Best of the Web

You can shop for art in cyberspace, but does it make sense? Eighteen CEOs scout sites offering everything from Picasso originals to basic frames

As the manager of a new office in San Francisco last year, Richard Ogden drew the assignment of decorating the space. His employer, Quidnunc, an E-commerce consultancy based in London, provided $5,000 for artwork. Ogden, a musician by training, didn't know much about buying art, so he went online. He zipped to, perused its offerings of original paintings, and created his own virtual "gallery" of works that he thought might jibe with Quidnunc's style., one of several Web sites that market art to businesses, concentrates on works by contemporary artists. If Ogden's budget had been far larger, he might have checked out Fine Art Lease's site, which features original Picassos and Pissarros that companies can buy or lease. Or if Ogden had been hunting simply for vintage van Gogh and Matisse prints or posters, he could have turned to In addition to actual art, these Web companies typically market framing, matting, and installation services, as well as art consulting.

These sites are, of course, businesses themselves, aiming for a slice of the burgeoning corporate-art market, though all of them seek individuals as customers as well. They vary as widely in their content and character as the products they sell., for example, is the Web arm of ArtSource, based in New Berlin, Wis. It was founded in 1990 as a mail-order catalog, the sales from which still account for part of its $3 million in revenues. At the other extreme is start-up, based in San Francisco; leading Web investor CMGI owns 38% of the company.

Unlike ArtSource, which displays art on its site but urges customers to contact the company by E-mail or telephone, is set up to consummate its sales online. But Ogden, for one, didn't buy over the Net. He chose to visit NextMonet's headquarters, which happened to be down the block from Quidnunc's. During the six weeks that followed, NextMonet dispatched representatives to the Quidnunc office to measure walls and observe the light. Eventually, Ogden bought six $600 abstract paintings by Derrick Buisch. By posting Quidnunc's preliminary selections on NextMonet's virtual gallery, Ogden made it easy for other Quidnunc employees and NextMonet representatives to weigh in with opinions and scope out alternatives.

Shopping on the Web saved Ogden from having to browse galleries from New York to Paris. But if you go online in search of art for your company, which site would serve you best? To guide your search, Inc. asked 18 small-business chief executives to review five Web sites that sell art to companies. The panelists differed widely on which sites they liked and didn't like, based on their tastes and needs. Which site is right for you? Read on.
What it's good for: Prints and posters of well-known artists and genres. The CEOs generally lauded's framing and matting services, as well as its pricing. "Simple, recognizable prints at a decent price," said one CEO.
Don't waste your time if: You want paintings. Asked if he'd return to the site, one CEO replied, "Maybe for reasonably priced prints."
What our CEOs had to say: Another reviewer reflected the consensus of his fellow panelists when he said that judging in relation to Fine Art Lease, for example, was "like comparing a poster outlet store in a mall to a fine art gallery."
What you ought to know: The site's parent company, $248-million Getty Images, based in Seattle, provides digital images to such customers as publishers and graphic designers. In light of how well scored with our CEOs, it's noteworthy that Getty Images considers a sales channel primarily for reaching consumers rather than businesses.
What it's good for: Browsing for posters and "understanding different looks and treatments," in the view of one CEO.
Don't waste your time if: You want a 100% online transaction. Many of our panelists were miffed that most items were unaccompanied by listed prices. "The service generally requires you to add a piece to a personalized gallery, which requires registration, then forces you to request a quote," said one reviewer. "Too much trouble to go through for the generic Jimmy Dean poster I was looking at."
What our CEOs had to say: Several lauded the site's setup, which lets the user point to paintings according to price bracket. But they said other aspects of the site's search function needed work. "I could see all fine art between $751 and $1,500," one said, "but if I limited the search further, I was likely to get a goose egg on the results."
What you ought to know: The absence of pricing on some sections of the site is intentional. ArtSource sells to many wholesalers, and it doesn't want to intimidate them by posting the more expensive retail prices conspicuously on the Web.
What it's good for: Leasing, leasing with an option to buy, or outright purchasing of renowned paintings, photographs, sculpture, and drawings. "I really like the idea of being able to lease a piece of nice and expensive art," said one CEO.
Don't waste your time if: Leasing gives you the creeps. The reviewers liked the concept, but none said they'd actually do it. "I can't imagine leasing a $200K painting," noted one. "If I wanted it enough, I'd buy it."
What our CEOs had to say: Ironically, the only site of the five that offers original Picassos was considered "boring" to look at. "Fine Art Lease gave me sort of a foreboding feeling ... dark colors ... not much help," one CEO explained.
What you ought to know: According to Fine Art Lease chairman and CEO Ian Peck, the company's average work costs $35,000. To lease a $35,000 work for three years would cost $690 a month, which might explain why our panel found leasing appealing only in theory.
What it's good for: Affordable work by up-and-coming artists. Even one of the most critical CEOs said, "I felt as though there was art I liked at a price I would pay."
Don't waste your time if: You need answers right away about frames, since the site refers inquiries to its network of framers all over the United States. "I didn't find the framing options when you purchase a piece, which is important," said one CEO. A few panelists wished the site had different search criteria, since they wanted to view artwork by movement (impressionism, for instance) rather than by medium (say, sculpture).
What our CEOs had to say: The site was well organized and good-looking.
What you ought to know:'s specialty is original contemporary art. Don't shop there if you're looking for a print of your favorite Rembrandt.
What it's good for: Specific information on how businesses should buy art. "Great for the corporate user," one of the panelists said. "It's like having your own corporate interior designer." There is, in fact, a specific area of the site devoted to the corporate user.
Don't waste your time if: You want something by someone famous. Like, Visualize showcases its own troupe of artists.
What our CEOs had to say: The site is presented very effectively and offers great information. It's not too flashy but is clearly navigable and easy to understand.
What you ought to know: Visualize has a rental program; monthly rates range from $25 to $60 for a piece of artwork.

