In 2010, when Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched Instagram, the concept of buying and selling works of art by looking at an image on a mobile phone screen or tablet was almost incomprehensible. Six years later in 2016, Brett Gorvy, then head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, shared an image of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s "Sugar Ray" (1982) via his Instagram account. It was placed on hold by a client who had seen Gorvy’s post and subsequently sold for $24 million. This is now regarded as the first major blue-chip Instagram transaction.
Since then, the sale of artwork through Instagram has become the norm. Artists now have the opportunity to curate their own virtual gallery as they showcase new work, post videos of their artistic process and manage sales enquiries directly. Ultimately, the 21st century artist now uses social media to build their brand, captivate viewers, showcase their practice and generate followers on an international scale – all from the flick of a phone.
There is, predictably, much debate around the ramifications of Instagram for the contemporary art world – is it a good or a bad thing? While traditionalists believe the app has decreased the value of art – a work can become a 'masterpiece' based on the number of likes it receives, rather than for its craftsmanship – there are many who have forged successful careers thanks to the recognition the platform has allowed them. In an attempt to navigate the exciting yet precarious situation in which technology has placed the industry, I spoke with a selection of female artists, gallerists and curators about the pros and cons of the Instagram portfolio.
Danish artist Christiane Spangsberg, known for her Picasso-esque and Fauvist-inspired drawings of delicately lined figures, has built a strong following and reputation online. Respected for her business-savvy approach, Spangsberg tells me how important it is to recognise the 21st century artist as more than just an artist. "Sometimes people ask me what I do, and I tell them I’m an artist," she says. "However, I never feel as if it is a sufficient answer because in a way, I am also a gallery, a curator, a CEO, and everything in between."
Integral to the marketing of Spangsberg’s work, she says Instagram was the only way she could connect directly with the buyer:
"At first, I never thought it would go international, but the device had the tools I needed to do things my own way. In this sense it has played the most significant role in my strategy, getting me to where I am today."
Similarly, Spanish artist Cristina BanBan, who depicts beautifully exaggerated figures in banal scenes that reflect contemporary society, acknowledges the importance of Instagram to her success. "All of the important contacts and connections I’ve made in my career have been through Instagram." For Cristina, Instagram offers everyone a virtual space to create what they want for themselves and those who visit their page. "We all curate our Instagrams. It is a virtual zone where we can be ourselves or start to build from scratch something or someone we want to be." Since moving from Barcelona to London six years ago, BanBan credits Instagram with enabling her to build a fresh, informal network: "I think it is far more natural to contact others or be contacted through direct message rather than email."
As well as artists, curators are now using Instagram strategically to promote their work and that of the artists they support. In November 2017, Katy Hessel, founder of the Instagram account Great Women Artists, organised and curated the show Great Women Artists of Instagram, bringing together 15 UK-based artists who have all used Instagram to forge their careers. The opening night was a defining moment in the contemporary art world as it highlighted the platform’s capacity to be a highly effective networking system that promotes community and inclusivity, in this case for female artists of all types.
Charlotte Edey, known for her prints, illustrations and tapestries which explore themes of identity and balance within fluid and impossible spaces, was included in the show. Edey praises Hessel and the exhibition for being a pivotal moment in her career, telling me: "Through the show at Mother London I met Juno Calypso, whose work I'd admired for years. This year, Juno chose me for the Artist of the Day programme at Flowers Gallery, Mayfair, which culminated in my first solo show. While this is a story of people above anything else, it had a digital beginning."
For artists like Edey, who never attended art school, Instagram is a democratising tool as it provides a space to showcase their work without having to follow traditional conventions which, for many, have sociopolitical ramifications. "Instagram allowed me to find an audience from my bedroom and discover the work of so many artists I love," she explains. "Without a degree, relevant work or a studio, I felt kind of lost in terms of how to make my work visible when I started."
Since the exhibition, Hessel continues to diligently promote female artists such as Edey on a daily basis, advocating Instagram's capacity to democratise the art world. "It can already be said that without the rise of Instagram, some of these artists who have since exhibited all over the world might have never gained recognition or a means of sharing their work to the masses," she explains, "and art might have a different look and depth altogether."
This has inevitably caused issues for a number of galleries, which find themselves competing with the app. Although this has led to closures in the last few years, it has also encouraged change, particularly among those smaller galleries working with emerging artists.
At the beginning of the year, India Whalley, founder of The Dot Project, announced the move from her 94 Fulham Road gallery to an interior setting in Holland Park. Determined to keep a physical space for art, Whalley has adapted the traditional gallery model, offering those who may be following an artist on Instagram the chance to fully engage with that artist’s work alongside collectors, clients and friends of the gallery. She explains: "The Dot Project’s recent move to an interior setting is a prime example of the steps that are being taken by galleries dedicated to working with emerging artists in order to adapt with the times. I wanted to provide a more personal, intimate space where the artist is presented through a solo show and both artist and their work can continue to connect and interact physically with prospective clients and collectors."
Having direct access to an artist’s work remains pivotal for many collectors and individuals. Likewise, the established art institutions and major exhibitions continue to draw large audiences, as there is nothing quite like seeing a work of art in a physical space. Instagram allows underrepresented artists the opportunity to exhibit their work without class, gender, race or age prejudice; apart from the size of the image being uploaded, it is devoid of rules and boundaries. For artists and art lovers alike, the app has opened a door that was previously closed, democratising the art world and breaking down the walls that have enclosed it for centuries.