Cambridge Start-Up Pioneers 'Netflix For Artwork' Concept

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"Changing Tides" by Skip Myers (Courtesy of
"Changing Tides" by Skip Myers (Courtesy of

Purchasing a piece of original art can be exciting, expensive and scary — especially for first-timers. But a Cambridge start-up is trying to take the sting out of the experience with a new online model. Think "Netflix for artwork."

It’s called TurningArt. I recently visited the company’s small Cambridge office where three young workers were wrapping up a mass of flat, rectangular boxes and triangular mailers. They do this a lot here, according to company founder Jason Gracilieri.

“We’ve had a lot of people talk about it as Netflix for artwork,” he said, and he doesn’t shy away from the comparison. In fact, it’s impossible to resist.

There’s a website. And a monthly fee. You browse through 400 selections online, then you load up your queue with things you want to borrow. Instead of DVDs, though, this online company delivers high-resolution prints by contemporary working artists. They end up in people’s homes all across the country.

“This one’s ready to go out to Connecticut. We’ve got another one going out to Brookline, and New York here,” Gracilieri showed me. “It comes out of the box, ready to hang.”

"Skywriting" by Mara Safransky (Courtesy of
"Skywriting" by Mara Safransky (Courtesy of

And it even comes with nails.

Depending on your subscription plan the print could hang for two or three months. When its replacement arrives you take out the old one, roll it up, and ship it back in a triangular mailer. And if you fall in love with one of TurningArt’s prints, you can buy the original.

“We’re like a gallery from the standpoint of we’re connecting artists and consumers,” Gracilieri said, “but I think we’re trying to do that the way a lot of people are living their lives now.”

Meaning on the Internet.

While Gracilieri has an entrepreneurial spirit, his motivation for starting TurningArt was personal.

“The idea came really from me moving into an empty apartment with a bunch of walls and saying that I was finally done with buying store-bought prints, and kind of mass-reproduced art,” he said. “I wanted something more.”

But finding more — at a bricks-and-mortar gallery or auction, say — and then plunking down a significant quantity of cash wasn’t really an option for Gracilieri, who’s 33-years-old and recently married. And frankly, he wasn’t interested in that process. Apparently he’s not alone.

“The consumer is definitely changing,” said Don Clark, who runs the Ferrin Gallery in Pittsfield and has been a gallery owner for 40 years in western Massachusetts. “Our typical collector is probably between 60 and 75 ... so now what’s coming next?”

Not young people, according to Clark. He said they don’t appear to be collecting the way their parents did. That’s a concern for him, but he thinks a "Netflix for art" concept could help.

“You know, why not explore all sorts of options for introducing people to art?” Clark said. “And I would speculate that any number of people will choose to keep some of those things.”

TurningArt subscriber Jason Whaley would love to keep some of those things. At 33, he’s an aspiring collector — just the kind of guy gallery owner Clark would like to see browsing through his gallery.

Whaley lives on the first floor of a tasteful Cambridgeport Victorian with his wife and baby girl. The young couple started collecting art about five years ago, but it hasn’t been easy. He admits the gallery experience is intimidating.

"Splash Silver" by Marie Kazalia Kanji (Courtesy of
"Splash Silver" by Marie Kazalia Kanji (Courtesy of

“Expensive and intimidating,” he clarified. “And it’s definitely a world where people have a lot of knowledge and they let you know it and it’s very easy to feel like you’re gonna make a mistake.”

Whaley says TurningArt is a risk-free way to “test drive” pieces at home. He loves having a rotating crop of work by artists he’s never heard of, including a local painter named Nella Lush.

We walked down the hall to Whaley’s kitchen, where he showed me his current TurningArt print — a dilapidated landscape.

But, going back to the Netflix comparison, a piece of art isn’t a DVD, or a book, so I had to ask Whaley if it ever felt somehow wrong or uncomfortable shopping for art online.

“That could be a generational thing also, you know I could imagine the millenials would be completely comfortable with this model because it’s just the way that they interact with the world,” he said.

Even so, while Whaley earns membership points toward buying an original work through TurningArt, he hasn’t purchased anything yet — and he’s not sure he ever will.

“It’s generally my wife who’s not psyched," he said. "She has, um, very strong opinions about art.”

A lot of people have strong opinions, including TurningArt curator Liz Hall. She pounds the "Internet pavement" searching for artists willing to add their reproduced work to the site. Hall has signed 90 on so far. I asked her how artists react when she approaches them with the Netflix-style concept.

“I think a lot of people are really trepidatious about the online market,” she said, adding it smacks of commercialism for some. "And I think a lot of artists are very, very nervous about marking themselves as commercial in any way.”

At the same time, though, artists have told Hall they think the exposure could be good for business because, “at the end of the day we have to eat too.” Hall added, "so I think they really are just seeing us as a help to them.”

Fact is, the artists only get paid if their originals actually sell. The pieces run between $500 and $5,000, and TurningArt has brokered the sale of two since the company opened for business this past August.

In the end, who knows if Gracilieri’s "Netflix for art" concept will work. TurningArt hasn’t turned a profit as a company yet, but the staff is sure hopeful. "We're young, we're scrappy, we're entirely bootstrapped at this point," he said. And they're determined to get people thinking about what they choose to hang on their walls.

This program aired on January 17, 2011.

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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