Posted: August 1, 2018 -
INTERVIEW WITH FOUNDER OF ARTNOME, JASON BAILEY
Artnome is the blog of Jason Bailey, “an art nerd” recording and analysing the impact of technology on the Art World. Artnome is a growing analytical digital art database that catalogues artworks and helps improve opportunities for artists and collectors alike. We asked Bailey a few questions about blockchain, AI and the art world. Hello Jason, we have been looking forward to speaking with you.
On your site, you say that you “use technology and data to improve the world’s art historical record and to improve opportunities for artists from historically underserved or marginalized groups”. Can you please clarify this statement? Can you tell us about Artnome?
Sure. Art has given me a rich life since I was very young. As I head into the second half of my life, I’m looking for a way to give back. There are two areas I find very rewarding: Improving the art historical record and improving opportunities for artists.
I have always been a huge fan of art history. Several years ago, while reading a book called “Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art,” I learned just how bad the forgery situation is in fine art. I had always assumed there was a master database of all known works across all our major artists to help fight forgery and to make general knowledge and research widely available. After checking with all the best-known art libraries and research institutions, I realized that, sadly, no such resource exists. After a few weeks of feeling depressed by this, I decided I would try to build the resource.
Fast forward three years, and the Artnome database is now the largest analytical database of complete works for the world’s most important artists. Because quality data on complete works of artists has not existed in a database form until now, we are researching in virgin territory and discovering data-driven insights on the world’s most important art on a regular basis. We provide analytics-based research from our proprietary database that is built on facts and culled from catalogue raisonne and public auction data. We are interested in partnering with forward-looking collectors and institutions interested in building the future of art analytics.
In addition to building out the Artnome database, I have created the Artnome blog where I write about the intersection of art and tech. As my platform has grown, I have tried to use it to draw attention to the inequalities in the art market around gender and sale price of works. I also try to champion artists who might not otherwise get the attention they deserve. Lately I have focused quite a bit on digital artists. I am particularly proud and excited to announce that I am an advisor for the social drawing platform Dada.nyc. I believe Dada has unlimited potential to bring artists from around the world together to collaborate on drawings. I’m really honored to be part of this and have written an article explaining why I think this is so important for the world.
One of Artnome’s goals is to “build the world’s largest analytical database of known works across our most important artists”. How does the process work, to record and retrieve data from art works? How do you help create opportunities for these artists?
I transcribe facts about famous artworks (dimensions, year of execution, materials, sale prices) from public accredited sources like auction data, catalogue raisonne, and public museum records. This has proven to be remarkably difficult, as this information is not always widely available. The example I often give is that the Picasso Catalog Raisonné costs ~$20k at the moment, and that is down from the $200k it used to cost. My long-term goal is to open-source the data, but I need to find a way to monetize it in the short term in order to grow the database. I believe once good clean data is available, smart people from around the world will be drawn in to run analysis. This is how it happened in sports – I witnessed that data revolution unfold first hand, and it is the blueprint for the art analytics revolution as I see it.
It is fair to say that you believe that Blockchain will disrupt the Art Market. How do you predict blockchain influencing the art market over the coming years?
I don’t think the top of the art market will be “disrupted.” The blue chip art market is a relatively small group of people who are generally happy with things the way they are. We will eventually see blockchain databases being used to store provenance for the blue chip art market, but it will likely be a smooth transition that goes relatively unnoticed by collectors. Participants in the market will simply start having access to better information – I see no reason to believe they will care about the IT infrastructure that is serving them that information any more than they do today. People are emotional about blockchain because of its association with cryptocurrency, but at the end of the day, if it does the job better, it will be adopted. The IT departments I have worked with are all generally logical and trained to use the most affordable and effective tool for the job.
Where blockchain could be “disruptive,” or more specifically, “expansive,” is the middle market. We have an enormous number of artists trained in digital media with no real market or outlet for selling their work. Digital scarcity, the same concept that allows us to treat Bitcoin as currency, enables us to treat digital art as if it were physical art. This is opening up new marketplaces where digital artists can sell their work. On the consumption side, we have people spending most of their days in front of screens (up to 7-10 hours per day on avg in the US). We have already seen our books, music, and movies become digital assets – I believe art is next in line. Many of my friends who work in tech have healthy salaries and consider themselves art lovers, but have no interest in participating in the the traditional gallery and auction systems for collecting art. This large collector base is tech-savvy enough to understand why blockchain enables us to collect digital art and has the income to build a market for it.
