The Gray Market: Why Portia de Rossi’s Art-Tech Startup Has a Hard Road Ahead (and Other Insights)

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, stories about innovative answers to problems that may not exist…

GENERAL CONFUSION

On Tuesday, my colleague Taylor Dafoe revealed the latest would-be art market disruptor, and her identity is about as surprising as discovering a fossil stuck between your couch cushions. Award-winning actor and longtime collector Portia de Rossi announced that she has retired from the screen to run General Public, a startup she founded to—you guessed it—“cut out the middleman, democratize art, and empower the artist.”

Her venture hinges on the Synograph (“syno” for “synergy of art and technology”), a trademarked 3D printing process developed in collaboration with Fujifilm. In Dafoe’s words, a Synograph:

…not only captures the color and graphics of a painting, but also the physical texture of each mark and brushstroke. The aim is to make high-priced, one-of-a-kind works available to those who don’t have the means or know-how to purchase them from galleries (hence the name General Public).

Consumers can expect to pay between $500 and $4,000 for a Synograph, with an average price of $1,000. Pricing depends in part on any individual work’s edition run, which can be either limited or unlimited. General Public also has an “exclusive collaboration” with RH Modern, a division of Restoration Hardware, which will offer a special line of Synographs not available at other retailers.

There’s a lot to process here. For starters—and I mean no disrespect to de Rossi by saying this—it’s the most severe case of celebrity-identity whiplash I’ve experienced since learning that rapper Pitbull was plotting a motivational speaking tour with life coaching kingpin and retroactively apologetic #MeToo skeptic Tony Robbins. (Side note: He is also extremely excited about seeing Jimmy Buffett’s Broadway musical, Escape to Margaritaville. Pitbull contains multitudes.)

Now, I’ve been trying to airdrop flame retardant on the idea of art market democracy for years. But since de Rossi’s startup gives us another opportunity to cart this conversation from the general to the specific, let’s walk through the realities of this venture for participating artists.

According to its website, General Public holds a perpetual open call for artist submissions online. Send in your bio and an image of the work you’d like the company to consider for reproduction, and if they like what they see, they’ll ask to consign the original piece for 60 days.

If General Public decides they want to “publish” your work once they’ve seen the real thing, your compensation takes the form of a royalty for each Synograph sold. (You also get to keep the original piece and do with it as you please, save for making other editions of it, as long as you pay the return shipping costs.)

How large is the royalty? Artists receive five percent of the wholesale price for each edition sold to retailers, and five percent for each edition sold directly to consumers through General Public’s online store.

Now, even in an industry where artists have already made peace with the notion of giving up half of net sales proceeds to a gallerist, giving up 95 percent may feel as offensive as being slapped in the face with a raw chicken breast. But I genuinely believe de Rossi thinks she’s offering artists a fair deal here. And there’s a not-crazy argument that she is—or at least, would be if you put the terms in a different sales context.

I asked a friend in the fashion industry what kind of compensation edgy designers could generally expect for partnering with big luxury houses on limited collaborations. Although she stressed that terms could shift dramatically depending on the parties involved and the parameters of the collab, the deals she has negotiated generally consisted of a flat fee and a royalty on net sales.

How large a royalty, you ask? Two to five percent. Meaning General Public’s offer to artists would stand at the high end of the compensation spectrum, if it were for fashion instead of art.

The hope in de Rossi’s eyes—and the peril in mine—is that this deal pays off for artists at scale. For an average Synograph priced at $1,000, one sale through General Public’s online store would net the artist, at most, a royalty of $50. (I say “at most” because it’s not clear from the website copy whether the five percent royalty applies to net proceeds—meaning the sales price less GP’s expenses—or the retail price. I would guess the former, but let’s be generous.)

The same royalty on the wholesale price would be lower. For the uninitiated, the wholesale price is what a manufacturer charges a retailer to buy items that the retailer will then mark up and peddle to consumers. Wholesale prices are generally no more than half of retail prices, and sometimes less. Which means General Public’s wholesale price on an average Synograph should be $500 or less, translating to an artist royalty of $25 or less.

What does that mean for the lives of the artists de Rossi wants to empower? Here in New York, MIT’s Living Wage Calculator currently projects that the required pre-tax annual income for a single adult is $33,561. To reach that threshold, an artist would have to sell 672 Synographs through General Public’s online store, or 1,343 wholesale, in one year. You can ballpark the math yourself if you want to imagine General Public artists achieving a more comfortable lifestyle.

