The launch of Art.sy — a Pandora for the art world — has been hotly anticipated for more than two years. Since 2010, the New York company has been building its art genome database of tagged and categorized works of art. In the way Pandora eliminates the need for a radio DJ to curate playlists for the radio, Art.sy is like a virtual gallery, juxtaposing pieces of art based on loose connections and similarities in quality, style, and era. But the idea of Art.sy goes beyond Pandora’s model of merely recommending works to be appreciated by users — it aims to make sales.
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The site is artfully designed with plenty of white space and a clean user interface. It’s easier to navigate than the Google Art Project, which has double the number of works of art, according to the New York Times.
It works like this: In the same way you might customize your ShoeDazzle profile, you spend a few minutes choosing works of art you like. A personalized feed of art comes up. Or you can use filters like medium, color, size, price or very specific ones like Contemporary Vintage Photography. Scroll to a work of art you like. Click through for more information, and, if it’s for sale, click to “request more info.” I did this during a beta trial this summer, and within a day, got an email from my own Art.sy specialist. She was available to answer questions and broker any art deals I might endeavor to make.
I won’t be making many art deals. This is not an “art to the people” 20×200 situation. But I can still appreciate the connections Art.sy has built among the 20,000 images of art on its site. I have loved absorbing a daily dose of art whenever the company’s randomly themed emails pop into my inbox. If I’m going to spend hours mindlessly scrolling a Pinterest feed packed with product shots, or a Tumblr feed packed with Gifs, I may as well take a few minutes to eat my cultural vegetables, too. Beyond spreading art appreciation, Art.sy’s partner art dealers can appreciate the new audience their pieces will be reaching, presuming at least a few of members of that audience are richer than I.
Bringing art appreciation to the Web is a noble act (appropriately snubbed by a stuffy art professor quoted in the New York Times). But it doesn’t make Art.sy, backed by more than $7 million in venture funding, a real business. What it does do is generate and maintain curiosity around art, which fosters appreciation, which could lead to donations, support, and eventual sales. It also brings an opaque, relationship-driven business online. There’s a business in there somewhere. Probably.
The idea of “curation” online has evolved since Art.sy got its start two years ago. With the rise of big data, there’s been a creeping backlash to algorithms and their unsatisfying robot-produced recommendations and personalizations. Meanwhile Art.sy’s staff has been heads down, tagging art and feeding the algorithm machine.
At the same time, the word “curator” has slipped into the zietgiest as a catch-all for anyone who participates in the act of “choosing.” Curator is no longer limited to people who work in galleries — it’s now a job title that describes editors, designers, developers, and content producers. Human curation has become the antidote for a cold, over-filtered, over-personalized, over-SEO-ed Web that lacks human instinct.
I could make the case that Art.sy’s art genome project feels behind the times in a post-algorithm world, where a human touch is valued over big data recommendations. But then I’d sound like some kind of Internet snob. And that might be the only thing worse than an art snob.