Amazon seems to be enjoying taking the arts world by surprise this month. Not content with ruffling feathers by adding the works of literary treasure Kurt Vonnegut to its fanfiction platform Kindle Worlds, Amazon has also launched a new arm of its ever-expanding business: Amazon Art. This new fine art section of the store works in partnership with a multitude of galleries, who all operate as independent traders and stockists, paying Amazon commission for each sale made on the site.
Headlines have tended to focus on the high end of Amazon Art’s range, especially the Norman Rockwell original “Willie Gillis: Package From Home”, which carries a price tag of $4.85 million USD (shipping is free, though, so it’s still a total bargain). But according to The Telegraph’s Theo Merz, “the million dollar Warhols are a gimmick. It’s the medium sized galleries that should be worried by the web giant’s new venture.”
Over at Marginal Revolution, respected American economist Tyler Cowen questioned Amazon’s credibility in a rather snobby market: “One enduring feature of the art world is that a given piece will sell for much more in one context rather than another. The same painting that might sell for 5K from a lower tier dealer won’t command more than 2K on eBay, if that. Yet it could sell for 10K, as a bargain item, relatively speaking, if it ended up in the right NYC gallery (which it probably wouldn’t). Where does Amazon stand in this hierarchy? It doesn’t look promising.”
However, Mallika Rao at the Huffington Post believes that Amazon’s less than glamorous trappings may somewhat democratise the art buying market, arguing that Amazon “stands to reset our conception of art creation, collection and valuation to a dramatic degree. Slick competitors like Artsy can seem as intimidating as a Chelsea gallery. Amazon, meanwhile, has a ‘Diapering’ section.” Rao believes that the familiar, trustworthy Amazon brand will encourage novice art lovers to invest in a piece or two to call their own, citing the example of online shopper and short term collector Maya Wiest, “who says she isn’t bothered by an Amazon tag devaluing a piece, provided she loves it.”
Putting the Rockwells and the Warhols to one side for a moment, Amazon Art also provides career-launching opportunities for up and coming artists. UGallery, one of the participants in the new Amazon Art programme, has seen its sales of works by unknown artists double since the company launched in 2009. Tanenbaum sees Amazon’s reputation as a “one stop shop” as a massive benefit to his business, and the artists he represents seem to agree: “They’re excited to get their artwork out there to millions of potential customers… Everybody shops on Amazon.”