After 25 years as a finance specialist and board-level CFO for some of the top financial institutions, having handled numerous strategic projects successfully, Francis decided to jump into the world of entrepreneurship. After a first taste with the founding of a successful online-only e-commerce gallery, IdeelArt.com, he acquired Widewalls.ch in July 2017, an ambitious online marketplace dedicated to modern and contemporary art...
What spearheaded your decision to launch an online business in the art world?
I have always had a desire to be a gallery owner. But when I considered it more seriously 7 years ago, I realised that the brick and mortar sector was under serious threat. I knew that selling online was the future. The online art market has been growing by 2 digits every year since then, and is unlikely to slow down any time soon...
From your experience through IdeelArt and Widewalls, do collectors actually buy work online?
Of course they do! I would not be here answering your questions if otherwise! It is true though that art is one of the last assets to transition online, mostly because galleries have resisted against this trend for some time. Auction houses have led the way quite successfully though, with some making more than half of their sales online. But with high quality images, price transparency, 3D exhibitions, accessibility from anywhere in the world, and a less intimidating environment, I am convinced that online art sales will not only increase, but will also be a major contributing factor to the expanse of the overall art market.
How important is an online presence for art businesses?
Online sales still represent a bit less than 10% of the overall art market (which is worth $65bn). But this share is growing every year, and I expect it will reach 20% in 5 years. At this level, no gallery will have the possibility to ignore this distribution channel anymore.
For gallerists, how much time, money and investment should they be putting into this?
Not as much as they think. If they do not make the mistake to try to do it on their own. If you work only from your own website then building an audience of qualified art collectors is time-consuming and very expensive. However, there are a number of online marketplaces that can support you in doing this. But for less than 200 euros per month, any gallery can join Widewalls and display their inventory to hundreds of thousands of art lovers - and we can even take care of their digital inventory management, not just on Widewalls, but also on other art marketplaces, so they do not even need to put any time in it!
What advice would you give to a gallery who is starting to create an online presence - what tools can they use, and what mistakes should they avoid?
Don't do it yourself: use online third party marketplaces instead, such as Widewalls. Use your website as a show-room mostly. It has to be beautiful and user friendly, but do not count on it to sell much. Do it seriously, be present on at least 3 platforms, so that you can compare and optimise. Favour the platforms that are transparent, those that do not refrain from advertising your inventory to the leads that they send you. Otherwise, your presence does not allow you to grow your client list, which is one of your key assets. Check their terms and conditions for that. Stay on each platform for at least one year, then evaluate and see if it is working for you. It takes time to build a presence on platforms, it is quite similar with social media. Be active, daily if possible. Upload new artworks, or re-upload existing ones. Publish your exhibitions on them if the feature exists (you can on Widewalls). Most platforms' display algorithms favour the dealers that are more active. And a few, like Widewalls, also provide you with tools to help you be more active. Display price transparently. Easy price discovery is key on any market to grow its liquidity (ie transactions volumes). Art is no different. Take good quality photos or even videos of the artwork. Front, back, side, in-situ, signature of the artist, zoom. The more the better. You can start taking 3D pictures (with your smartphone!), as new technologies will soon allow dealers to organise online 3D exhibitions and 3D images will be required if you want a better rendering. Describe artworks with accurate, relevant, and factual descriptions. Think about it as your pitch to a potential buyer, without overselling it. Do not be shy about showing large inventories. The Internet is a numbers game. The more the better. Even Perrotin has more than 2,000 artworks on Widewalls! Do not bother differentiating inventories from one platform to the other. The users on the platform, the way filters are designed, the recommendation engines and the search and display algorithms will do the job for you.
What is your vision for a seamless experience for buying art online? We would love to hear your thoughts specifically about ecommerce and the ‘click and buy’ model, as well as any ideas around logistics that you might have.
Collectors have to be able to find what they are looking for in just a few clicks. Giving the best possible user experience is key to success for any marketplace (not only art-related ones). When evaluating our business we are focussed on well-designed user journeys, smart filters, a fast platform, smart search engines, personalised experiences, and strong recommendation engines. Buyers do not like surprises, so having the possibility to get instant shipping quotes (from Convelio for instance...) along with information on import taxes etc. will no doubt help the buying process.