According to you, what are the 3 most interesting art / blockchain start-ups? And why?
Sure. I am lucky enough to be an official advisor for two blockchain-based art startups that I believe in very strongly (Dada.nyc and Portion.io), and I collaborate in an unofficial capacity with a third that I think is pushing the industry forward (SuperRare.co).
I think the best example of an artist-friendly startup leveraging blockchain are my friends at Dada.nyc. The folks at Dada have built a mature social media platform where thousands of artists from all regions and of all ability levels communicate through drawings. It is an amazing community where everyone is supportive and there is none of the trolling that we see in traditional social media. They are also one of pioneers in using the blockchain as a method for tokenizing digital art and making it available for sale. They now have over 100k drawings that have all been created natively on their platform, all of which will soon be tokenized on the blockchain and available for sale. The proceeds are distributed evenly across the community members. There are some who claim that blockchain is unhealthy for the art world as it pulls art further into becoming a commodity. To those people I would say that Dada is the perfect example of a team exploring the use of technology to make the world better, not worse, for artists.
We are also seeing independent digital art galleries or marketplaces popping up pretty regularly. SuperRare is emerging as the premier gallery for buying and selling digital art, as it is among the first to launch and is the most artist-friendly. At the moment, they take zero commission on the primary sale of a work and pay artists a 10% royalty on all secondary sales on their marketplace. The company structure has low overhead, and they a “ship and learn” approach that is serving them well as the company improves rapidly.
It is not clear how many “collectors” of digital art are out there, and the market is getting crowded with many marketplaces opening each month (others include KnownOrigin, Rare Art Labs, and Digital Objects). As more marketplaces launch, I suspect the galleries with the lowest commissions and the highest-quality art are will dominate. In order for these galleries to really take off, buying, selling, and tokenizing art on the blockchain needs to get much much simpler.
Unlike the platforms above that are focusing creating a market for solely for digital art using “digital scarcity,” Portion.io is being built to provide everything needed to auction both digital and physical artworks and collectibles using blockchain. Led by blockchain technologist Jason Rosenstein and fresh off of $5.5M in funding, Portion.io could do for the luxury A&C (art and collectibles) space what eBay did for more affordable collectibles in the late ‘90s. They are pitching themselves as the “Decentralized Auction House Built on Ethereum and IPFS” with a mobile application that “allows anyone to be their own auction house.” As with a traditional auction house, Portion will provide a wide variety of services, but with some nifty twists thanks to blockchain technology. These include:
- Portion’s first platform offers digital art from renown artists.
- Users can transact in Ethereum, but those who choose to use Portion’s proprietary “Porti” token will eliminate all third parties, intermediaries, and fees.
- Blockchain-based smart contracts validate proof of funds to avoid situations where bidders default after submitting winning bids that exceed their actual funds
- Validation of identity through distributed technologies
- A full suite of financial services, including: Term loans that can be secured in cryptocurrency; Financing through Portion enables you to make purchases without needing to immediately liquidate your funds; Option for insurance to protect your newly purchased goods.
The promise of a decentralized and fully transparent auction process with built-in protection against fraud is of course very compelling. Needless to say I am excited to work with Portion on defining what the auction process of the future could look like when you are able to build it from scratch.
Aside from creating new opportunities to buy, sell, and trade digital art, blockchain offers us an opportunity to improve the historical record. Companies like Codex Protocol are working diligently to introduce blockchain-based solutions to the traditional art and collectibles market. I’m hopeful that they will be able to build the relationships across the industry required to create a central registry with provenance for the world’s most important art and artists. My friend Jess Houlgrave is the co-founder and COO at Codex. She is one of the first people to see the potential for blockchain in the more traditional art market. I believe she understands the sensitivities specific to this sometimes finicky market which has historically been built on relationships and trust first, and technology second.
I would like to hear your take on AI (Artificial Intelligence), how do you think it will impact the art market but also the art world from a creative point of view?
AI can have a dramatic impact on the art market. I think it is fantastic that more and more museums are making their collections available online, but the truth is is that there is no way to navigate such a high volume of artwork online in a meaningful way. AI can make it possible for us to create tags for all the objects in two-dimensional artworks (man, women, tree, hat, apple, etc.) to create a visual search engine. I created my own prototype of a visual content-based search engine using the complete works of Edvard Munch and off-the-shelf AI technology from Clarifai. Researcher Benoit Seguin has been working on a much more sophisticated visual search engine that can detect lines of visual influence across generation of artists. He is doing some really remarkable work.