All of which begs the question: Are thousands of Americans lamenting to each other, “Damn, I desperately want to pay $500 to $4,000 each for textured objects to decorate my walls, but they have to be made by artists, and I’m terrified of walking into a gallery. What do I do?”

If so, would it be dramatically more appealing to this underserved audience to scratch their itch by buying 3D reproductions, when they could pay the same price for actual original works by similarly under-known artists at online art sellers like Saatchi Art or UGallery?

In other words, is General Public a solution to a real problem?

I ardently believe that the art industry sucks at reaching out to new audiences, and that artist compensation in the gallery system is due for re-evaluation. I also respect de Rossi for putting her post-acting time and resources toward trying to remedy these ills.

I just think that the problem and the solution are shooting past one another here. A five-percent royalty deal can work in fashion because selling a few thousand jackets, bags, or sneakers is a cinch. Even typical middle-class people want to wear new things all the time.

But I’m highly skeptical that this demographic views buying art in the same way it views buying clothes, or even furniture. If General Public does indeed reshape the art industry, though, maybe I can get a job writing copy for them. $33,561 doesn’t earn itself.

BIT BY BIT

On Monday, my colleague Sarah Cascone introduced us to Pascal “PBOY” Boyart, a French street artist who has begun embedding his murals with QR codes that allow appreciative passersby to send him direct payments in Bitcoin.

At the time, Boyart said that he had made 0.11 BTC (about $1,000) from 23 different benefactors since implementing the system in a piece last November. He cites the decentralized, peer-to-peer nature of cryptocurrencies as a potential revolution for the average artist working outside the gallery system, saying, “It’s great news for the future” and “will bring more sense, talent, freedom, and creativity from the artists.”

However, this story crystallizes something I’ve been finding more and more in my investigation into crypto: the idea that blockchains are not uniquely equipped to solve some of the problems people are now whipping them at.

The obstacle for Boyart is that street artists can’t sell the works they do on or in public spaces, leaving them to try to make money off their creative labor some other way. But by including his Bitcoin wallet address on his murals, all he’s doing is creating a mechanism to crowdfund.

He could do that through any number of other options that don’t rely on cryptocurrencies—and just as importantly, open his pool of patrons far wider than the tiny minority of people who own Bitcoin.

The obvious starting point would be to link his QR codes to a Patreon or Drip page. For argument’s sake, though, let’s accept the premise (put forth by The Next Web) that this would be risky for Boyart, because those platforms have the power to boot artists or content-producers based on political or legal exposures. Since street art still qualifies as a minor crime, it’s not impossible that pressure from law enforcement could shove PBOY into the same paper shredder as the adult content producers burned by Patreon’s revised regulations on porn last fall.

If Bitcoin alleviates any real, practical problem in this case, it’s that cryptocurrencies allow payments to be made anonymously. This would allow Boyart himself to remain unconnected to work that could get him into trouble with the law, if he were revealed as the author.

But he doesn’t seem to care about that aspect of his would-be skeleton key. If he did, he wouldn’t be out here in the press confirming he painted the murals in the first place. Instead, Boyart primarily praises Bitcoin crowdfunding for giving him a “direct financial relation with the people,” implying that the mere presence of a financial middleman is toxic.

This is the type of rhetoric that only resonates in the crypto community. It’s a little like giving up all modern hygiene products to “return to mankind’s purest state”—a hard philosophical stance that just makes your life more difficult than it needs to be when dealing with most people.

Still, let’s go with it, even though it rules out much friendlier possibilities like linking the QR codes to his Paypal or Venmo accounts. (Like Patreon, they also have the power to suspend accounts based on questionable activity, but it’s hard to see how they’d recognize a violation unless the fans sending payments were also including memos indicating that the money was for “street art,” “graffiti,” or just straight-up “crime.”)

Again, since Boyart is cool with publicly connecting himself to the works, he could include his mailing address (or at least a P.O. Box) in place of the QR codes and ask fans to send him small checks. For that matter, he could just attach a lockbox for cash tips at one end of the painted wall.

True, these old-school alternatives carry their own risks and frictions. But the point is that the crypto-solution does, too.

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