Click On A Canvas

LET'S SAY THAT KENT AND CARLA Naif of Kansas City decide to start acquiring contemporary art. They've seen reproductions of big paintings by the current SoHo star Paolo Pomo, and they want one. They've heard that a new Pomo goes for around $50,000. Kent and Carla head for New York and Paolo's allegedly exclusive outlet, the Werner Kunsthustler Gallery. It turns out, however, that Paolo's already got a waiting list, that the next batch of pictures might cost $70,000 apiece and that the Naifs don't yet qualify for Werner's "serious" collectors' 10 percent discount (20 percent to museums and 30 percent to people who yell). Charming Werner sends them away with a stack of slick catalogs (containing no prices) and a promise to get in touch. But the Naifs also hear rumors that Paolo has a second dealer in Dallas, where his paintings are just $35,000 a pop, and that an early Pomo was recently put up for auction in Milan, where it failed to attract the minimum bid of $20,000 and didn't sell. Concluding that art collecting is an impenetrable insiders' game that has little to do with buying something because it's nice to look at, the Nails head home to build a billiard room instead.

Now all that murky mystique is about to evaporate--if the art world's new online databases live up to their hype. Artifact, ArtQuest in Britain, ArtNet and Thesaurus, Inc. are putting everything the Naifs wanted to know but were afraid to ask right out there in cyberspace. On ArtNet, collectors, critics and curators can search through thousands of art works categorized by artist, price, size, medium, color, subject matter, date, dealer or NEWSWEEK'S opinion (OK, not yet for that last one) before they buy. Hans Neuendorf is CEO of ArtNet, the Sistine of the systems with 1.5 million works, 500 auction houses, 55 galleries, the best visuals and 4,000 users with the requisite floppy disc. He says, "The art market could be much bigger ff everything were aboveboard and transparent."

By going online, Neuendorf speculates, dealers and auction houses could save hugely on printing and storage, and quit scaring off potential clients with their clubby rituals. All it takes is $4,300 for a gallery to display six shows on ArtNet, with updates free. Viewers get the software gratis, but pay $1.75 a minute to shop the auctions and 50 cents a minute to browse the galleries. Neuendorf concedes that puffed-up prices, like Pomo's at Kunsthustler, may drop when the Milan auction data are entered in ArtNet. But in an expanded market, that loss will be a mere drip on a Pollock.

Not so fast. "I like the market the way it is," says David McKee, a New York dealer whose stable includes African-American abstract sculptor Martin Puryear and the estate of Philip Guston. He's declined Art-Net's importunings. "The art world is not the Home Shopping Network," he says. "Art shouldn't be easily available. You should be moved to find it." Hey, it works for him. And although McKee is unusually testy about diptychs on digital, he's not alone in resisting the march of the megabyte into art dealing. William O'Reilly of uptown Manhattan's Salander-O'Reilly Gallery says, "It's absolutely impossible to take the back room out of this business." Fredericka Hunter of Houston's Texas Gallery thinks ArtNet "isn't very esthetic" and describes computer images of art works--even on the best equipment--as "yawns-ville." L.A. contemporary dealer Patricia Faure quips, "Getting Visa and American Express is more important."

Part of the art world is scared because most of the art world is old-fashioned. It hasn't had a real technological revolution shake the market since the invention of oil painting in the 15th century. That, along with a change in patronage from the clergy to merchants, brought about the sophisticated trade in you'll-just-love-what-Peter-Paul-does-with-cadmium-red pictures that still drives today's market. Darcy Gerbarg, who hopes to provide digitalized movies of gallery exhibitions to online services, says, "At the high end of resale, particularly, the art world flies in the face of conventional marketing: the more you want to sell a work, the less you want it known that you want to sell it." Conversely, says Whitney Museum director David Ross, "we wanted to acquire [one of nine known paintings by 1920s proto-pop artist Gerald Murphy] before it went to market. If it had, there'd be a lot of competition to buy it." For Gerbarg's hypothetical resale, clubby rituals keep the price up; for Ross, they kept it nicely down.

Auction houses conduct their sales in the open, and will obviously benefit from onliners knowing about them in advance. (For an additional charge, ArtNet and Thesaurus, Inc. will even fax you when a work by your favorite artist goes on the block.) But why would any gallery go online? As ArtNet marketing director Florian Pfahler says, "Galleries think that if it's all a secret they can ask for higher prices because the market's not that educated." Pierre Levai says his prestigious, international Marlborough Galleries have nevertheless signed on with ArtNet because of the opportunity for "tremendous publicity." But Marlborough, like 30 percent of Art-Net's galleries, won't post prices. "It's not like selling cheap jewelry," huffs Levai. Martha Fleischman of New York's Kennedy Galleries, which specialize in 18th- and 19th-century American art, says joining ArtNet is part of her advertising budget. Besides, they gave her a special rate as a charter subscriber. But she's not posting prices, either. "We don't put prices in our magazine ads," Fleischman explains.

Peter Norton--computer whiz (the Norton Utilities) and art collector- sees the situation clearly from both sides. He's cheerfully sanguine. "This is an additive technology, not a replacement," he says. "The question is, will it reduce the old way of doing business by 30 percent or 90 percent? In my opinion, it's more likely to be 30 percent." But if that change means clients can immediately compare what dealers say against the database, the once opaque art market will look at least translucent.