In addition to revolutionizing search and art historical research, AI is starting to come into its own as a tool for art making. A young artist named Robbie Barrat is in my opinion the first artist creating museum-quality AI art. He trains his models using thousands of famous nude and landscape paintings, and then adjusts the inputs to his models to produce stunning results. His imagery is entirely fresh because he brings the mind, eyes, and soul of an artist to what is otherwise a tech-based parlor trick. I am optimistic that as the technology becomes more accessible to artists, we will see some really compelling work in the next year or two.
I read your recent article “Untangling the “Richard Prince” Blockchain Scam”. What else can you tell us about Olivier Sarrouy and The Distributed Gallery?
I love being on the bleeding edge of art and technology, but it does not come without pitfalls. Olivier’s project was intended to be a conceptual artwork based on the idea of a token being the first A-sensorial artwork, meaning you could not see, touch, feel, taste, or smell the work. It was purely conceptual and very creative, in my opinion. The problem was that Olivier did not think anyone would take him seriously unless he created the work under a well-known artist’s name (I disagree with him on this point). He owned the the Twitter handle @RichardPrince and thought perhaps people would pay more attention if he played around with this idea that there could be many people named Richard Prince.
The problem came when potential buyers of the work (myself included) were bidding real money on the assumption that the famous artist Richard Prince had created the work. The problem compounded when Olivier was invited to speak at an event in NYC about blockchain and art under the assumption that he was the well-known artist Richard Prince, and he accepted. The people creating the conference contacted the real Richard Prince and discovered that they had been defrauded.
I ended up going a step further and doing a simple “WhoIs” lookup up on his distributedgallery.com domain name and discovered that Olivier was the person behind the scam. Understandably, many people were angry at Olivier for falsely representing himself as the well-known Richard Prince. I chose to sympathize with him as an artist with a genuinely interesting idea who had made some bad decisions, and whose project spun a bit out of control. We all make mistakes; I have certainly pushed creative ideas a step too far in my own past. Much of our great art has become “sterilized” and separated from the shock of its origins. Olivier’s Richard Prince token missed the mark, but I think it is important for artists to be rabble rousers/troublemakers in society. So rather than be angry at him for almost tricking me into spending several thousand dollars on something that was not what I had thought it was, I interviewed him to better understand his thinking behind the project.
In the past few months, we have witnessed the success of ICOs and we understand that they are a good way to raise funds. What is do you think?
The problem is that ICOs were a fantastic way for both great companies and horrible scam artists to raise money. Traditional VC funding is ridiculously biased towards white men. Women, for example, received less than 2% of VC funding in 2017. So the idea that something like an ICO could challenge the traditional funding options is really compelling. But we had a bit of a gold rush where people where not putting in due diligence on the teams and the tech behind the ICOs. I hope ICOs continue to evolve into an option for startups to raise funding, but with precisely the right amount of regulation to prevent scams while not piling up expenses and red tape. If nothing else, ICOs have pointed out a desire for an alternative to traditional VC funding.
How do you see Artnome evolving? What’s next?
I see Artnome as my life’s work. It started with me wanting to help improve the art historical record by creating a database of complete works across our most important artists. The database is still developing, and I am still very optimistic that collectors and researchers will soon expect/demand the level of data and transparency available in all other areas of their lives. Ultimately I would like to trigger an art analytics revolution similar to the one business and sports underwent over a decade ago. Availability of good, clean data is at the center of a revolution like that.
In addition to the building the database and offering one-of-a-kind art analytics, I really enjoy writing about the intersection of art and tech on my Artnome blog. I don’t think the world takes digital art very seriously yet, and I’d like to use my platform to be a voice for those artists. Knowing that we spend 7.5 to 10 hours a day looking at screens and almost no time staring at the walls of our homes, it seems inevitable to me that digital art will rise in popularity.
As mentioned, I also recently accepted a position with Dada.nyc as an advisor. Their mission to bring artists from around the world to draw together is a perfect fit for my desire to help open up opportunities for underrepresented artists. I also like that they embrace artists of all talent levels. Art appreciators need to invest more in artists at the earliest stages of their careers. We need to make the world a more hospitable place for its most creative inhabitants: artists.
With my advisor position at Portion.io, I am able to participate in the exercise of rebuilding the auction process (which has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years) from the ground up for the next generation of art collectors using the the latest technology. I find that to be a fascinating opportunity.