Coming of age during the tech boom, Jen Bekman worked her way up through the online ranks — New York Online, Electric Minds, Netscape, Disney/GO Networks, AOL, Meetup — only to split the scene for what seemed like career derailment: In 2003 she founded her own eponymous brick-and-mortar art gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But it was actually a percolator for her next move. In 2007 Bekman launched 20x200, an online gallery selling artist editions, with some prints starting at only $20. 20x200 has taken both the art world and the tech world by storm: Since its launch, 20x200 has sold more than 65,000 prints by both emerging and established artists, and in 2009, 20x200 received $885,000 in funding in a Series A round led by True Ventures. Bekman talked to FastCompany.com about challenging her audience, keeping artists happy, and why the notoriously uptight art industry is coming around to her democratic business model. —Alissa Walker
Fast Company: What makes a great 20x200 artist?
Jen Bekman: One of the things about releasing new editions on 20x200 twice a week — at least — is that it gives us room to experiment. So we are always experimenting. And we think about diversity in how we curate, but it's hard. It's a practice, not a policy. You have to keep paying attention. What makes a great 20x200 artist, regardless of race, religion or gender, is someone who makes great work and who a broad range of people can connect to. Accessibility is important, even though that's a dirty word in the art world.
FC: Are you trying to change the definition of accessibility or will it always equate to "over-commercialized"?
JB: It's very important to understand the boundaries of our audience's taste, and then to present them with stuff that's just beyond them on a regular basis. If everyone loves everything that we're releasing all the time, we are failing. And it's very important to us that we use our success to support risk-taking. So someone like William Wegman — or even Jennifer Sanchez, who is a painter that's just getting on the map — their strong sales are part of the eco-system that allows us to show work that we know not everyone is going to love. But every time a person embraces something or connects to something that's beyond their previously supposed boundaries, we are winning.
FC: Isn't it also about putting that choice on the user? You're saying: We're throwing this art at you two times a week; you get to decide what you think about it.
JB: Right, that's the other thing that is great about 20x200. I love that twice a week people are saying, "I like this," or even, "I hate this." Someone wrote to me once really puzzled about an image, and apologized for not liking it. But he was also like, annoyed by it. He didn't get it and he couldn't decide whether I was wrong or he was. And I told him to embrace not liking it. Because that's how the picture of what he does like becomes clearer. And that's when the opportunity to become a collector unfolds — when that confidence takes root.
FC: I find the question "What art have you bought lately?" to be a really interesting, loaded question for people.
JB: I want everyone to collect art. I want people to be embarrassed if they don't have a collection that they're proud of and can talk about. Because that means that their homes will be happier, and that artists are being supported on a grand scale which will make for a better society. And I believe it's the first time in history that it's possible. It was really hard to make art available before, but we can thank technology for changing that dramatically.
JB: Oh yes, I love being promiscuous in my tastes — I am always looking, everywhere. Ultimately, it's the artist's practice that makes it art, which is a hard thing to communicate to people who are buying stuff to put on their walls, but I think and hope once they live with it for a while and begin to think of themselves as collectors, they'll come to understand it.
So Jorge works hard, he's up to something — it's not a fluke. It's effort and concentration and engagement and he's in it. And I try not to be discriminating about the context/content of what's being produced. I don't care if someone went to art school or not, or if a work seems more rooted in design than in art — good luck trying to sort that bucket of worms anyhow.
FC: I was reading the New York Times article about your funding and there was a quote from your investors about how they didn't want to fund an art-related project. Is there a reason there aren't more art-related tech companies?
JB: Well, a lot of art is bad, on the one hand, and on the other, a lot people just don't understand the art world. So they do an art thing, and they think they're doing art for everyone, maybe, but the fact is that if it's not also credible in the art world, it's art for everyone else.
FC: Museums and galleries are having trouble engaging communities and audiences online and off. Can you help them?
JB: I think we can help them. They should call us! [laughs] Here's the thing: Most people think that "real art" is for rich people or it's something you see in museums, not something that they can live with. They don't have any kind of relationship with art. So there's an inherent distance, a chasm, in fact, between them and what they see in museums. So I think that if everyone knows what it's like to live with art, it offers the opportunity to transform their relationship with what they see in institutions.
FC: Any plans to expand?
JB: I am connecting at a scale that I never could out of my wee little gallery. We're adding framing in 2010. I'm really excited about our recent success with more established artists. And while I don't have any names that I can give you (because they're not confirmed yet) working with artists like Wegman and Mike + Doug Starn is going to have a prominent place in our program. And there's a lot that flows from that. I am excited and I also feel a sense of urgency. I want to build a good business that is good, that respects the maker and the consumer. I want to set the standard for how it's done.
FC: So do you want to raise the quality of the online art-buying experience?
JB: No, the whole experience. We have what I call a benevolent eco-system. The collectors are delighted — they are getting something that overdelivers on their expectations. To spend $20 and have some of it go directly to the person who made it — that's hard to do these days, especially at any kind of scale. The artists are making more money than they've ever made as artists, in many cases. And their work is being respected and well represented in the process.
FC: Are artists banging down your door, or are some of them above this?
JB: If they're above this, they just don't get it. I have gone to great lengths to differentiate what we do on 20x200 from the gallery experience while still being respectful about art and artists in the process. That's why someone like Wegman works with us and loves it. I was on the phone with a dealer who'd reached out to me about some kind of business proposal. At the end of the conversation I thanked him and said that it was a nice change of pace to have someone reach out to me, because most dealers haven't exactly been receptive to what we're doing. And he said, "Are you kidding? I fucking hated what you were doing when I first heard about it. I thought it was horrible and bad for the art world. But the more I looked at what you were doing and how, I realized that it's the future of the business." That was awesome.