Fine art is not for everyone. It’s not frequent therefore that we encounter a startup looking to solve problems in that sector on the continent. It’s not for me. To understand better the economics around a new startup called Guns & Rain, I had to enlist the mind of the former curator of the National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe, heeten bhagat. The main problems for the fine arts ecosystem in terms of access to markets and being discovered, according to him, are around exposure and representation.
Guns & Rain, founded three months ago by a Zimbabwean who just left employment with Google to focus on this venture, seeks to solve these problems. Julie Taylor, the founder, sees the industry’s problems in similar terms as bhagat. Despite (what she calls) an exploding recognition of African contemporary art globally in the past year or so “artists from Africa are under represented and the African share of the creative global economy is extremely small (less than 1%).” She feels the internet can help change this.
In a nutshell, Guns & Rain is a marketplace where fine art works by artists, mostly up-and-coming, are sold. The pieces are by artists from Zimbabwe, South Africa (the home of the startup) Namibia and Botswana but she plans to expand to East and West Africa as well. In terms of the business model, it’s straightforward eCommerce. Taylor scouts for new artists herself across the region, finding those that don’t have much exposure for their work yet, with the aim to “catch them before they reach high profile status”. The expectation, she says, is that in 5-10 years time their work will be much more valuable.
So far, there are not that many artists listed on the site right now and we’re guessing part of that is the Guns & Rain’s policy for works to be selected and curated based on a quality bar. Taylor told us: “it’s not a case of any random person just being able to register and get artwork on the site.” This appears in conflict with the most significant attribute that makes the internet the game-changing platform it is – the removal of barriers of permission to participate by both creators and consumers. But the fine arts industry is a peculiar one. When one buys a painting, they’re not just buying canvas, paint and brush strokes.
“The fine art market represents a different group of people – and I hazard to say this – more considered, more long term. There is, for me, a larger conversation located in what works, why and its perceived legacy – long term relevance etc…” bhagat explained when asked about some of his concerns about online marketplaces.
For Guns & Rain, that the art is being sold via an online catalogue already does away with the significant presentation aesthetics that a brick and mortar gallery would provide. Having a panel of experts and advisors behind the scenes curating the works would, therefore, provide some assurance the buyers need to trust that they’ll get the perceived quality.
Taylor’s scouting and curation methods could also contribute to solving another problem. bhagat says in addition to exposure and representation, there’s the issue of trends and relevance and that outside South Africa, the region isn’t meaningfully to contributing to shaping these yet. “The market follows trends, most of which we, here, are not yet part of the setting. There is also the notion of relevance and contemporaneity – we need systems here that are cognisant and dedicated to following these trends and punt work & artists to that,” he said. “This also speaks to curatorial interventions – the idea that working with a curator that can research, guide, write and market works to markets & shows – bienales, trienales etc.”
Taylor’s startup is not without competition on the continent and especially at her base in South Africa where there are properties like stateoftheart.co.za. Art galleries and individual artists all over the continent also have their standalone websites in different forms all attempting to use the internet to improve connecting buyers to the sellers. Without focusing on the eCommerce aspect though, these are more complementary than competition to Guns & Rain.
A pleasantly strange thing happened when I opened Guns & Rain for the first time. I got quite curious about one of the listed artists – Themba Khumalo. His kombi pieces really grabbed my attention. I almost wondered if I’d ever consider buying art seeing how easy it’s become to take a peek into a gallery.
image: piece on Guns & Rain