How great thou art (online)

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Dozens of art-related Web sites have come into being in the past year, pouring more than $60 million into marketing.

Consumers now can point and click at more than 70 sites to buy everything from reproductions of the masters to original works by emerging artists.

Contenders range from e-tailers Art.com and Guild.com to auction sites such as eBay's Great Collections and Amazon.com's collaboration with Sotheby's (sothebys.amazon.com)

"Art is a category that's highly fragmented and, for many people, highly intimidating," said Myrna Nickelsen, founder and CEO of NextMonet.com. "We are presenting people with a new way of looking at art and the opportunity for everyone, not just the art elite, to actually buy art."

AUCTION SALES JUMP TWELVEFOLD

Forrester Research predicts online auction sales will grow from $1.4 billion in 1998 to $19 billion in 2003. Sale of fine art is included in the total, but a breakout of its share is not available. The situation is similar in offline art sales, though the size of the art market is not publicly known to any degree of certainty.

The art world is fragmented, unregulated and extremely secretive. One estimate by Art.com, the consumer division of Getty Images, pegs the global consumer art market at about $9 billion to $12 billion.

Getty Images is one of the largest image providers, with the majority of its business serving professionals.

The Picture Agency Council of America values the stock photography market at $2 billion; the framed/unframed prints and posters market is generally defined at upwards of $500 million.

Jack Rooney, VP-marketing at art and crafts site Guild.com, said the size of the art world is unknown.

"It's our strong suspicion that the market has expanded at least a bit initially with the introduction of art onto the Internet and that over time it will expand even more," said Mr. Rooney, an ad veteran who has worked at Miller Brewing Co. and the former Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco. "But I can't even guess what's going to happen."

CULTURAL BARRIERS

While there is considerable upside potential, cultural barriers still must be overcome, said Emily Meehan, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group.

"Art is still a very high-touch category, and the high price tags of art all but demand that you see a work in person before you decide to purchase," Ms. Meehan said. "It's also a matter of technology. You want to be able to see the work, with extremely fine granularity and clarity, and we're still a ways away from imaging being at the point where we feel it needs to be to present these works properly."

THREE TYPES

Art on the Web can be divided roughly into three segments.

Art.com, Barewalls Interactive Art (barewalls.com) and Corbis.-com, the consumer arm of Corbis Corp., specialize in mass-produced images, posters, prints and reproductions. Corbis, which claims to have the world's largest digital-image collection and also owns the Bettmann photo archives, is owned by Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates. Mr. Gates' long-term view of digital art can be seen in his own house, where wall-mounted flat panels digitally display art.

PaintingsDirect.com has a different mission, offering lower-priced original works from emerging and unknown artists.

Sites such as Guild.com and NextMonet are more upscale, specializing in original works at prices ranging from a couple hundred dollars to well over $1 million.

"We feel the potential is huge because we're offering people a way to browse through art in a central place during their own time," said Michael Kahn, VP-marketing at Art.com. "By making art more available, easy, accessible, fun and affordable, it has to only help the entire market for art grow."

Art.com parent Getty Images also operates a business-to-business portal for art (www.gettyone.com), allowing graphics professionals to search, buy and download digital content.

Art.com is the leading consumer art-sales specialty site based on traffic, with a unique audience last month of 296,382 visitors, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Corbis.com drew 242,659 visitors. Other art specialty sites in this story didn't have enough traffic to make NetRatings' home rankings.

Art.com is pushing for growth, following its initial ads last year, with increased advertising and a budget reaching $20 million this year.

A campaign consisting of e-mail, online banners and partnerships, radio and outdoor ads, and direct mail (for visitors who have opted in to receive promotions) will break in March, a precursor to Mother's Day advertising, which is widely viewed by online art retailers as the next major selling opportunity. The overall theme, said Mr. Kahn, is "Bringing the art world to your world."

Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, handles Art.com's mass-media ads; @once, Seattle, developed the e-mail campaign; and Castro McMahon, Chicago, handles direct mail.

ARTISTS REPRESENTED DOUBLES

Guild.com, which presents everything from art books to flatware to original paintings and sculpture, said it's averaging 250,000 visitors a month and in the past year doubled the artists it represents to 1,300.

The site features collections of original artwork by living artists, as well as special exhibitions by artists, gallery owners and collectors. The Commission Center allows potential benefactors to contact artists for possible art projects.

Guild.com recently awarded its $10 million to $20 million offline account to Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, from Planet Design, Madison, Wis., which continues to handle online creative and development of collateral materials. The site plans to break a print and direct mail campaign in April focusing on the depth of its original art collections. Keyword buys on search engines, banner ads, e-mail and affiliations with other sites also are planned.

"No one has too much original art in their lives," said Mr. Rooney. "And artists have never really had enough places or even one ideal place in which to sell their works."

Artist Boris Bally, known for his recycling of transit signs into industrial-strength works of art, sold about $20,000 of his work through Guild.com during the most recent holiday season, a sum that he acknowledges would not have come his way without the exposure on the Web site.

"Sales through Guild.com more than made up for another offline gallery, which took my work and did poorly (in selling it)," said Mr. Bally, who trained as a goldsmith before deciding on recycled materials as his medium. "Being on the site certainly does open doors to a different audience, and artists of all people should be open to new experiences."

Mr. Bally also runs his own Web site (borisbally.com), which he set up to alleviate mailing interested buyers samples and slides of his work.

NextMonet in April will unveil a redesigned Web site and break an estimated $5 million campaign in selected offline publications, including Architectural Digest, Elle Decor and Vanity Fair.

NPR SPONSORSHIPS

NextMonet will run sponsorships of National Public Radio programs in markets including Boston, New York and San Francisco.

The campaign will focus on "what art means to the individual," not on specific pieces of artwork featured on the site, said Ms. Nickelsen. NextMonet works with an undisclosed boutique agency.

"Seventy percent of the people who buy from us have never bought art before," Ms. Nickelsen said, noting that buyers tend to be in the 30-plus age group and are evenly divided between men and women.

For these reasons, Ms. Nickelsen said, her revamped site will simplify its navigation to help novice art buyers move through what she said can be "overwhelming" choices.

Still, the original site, which went live last July, did "three times the amount of sales" in January as it did the previous month. She declined to reveal specific figures.

DRESSING UP EVERY DAY

While the notion of art online has come of age, David Rheins, VP of Corbis Productions, sees his company's edge as providing images that enhance everyday things, whether social expressions such as calendars and greeting cards, dressing up a school-age child's PowerPoint presentation or spiffing up a Web site.

"We haven't yet experienced the full impact of making our images available on the Web since some of our partners, like Yahoo!, haven't yet taken full advantage of what we have to offer in terms of content and e-commerce," said Mr. Rheins.

Corbis plans on driving traffic, Mr. Rheins said, through prominent placement and links with properties such as Yahoo!, AltaVista, Excite@Home and Photo Highway.

Ads for the estimated $10 million to $15 million account also are planned for March in publications such as FamilyPC, The Industry Standard, Martha Stewart Living and Yahoo! Internet Life.

The media mix, Mr. Rheins said, acknowledges the dual focus of the Corbis sites. Corbis provides image-based products to two markets-creative professionals and consumers.

Imagio, Seattle, creates Corbis' print ads and Lamphere Group, Seattle, handles media placement.

For Mr. Bally, there's no question that being online has been beneficial to his artistic career.

"It keeps my work and my name before gallery owners and art fair promoters," he said. "And that could only help increase my reach and potential to sell."

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