When it comes to indulging our tastes, the Web has always been happy to oblige. Love Radiohead? Pandora will stream that band's songs and Thom Yorke knockoffs all day long. Hitchcock? Netflix will suggest suspense movies that you might like even more. Books, food, potential romantic partners--recommendation engines have most people's lives pretty well covered. But can a new website help the well-to-do figure out what to hang over their Noguchi coffee tables?
"The art world is a very intimidating and elitist place," says Carter Cleveland, a 25-year-old computer-science major whose start-up, Art.sy, aims to pry open the rarefied world of galleries and art advisers who make a living telling collectors what to like.
Art.sy is taking Pandora's Music Genome Project, which plays songs on the basis of their similarity to a user's preferences, and applying the concept to exponentially more expensive offerings. So far, the site has classified some 15,000 paintings, photographs, sculptures and mixed media, all from artists whose work has appeared in major galleries or museums, with a series of tags or "genes" that range from academic terms (hyperrealism, dynamism) to basic content (blue, cat). Art.sy's similarity indexes use those tags to help prospective buyers discover related art. So a search for Monet displays works not just by the Impressionist and his contemporaries but also by more-recent artists, including Agus Baqul, an Indonesian painter born in 1975. Baqul's abstract canvases, which start at $3,000, emphasize gesture and a flattening of space that are reminiscent of the French master.
"We're not trying to dictate or predict taste," says Cleveland. "We're just trying to be a tool to help people further their taste." As an undergrad at Princeton, he interned at a hedge fund, co-invented a portable water filter and won second place in the school's 2009 business-plan contest by designing Exhibytes, an online marketplace where amateur artists could showcase and sell their works. That idea didn't fly with investors, so he retooled it and raised more than $7 million in venture capital from the likes of Peter Thiel, one of Facebook's earliest backers.
Art.sy, which has more than 10,000 members but is still in beta testing, is the most promising of a slew of new dotcoms--including Artspace, Artsicle and Paddle8--aimed at marketing fine art to the masses. Art.sy's genome approach, says Matthew Slotover, a co-publisher of the art magazine Frieze, "is an interesting way to get people engaged and then lead them to buy something." Works on Art.sy range in price from $150 to $3 million, but users can't purchase them directly; the site sends them to the right gallery and, if there's a sale, expects a small cut of the profit. But art advisers question the value of these online referrals, and at least one prominent gallery has declined to give Art.sy access to all of its catalog because of concerns over fees.
Another problem Art.sy faces is its classification system, which rubs some artists the wrong way. "I don't think what I am doing has anything to do with Cindy Sherman," says British artist Jonathan Smith after being told the site links his work to hers via a staged-photography gene. "That sounds like something a programmer would think of."