Piece by piece: how one SF app is transforming the art market

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Haley Williams/Staff

“I’m not an art snob,” offered Ethan Appleby with a slow grin, by way of introduction. Few people would describe themselves as such, but the disclaimer is exhilarating coming from Appleby, the co-founder and CEO of Vango, an art-marketplace app fit for the new order of original, online art retail.

Based out of Hattery, a co-working studio in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, a peek into Vango’s iMac-lined workspace reveals the cozy hum of a small team busy at work. The comfortable bustle of the office makes it hard to believe that Vango is little more than 1 year old — the iPad app celebrated its first birthday in July, just one month after the launch of an iPhone app and accompanying rebrand (the app was formerly ARTtwo50).

As Appleby explained in an interview with The Daily Californian, the company’s trajectory — starting with an iPad app before developing for the iPhone and then moving to website sales — inverts the expected business model, in which companies begin with a robust website before developing mobile apps.

Vango’s innovative scope transcends matters of launch order, however. Understanding Vango’s potential requires an acknowledgement that the art market is enduringly inaccessible. The art market’s uppermost ranks are monopolized by elite auction houses whose exclusivity trickles down to lower price points in the form of noxious elitism — the sort that sustains the “art snob” stereotype. Vango confronts the art world’s insularity by encouraging interactivity and dismantling barriers of market access for artists and buyers alike.

Visualization is at the heart of Vango’s interactivity. App users can browse works in curated collections or use the search feature, and they are encouraged to take a picture of their soon-to-be-adorned space. The app’s algorithms produce a color breakdown of a user’s room and, using tenets of color theory, generate 100 recommended pieces.

“After that, (the app) takes your behavior into account,” explained Vango co-founder and engineer Win Raguini in an interview with The Daily Californian. “The longer you spend on a piece of art, the more you favorite a piece of art, the more we think you like that type of art.” For first-time original art buyers (Appleby estimates that 60 percent of Vango’s customers fall into this category), this interactivity is a welcome comfort.

Vango’s tiered pricing structure also addresses the needs of novice buyers, who are easily intimidated by gallery prices. Artists, often uncomfortable with pricing their own work, benefit from the system as well.

“Price-point was something that both sides of the market didn’t understand,” acknowledged Brandon Flayler, Vango co-founder and user-experience designer. “So we’re taking price off the table.” Vango’s five-tier system begins at $250. As artists reach specific sales benchmarks, they unlock higher tiers, including the $500, $1,000 and $2,000 levels. After the $2,000 tier, artists access the “pro” level, which allows unrestricted pricing over $2,000.

With Vango, artists receive 80 percent of the commission on each piece, compared to the 50-percent share that is commonplace at most galleries. Reinder Oldenburger, a painter and Netherlands native now living in New York, has been vending through Vango since June 2013. Oldenburger appreciates Vango’s financial transparency and ease of use, explaining in an email interview with The Daily Californian that “price is fixed, there are no hidden fees and shipping is free. Vango even provides artists with shipping labels and a certificate of authenticity to include with the sold work, so all that’s left for me to do is pack the painting and drop it off at the post office.”

Vango also allows artists significant freedom in terms of content. Works must be irreproducible and hangable, but no other content guidelines exist except those curtailing explicit material. Any artist can sell work without paying a registration fee or agreeing to terms of exclusivity. Lindy Cook Severns, an established Texas artist known for her landscapes, has been using Vango since its debut. Prior to Vango, Severns already had a significant gallery and retail presence in the Lone Star state. Nonetheless, Severns described her experience with the app as one of opportunity in an email interview with The Daily Californian. “To the galleries, I’m a landscape painter,” Severns wrote. “Vango doesn’t restrict the genre or subject an artist uploads. Vango opened up not only a price point I hadn’t been marketing, but also a creative door for me as an artist.”

Now boasting more than 2,000 artists and 6,000 one-of-a-kind works of art, it is clear that Vango isn’t just in the business of selling original art — it’s in the business of making it accessible to all.

Contact Sarah Adler at sadler@dailycal.org.

Read more here: http://www.dailycal.org/2014/09/08/vango-2/
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