The Bottom Line
Receiving the most laurels were and Visualize, each of which scored well in every category. However, the three CEOs who reviewed both sites liked Visualize a little better, singling out portions of the site that catered specifically to business buyers. and ArtSource Online rated about the same, but the former generally received more enthusiastic comments. Fine Art Lease brought up the rear, despite its seemingly business-friendly leasing options. The CEOs didn't burn with desire for the site's crÈme de la crÈme collection, and they found the art too expensive even as a rental.

Ilan Mochari is a reporter at Inc.

The savvy entrepreneur's guide to the art Web

Would our CEOs go back? What is the site good for? CEOs' quick take "Yes, for specific personal art." "Prints from known artists and genres." "Quick, easy, enjoyable." "Maybe." "To browse posters." "Not possible to browse and buy in a single session." "No." "To lease a piece of nice and expensive art." "Not my style -- can't imagine leasing a $200K painting." "Just out of curiosity." "Possible discovery of new artists." "I didn't find the framing options." "You bet." "Corporate programs and options." "Very good; I like it."

Grading the Sites
Ease of navigation Inventory Content Reliability Framing/
ancillary services
Pricing Something you'd pay for? Average grade B+ B B B+ A- A- B+ B+ B B- B- B B- C+ C- B- B- C C+ B C+ C- D+ C B B- C+ B+ C B C- B- B B A- A- B+ B B+ B+

Our Panelists

Terry Benish, president and CEO, Purple Solutions
Jeffrey S. Davis, CEO and chairman, Mage
Bryan Desloge, CEO, TMC Medical
Don Epperson, president, HookMedia
Julio Gomez, CEO, Gomez Advisors
Sam Goodner, founder, Catapult Systems
Pamela Hawken, president and CEO, Gardenside
Samuel B. Kellett Jr., founder, president, and CEO,
Brent M. Kleinheksel, CEO and founder, PlanetPortal
Jack Littman-Quinn, CEO, OneCore
Michelle Lubow, CEO, Design One
Bret McElfish, CEO, McElfish + Co.
Spencer Newman, CEO,
Bill Oxford, CEO, The Oxford Group
Gary G. Pan, CEO and founder, Panacea Consulting
Claude Pope, president and CEO, Office Supply Solutions
Dennis Scheyer, president and creative director, Scheyer/SF
Steve Warren, owner, Katzinger's Deli

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