For years, art collecting seemed out of the average person’s reach. Not only was it seen as a hobby only for the wealthy, but the aura of exclusivity that hung over the art world scared many people off.
Then in 1997, a street artist known as Banksy appeared on the scene, and his thought-provoking work captured the attention of people around the globe. His use of public space as his canvas broke down barriers and made art feel accessible to everyone. This was art for “normal” people; it wasn’t snooty and elitist like the stuff on view in hushed galleries and museums.
Banksy’s rise to prominence happened to coincide with the emergence of e-commerce marketplaces, including art platforms such as Saatchi Art and Artsy, which were game changers in terms of democratizing the buying and selling of art – not just for novice collectors, but for emerging artists, too.
“Until then, access to art was very much controlled by specific gate keepers in the industry,” says Emily McInnes, founder of Eye Buy Art, a Toronto-based online gallery and art consultancy. “When I launched the business in 2009 there were many naysayers who said, ‘You can’t sell art this way, it’s not how it’s done.’ Then you fast-forward to the pandemic, everyone is at home with time on their hands and looking at their walls. It was a watershed moment for the digital art world.”
Indeed it was. In 2021, global online art sales reached an estimated US$13.6-billion, accounting for 20 per cent of the entire art market, according to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report. That trajectory is expected to accelerate: By 2030, worldwide online art sales will hit US$23.8-billion, projects Chicago-based Cognitive Market Research.
The digital space means there now exists a global platform for viewing and sharing art that welcomes art lovers from all walks of life, all corners of the world and all age groups. First-time art buyers can now log on, from the comfort of their couch, to peruse hundreds of online art sites and find works by emerging and local artists, with prices for paintings, drawings, photographs, prints and sculptures starting in the hundreds of dollars.
“Online has been a great equalizer for purchasers and artists alike,” says Ashley Mulvihill, founder of online gallery Ninth Editions, which specializes in contemporary emerging artists. “It allows us to offer more approachable pricing because we don’t have the overhead that brick-and-mortar galleries do. Prices are less opaque because most sites put the cost of a piece right out front, even separating art into categories of under $250 or over $1,000.”
That being said, Mulvihill does not believe online will ever replace traditional galleries. “Nothing can ever replicated or replace the emotional connection of standing in front of a piece and falling in love with it for the first time.”
And what have online sales done for the creators of these works? “We are in the age of the artist as entrepreneur and there are now many ways for artists to manage their careers,” McInnes says. “They can sell on their own websites or through Instagram, or they can partner with a digital platform, which often leads to representation in a brick-and-mortar gallery because of the visibility the artist has gained online.”
With more and more online platforms entering the market, we asked five Canadian artists to share their thoughts on how the digital art space has expanded their reach, opened doors and empowered their careers.
Nadya Isabella, Montreal
See her work at: Peggy.com and Unit17.org
Many of Nadya Isabella’s paintings are inspired by her own experiences; they feature everything from animals to pop culture to the rituals of the everyday. The 27-year-old graduate of Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver sees her process as a version of journaling, but with paint.
“It’s just a visual way of laying down my thoughts and trying to make sense of things. Sometimes I paint directly from photos taken from my phone – reminders of things that are happening in the moment – and sometimes I tap into a fantasy world,” says Isabella, who was born and raised in Indonesia. “Other times, it’s a mix of those two realms.”
After leaving Emily Carr, she focused on finding a place for her paintings both in a traditional gallery space as well as online. It didn’t take long for Vancouver’s Unit 17 to notice her work, and she is still represented by the gallery in-store and online. That profile got her noticed by the new digital platform Peggy, which also now carries her work.
Isabella says it never occurred to her not to pursue digital as a tool to reach a broader and more diverse audience. “So many opportunities have come my way because of it – and for someone my age – it’s a natural next step. How else would people know about me?” However, she doesn’t use the internet just to sell her art. It’s also an invaluable tool for her to learn about what her contemporaries are doing. “If an exhibition is in a city you don’t live in, you can still experience it.”
Mike Alexander, Vancouver
See his work at: partial.gallery
Mike Alexander, 48, has been drawing and painting since he was a child, but he only decided to pursue a career in art seven years ago, and only to do it full-time for the past four. A Sixties Scoop survivor, he depicts images that are motivated by his personal healing journey and his reconnection to culture, community and family – “all things that were lost.”
“Art, for me, is a way of finding those connections and painting those stories I grew up seeing on murals in Winnipeg but never really understanding the way I think I could have,” Alexander says.
The artist sells his paintings through his Instagram handle, @thundercloud924, plus a handful of galleries that focus on Indigenous art and Partial, an online site whose mandate is to curate a diverse and inclusive collection of emerging Canadian artists.