Tech companies are always being called into question in regards to data, how do you leverage data to offer meaningful insights into the art market?
Widewalls is a platform at the service of art dealers. Our art galleries and dealers receive the data that our users are giving willingly. We have no hidden agenda and are not building, for instance, a database of collectors to use in 10 years from now to wipe out the market. We will always use this information to provide a better service to art dealers and to our visitors. We do of course have tools to track user behaviour and preference, so as to provide them with better recommendations. This is standard practice,and we should soon implement a very smart, AI-powered technology, which will combine image recognition, product description and users behaviours, to do exactly this. This will allow us to provide a better service to our art dealers partners, and to our users.
Every startup has a journey, what have been some of the highs and lows at Widewalls been?
Well, to be honest, our journey has been quite a rollercoaster. Widewalls has an unusual history. The platform was initially a private initiative designed to manage the collection of a wealthy collector. But as a serial entrepreneur, he could not resist the temptation to build something more commercial. Subsequently, it went public and was very successful in building traffic, mostly through its magazine and optimised content, it built up a large audience (Widewalls currently have over half a million monthly visitors). I was one of their clients through my own gallery, and I decided to acquire it following a management crisis that nearly crippled the company. I fully reorganised the team, built processes that could handle growth, and had the platform entirely re-written recently to be able to implement great new features and services. As you can see, we are only at the beginning of our journey...
What have been some of your priorities, and main learnings, from the COVID 19 crisis?
From our standpoint, the crisis did not change anything internally. We mostly work remotely anyway. But we are still a small team, so this is very easy for us. If I had to change anything following this crisis, it probably would be to draw plans to be able to grow and still allow everyone in the company to work from home. I think this is the model of the future and will improve everyone's lives. Think about it: not having to ever take a crowded tube (and catch the flu!) twice a day. Instead you can live by the sea or in the countryside, yet still be fully connected to the rest of the world. I also think that online virtual reality exhibitions will become much more common. We actually just became the exclusive distributor of a very innovative VR technology and should be able to offer this service to our users and partners very soon.
What do you believe the post Covid 19 art world will look like?
For most galleries, this is an epiphany. We are clearly seeing a change in the attitude of art dealers toward online sales. This crisis is just an accelerator. The market was transitioning online before Covid-19. I think that art fairs will suffer, but only temporarily (and debatably, this area was over saturated anyway, so it will be interesting to see how the art fair calendar of 2021 will compare). There will always be a desire for art lovers and collectors to discover art physically. This is particularly the case with emerging artists that have not been shown before, and art fairs have always had a pivotal role to play in this respect. I see a future where art galleries will mostly do business online, maybe they will organise pop-up exhibitions, combined with a program of art fairs.
Are you a collector, and do you personally buy art online? If so, what are some of the highlights in your collection?
My definition of an art collector is someone who does not have enough space on their walls to display their entire collection. I just counted, there are 21 artworks just in my living room, and I have a store of art wanting to go up, so, I guess yes, I am a collector! I tend to be much more attracted by abstract art. The larger pieces in my living room are a dot painting by Damien Hirst, which hangs next to a painting by Andre-Pierre Arnal made in 1971, he was a member of the French (and short-lived) Support-Surface movement. I buy much less these days (you have a stronger buying power when you are a banker, than when you are a start-upper...). I also have a number of great artworks from IdeelArt's artists: Tilman, Jessica Snow, Dana Gordon, Martin Reyna, Macha Poynder, Pierre Muckensturm, Anya Spielman, Jeremy Annear, Arvid Boecker, Yari Ostovani, Claude Tétot, Holly Miller, Kyong Lee.
Francis Berthomier, CEO Widewalls, with Partner Christelle Thomas, CEO Ideelart. Photo credit by Francis Berthomier, artwork by Jeppe Hein "You are Everything (Handwritten)", 2019.