Embracing entrepreneurial philosophy, four innovators are using new technologies to democratise the rapidly growing international art market, break down barriers and support artists.
By Nina Hendy
There’s a growing number of boundary-breaking art startups shifting historic norms and solving problems in the art world. Collectively, they’re bringing forth an expanded, more participatory market that supports artists to do what they love and buyers to find a foothold. These businesses are fuelling a boom, with global art and antiques sales up by around 29 percent in 2021 over the previous year to reach US$65 billion. From decentralised art funds to AI-powered authentication apps, the work of the following four entrepreneurs is helping to bring art back to the heart of post-pandemic life.
JORDAN HUELSKAMP, SALON
The compulsion to create Salon came from years witnessing widespread exclusionary tactics in the art market, explains New York-based founder Jordan Huelskamp.
Launched in January 2022, Salon is billed as the world’s first decentralised fund for the physical art market. It has introduced a collective way of financing and managing a physical art collection, using blockchain-based community governance to drive investment decisions and break down investment barriers.
“In essence, Salon allows collectors to have financial exposure to a diversified art portfolio in a fund setting, while being empowered to interact with the works as if they were part of our members’ own person collections,” Huelskamp explains.
“Unlike fractional ownership models, members own a stake in the entire collection, diversifying their portfolios while keeping them deeply involved in investment decisions. We’re also effectively headless—we rely on our community and Salon’s app to reach investment decisions, with a focus on works by emerging and mid-career artists.”
The fund’s first investment was a minimalist painting by Los Angeles-based artist Hanna Hur. Huelskamp says she celebrates every time Salon purchases an artwork and thereby provides an artist with the funds they need to continue their practice. “Each acquisition is a moment to pause and remember why we’re doing this in the first place—to do our part to usher in a world where everyone can enjoy, collect and make art.”
Huelskamp came of age in Silicon Valley, which she admits can be both an enchanting and demoralising place for young entrepreneurs. “I suppose I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because I was too young to build during the app boom, or Web 2.0, which ripped through Stanford University and produced the likes of Instagram, Snapchat and Robinhood while I was still in high school,” she says
The dawn of Web 3.0 is bringing a similar paradigm shift in the internet’s infrastructure though. “I wholeheartedly believe in the power of community, and as soon as Web 3.0 technology began to mature enough to facilitate a new model for group investment, I jumped to apply it to the art market.”
She asked herself: what would a better, more ethical art fund look like? “Among my favourite innovations is that members host works from Salon’s portfolio in their own homes, so we can live with and form deep relationships with the artworks in our collection.”
MAREK CLAASSEN, LIMNA
Limna is a personal art advisor in the form of a free mobile app powered by artificial intelligence, its aim to equip users with the confidence to buy fine art. The app provides data-driven insight on more than 800,000 artists logged in the Limna database, which it claims as largest of its kind in the world.
This is no mean feat given that Limna only officially launched in September 2021. Since then, it has clocked up more than 150,000 downloads across 155 territories. German founder Marek Claassen takes the impressive start as a sign the world needed Limna.
“People are hungry for knowledge of the art world, and we’re here to provide it,” he says.
Claassen started collecting curatorial data more than 20 years ago, realising that measuring and rating artists could help them command greater value for their work. Limna was born to leverage and extend this data, generating instant price estimates and insights on the artists it covers.
The factors that play into art prices can be subjective, Claassen explains, requiring investors to consider whether the artist has potential, how their cultural importance can be assessed, and potential resale value.
Limna was born from frustration with the art market’s lack of transparency, especially art fresh from the studio or the gallery market.
“In the past, it’s been impossible for the average art lover to get an unbiased assessment for a given work seen at a gallery, art fair or online. Independent assessment was only really possible for top artists, whose work had been repeatedly sold at auction—either at an auction house, with an art adviser, or by manual look-up of the artist in various online art price databases,” he says.
Now, with Limna in-hand, users can gain instant price estimates at the tapof a finger. Claassen says Limna aims to support more people to purchase art, citing the statistic that just over 1 percent of people with the means to collect art currently do so.
“We’re looking to grow the art market in a sustainable manner that makes both the buying and selling process easier and more equitable, bringing new people into this world.”
DR CARINA POPOVICI, ART RECOGNITION
Founded in 2019 by Swiss entrepreneur Dr Carina Popovici, Art Recognition is a platform that uses an algorithm to authenticate artworks and detect forgeries. The program uses artificial intelligence to learn the brushstroke and other characteristics of an artist from photographs of their authentic works. It then compares the learned features with those on a new, previously unseen artwork.
Art Recognition works by enabling users to upload a photo of the artwork, with the AI analysing the artwork and returning a probability that the piece is authentic via an encrypted report provided in less than a week. Because only a photo is required for the process, all costs for transportation and insurance associated with traditional modes of authentication disappear.
Those traditional modes include expert opinion, provenance research and forensic analysis. But Popovici says art forgers have found various ways to bypass these methods in recent years, such as by making sure to use contemporaneous materials or even creating a fictitious provenance.
She continues: “Assessments by art experts are fundamentally subjective, and often experts have contradictory options. Provenance can also be faked, just like artworks themselves, and provenance research can be fruitless for war-ravaged art. Modern forensic analysis is often invasive, as it requires physical samples of the artwork’s substrate or pigments.”
European authorities, says Popovici, fear that as much as half of the artworks on the market today are forgeries, or at least misattributions. “While this proportion is difficult to verify, news stories such as the arrest of infamous forger Wolfgang Beltracchi by the German police hint at the extent of the problem,” she adds.
Market appetite has been palpable, with the business more than doubling its revenue and client base in the past year. “Our mission is to protect art owners and professionals with an objective, fast and affordable AI art authentication service,” says the founder.
“We want to offer them peace of mind by removing any uncertainty when buying or selling art. Our goal is to create a safe, democratic and transparent art market by eradicating forgeries and setting a new standard for art authentication.
”She adds: “As a forerunner, we occasionally experience scepticism and disbelief towards AI for art authentication, but this doesn’t disturb our process. The trend is clearly in favour of embracing AI and new technologies.
TALENIA PHUA GAJARDO, THE ARTLING
Across a decade working on interior design and architecture projects in London, Talenia Phua Gajardo realised there were no aggregated online platforms for discovering contemporary south-east Asian art. So, in 2013, she set out to create one, launching online gallery and consultancy The Artling, which quickly grew.
“We started out aggregating the best contemporary art from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore, which were all producing amazing artists that weren’t getting any visibility outside of their own markets,” Phua Gajardo says.
Galleries, artists, designers and design studios can submit a listing to the curated platform for free, with more than half a billion in US dollars’ worth of products now on the site from more than 4000 designers, artists and galleries around the world.
Headquartered in Singapore, The Artling works internationally, with offices in Shanghai and Zurich.
While The Artling still features an e-commerce platform, Phua Gajardo—harnessing an architecture degree from Central Saint Martins—has herself been lured back to working with architects, interior designers and property developers in the flesh, including sourcing and commissioning site-specific works.
“I was mainly focused on e-commerce in the beginning, but always had lofty goals to become a global business,” she says. Right now, she’s working with Capella Hotel Group on its first Australian location, Capella Sydney, set to launch in 2023. There’s plenty of room for growth. Phua Gajardo says she wants to continue working with architects and interior designers who are looking to place art at the centre of their work, and that she would like to feature more Australian artists.
“There are so many artists and designers out there who aren’t necessarily represented by galleries. A lot of them are independent painters or ceramicists or photographers; there’s so much potential to develop that further,” she adds.