“I’m certain there is still a lot of racism and lack of inclusion in the gallery system, at large, in Canada. Selling my work online removes some of those obstacles,” the Anishinaabe artist says. “Online platforms mean artists get to be seen directly by the people who are looking, with little third-party interference.”
The majority of his paintings are traditional Ojibway art, but he also likes to experiment with pop art or mediums he is not sure traditional galleries would be interested in.
“I value brick-and-mortar galleries,” he says. “There is a fun prestige associated with them. But I have also enjoyed the relationships I form with people online. Some of the paintings I have posted on Instagram have sold within four hours. I feel a connection online. I know they are following me closely and waiting for the next painting to drop.”
Victoria Park, Langley, B.C.
See her work at: tacitcollective.com
Abstract artist Victoria Park has loved the visual arts her whole life. When she graduated from high school, she threw herself into trying to get her work into galleries, art shows and exhibitions – anywhere where the buying public could see her work. “I was the star of the class and everyone said I was going places,” she said.
Instead, she got nowhere, selling merely a few pieces here and there, so she threw in the towel and started a graphic-design business. But in 2021, when online platforms proliferated during COVID-19, she decided to jump back in.
“I put all my eggs in the social-media basket,” says Park, whose work is inspired by Pacific Northwest landscapes.
The 27-year-old tried a few different sites and finally found the Tacit Collective, an online gallery and art consultancy dedicated to females artists. Her reach grew – so much that Park now sells all her original paintings and limited-edition prints independently through her own website. Tacit, which still sells open-edition prints of Park’s work, was the bridge she needed to start actively managing her own sales.
“There are a few sites like Tacit that are really intentional about what they select from the artist, treat the artist fairly and give them opportunity. I’m absolutely amazed every day by the energy of the people who buy my work. Many of my series sell out in minutes.”
The broad exposure to different types of art online – at all price points – has made the practice of buying art seem “cool,” Park says. “People my age don’t want to buy art from some sterile gallery brand that is all posh and secretive. They want art from platforms that are welcoming, easy to navigate, supportive of their artists, and upfront about the price and merit of a particular piece. They want art with meaning.”
Janice Reid, Toronto
See her work at: ffoto.com
The Black female body is at the heart of fashion portrait photographer Janice Reid’s work, which is gaining a following for her fierce portraiture of proud women, set in the context of fashion innovations. “I like to blur the line between those two things so that the image can be seen as fine art but also be seen as editorial,” says the artist, who sells through her own social media as well as Ffoto. One of her photographs was sold recently to the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
“The gallery saw it online, enquired about it through direct message and purchased one image from the series,” Reid says. “I was thrilled because it meant I was another step closer to my goal of telling the stories of the invisibility of Black women, so that we can start to reimagine and recreate our own narratives collectively.”
When the Humber College graduate (she has a diploma in creative photography) first ventured into selling her art online, she was worried that she would feel removed from buyers and that there would be a disconnect that would make the whole process feel impersonal and cold. In general, the opposite has been true.
“Most of my online customers don’t hesitate to reach out. If they like a piece, they contact me to ask how I made it, why I made it and what it means to me. They love to hear the thought process. They also often ask about exhibits I might have and, if they’re local, they come to a show to meet me in person. I love when that happens because it means a bond has been established between myself and the purchaser, and they understand better what I am trying to communicate through my art.”
Becky Comber, Grey County, Ont.
See her work at: eyebuyart.com
Artist/photographer Becky Comber has lived most of her life in the forested countryside of Southwestern Ontario, where she spends days photographing, in minute detail, the intricacies of the nature around her. She then takes those digital composites, blows them up and hand cuts the images to create intricate vignettes that present her environment in an entirely new way.
“I see my art as a study in the cycles of the ecosystem, at least the way I interpret it,” says Comber, 41, who has been an artist for 18 years. “Creating these works is a meditation on the intricacies and majesty of the wild landscape.”
The artist was an early adopter of online platforms, and her work has been sold on Eye Buy Art since its inception 14 years ago. “I’ve been onboard with digital from the very beginning.” She says the internet, through a few choice retail avenues, has made it easier for her to grow a fine art business while living rurally. Her own social media (her Instagram handle is @comberger) has also been an invaluable tool that has allowed her career to grow “and, dare I say, stabilize, as I reach middle age.
“I have spent the last few years finding the balance between playing the social-media marketing game and focusing my time on creating my work and pursuing my art practice. With that balance in mind I have been allowing my Instagram presence to be a document of my practice, which has been an asset because I can show the dynamism of my work through videos and stories as well as straight-up documents, something that is an advantage to me as I work with a 3D element and the work is somewhat sculptural.”