution Be Virtualized? 

True, some groups may devolve into a trade-style warehouse system, but lovers of art especially love the experience of art, and that will never go away. By presenting the negative ramifications of online sales to the rest of the gallery-going public, Winkleman brings forward some important truths. 

Opening reception of "Send Me the JPEG." Photo: Alexandra Torres, courtesy Winkleman Gallery

Ultimately, the thing to remember is that going out to art shows is an event: t's social, it's exciting, it's fun. People enjoy the experience of art, and this is where demand begins. The virtual representation of available art accommodates the practical needs of the heavy weight collecting community, but didn't create it. We have seen many trends come and go over the years and, indeed, we have seen controversy in art become a viable commodity – but what happens when art as a commodity becomes the controversy? These are the questions Send Me The JPEG raises and successfully answers.

  • Winkleman Gallery – "Send Me the JPEG" Group Exhibition – June 27th – August 2nd, 2013 – Tue-Sat: 11am-6pm [Price range for works: $1,500 – $25,000] 

Article by Meredith Caraher