„There aren’t that many people that have a real voice in the art world.“
In the buzzing courtyard of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, beneath Ai Weiwei's monumental Tree installation, we talked with art lover and online-portal pioneer Ezra Konvitz about his experience in the art world. Having co-founded the discovery platform ArtStack, with the aim to make art more accessible to the general public, he has created the world’s biggest user-generated database for artwork in less than four years.
FAM: As a pioneer in the digital art world where does your passion for art derive from?
Ezra Konvitz: Art is something I always grew up with. We would frequently go to museums and galleries, or visit architectural icons on family holidays. My mother did her MA in art history and used to be a serious photographer—we had a dark room in the house. They collect a bit so it was always around!
Did you study art?
Never to be an artist, but I did two masters in art history. My first masters at Cambridge focused on the development of avant-garde movements in the early 20th century. It fascinated me as a time, when people were creating entirely new aesthetics that spanned every creative outlet—and everyone was involved from poets, painters, photographers, fashion designers, playwrights and authors. And then I followed that with another one at the Courtauld Institute of Art which was looking at Post Modernism in France—kind of the next big set of developments.
But you knew you wanted to work in the art world?
I didn’t work in art straightaway—I thought it would just be something I would be passionate about. After my studies, I worked at Bain & Company, the consulting firm, but then an opportunity came up at the Serpentine Gallery to work with the director Julia Peyton-Jones on strategy. It was during the time when the Gallery was doubling in size to include the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery, with a renovation and extension by Zaha Hadid.
The Serpentine Gallery underwent enormous changes whilst you were there. Julia Peyton-Jones turned it into one of the UK's most influential architectural venues. How was your experience working there?
I was excited to go there as much for the well-known artistic program as for their entrepreneurial way of thinking: the Gallery receives only about 16 per cent of it's revenue from public funds but is constantly taking on bigger and more impressive projects. This combination of blue-sky thinking and practical delivery makes it an example for a lot of public institutions—it punches well above its weight, and it was exciting to get the chance to learn from Julia during that time.
What attracts you to working in art?
How people come together to create things has always fascinated me: that social aspect of how people connect and influence—art cannot exist in a vacuum.
One of the great things about working in art is having the chance to see so much of it. You never tire of truly inspirational experiences and it’s a constantly evolving space. You don't have to work in art to be on top of everything that’s going on, and now it's easier for artists to reach more people than ever before, using new media or building their audience without recourse to gatekeeper institutions.
Tell us a little bit about the idea of ArtStack and how it all got started.
While I was working at the Serpentine, my business partner, James Lindon and I started talking about art online. I'm of the generation that had a pre-internet, pre-mobile childhood and became increasingly connected through my teen years—which gives the online space a particular allure. Helping to bring art online seemed the most natural, exciting thing we could do and so ArtStack was born—to bring social discovery to an art-specific environment online.
ArtStack is basically social media for art. We have certainly the biggest user-generated database of artworks in the world and help you discover art you like. It's a simple structure, when you sign up you follow people and then see the art that they like in your feed. You can “stack” any work already on the site into your profile, so you can always find it—or add new works to share with the community. Because it is a database of art, we help you see all the other work by any artist and also what exhibitions are on around the world. And, just like fineartmultiple, we allow you to see the artwork as though you were in a room.
How did this new approach of experiencing art online come into being?
The idea of ArtStack was to give more people a voice—there aren't that many people who have a real voice in the art world. We started with a community of people who love art and wanted to share their insight, their taste or their knowledge. People love sharing images and we wanted to make a space online which is specifically designed for people to see the most inspiring images in the world.
Can ArtStack influence the real world experience of art? Is it more likely for me to attend an exhibition if ArtStack is summing everything up that is going on in my city and introducing me to new works?
We are lucky, we live in London. We have fantastic museums and galleries all around many of which are free. But if you live somewhere that isn't a big cosmopolitan buzzing urban center, it can be very difficult to see art. And, of course, no one can be everywhere! So being able to see an artwork, whether it's in Tokyo or at the Istanbul Biennial, means you connect with a lot of stuff that you might never have had the chance to see.
There is no substitution effect from seeing art online—if anything, it drives real world audiences: the research all shows that people who see art online are much more likely to go and see work in person. We make a point of this on ArtStack by highlighting which exhibitions in your city are about to close in the next two weeks, so you don’t miss the shows you want to see.
To what extent do you think art is going to change into an online experience, could ArtStack influence the artworks in the buying process?
A lot of really interesting artists reach a lot more people through media like ArtStack today than they do through their own websites and we’ve definitely helped a lot of people’s careers—we’ve heard of artists finding new galleries, doing shows in new cities, or being discovered collectors on ArtStack.
One of the things we show on ArtStack is a different gauge of value: the fact that people like it. Most of the news we hear about the art world is regarding the financial side. We want to help provide an alternative notion of value from the all-too-often purely financially gauge people rely on today.
I have even heard of people adding artworks they are interested in buying to see if anybody else likes them, and to get a sense of how popular those works are. That helps you make a purchasing decision with a little more faith. And, of course, the more people who see and like a work the more potential value it should have.
Let's have a look at your own digital art collection. Is there a particular art piece or exhibition you would like to point out?
There are some excellent exhibitions in Paris right now like the Ugo Rondinone at Palais de Tokyo. And then in terms of my own taste, the other day I found this quite fun photo on ArtStack. I wouldn’t necessarily call it an artwork. It is a picture of Francis Picabia taken by his wife with his dog on a bizarre looking bike—it just gives an alternative insight into his world. We have all these fascinating images that are related to art, but that might not be strictly defined as an artwork. There are images of artists who are in the process of making works, or here for instance is a picture of René Magritte at MoMA. I like seeing the artist in context, working or among their artworks.
We are talking beneath Ai Weiwei's wonderful installation Tree outside the Royal Academy of Arts, do you believe that outspoken artists like Ai Weiwei, who refuse to be censored, are more important now than ever?
What Ai Weiwei has done is remarkable, his connecting and resonating with an enormous swathe of people around the world is astonishing. He has developed an incredible presence which very much plays with the moment we live in—online, genuine, political, connected. Like most great artists, he's understood the time in which he lives and his work reflects that, and any attempt at censorship becomes an element in the artwork itself. Today, as the means of engagement and publishing become ever more democratized, we are moving to a new era where censorship is practically impossible—which, paradoxically, might make it harder for artists to make political statements that really reach beyond the meme.
Browse artworks on Ezra's platform here.
Interview by Juliane Spaete