The growth of social media has changed the way people experience and share parts of their lives, from instagramming each meal to finding a relationship via an app. Art is no exception. Social media has, without a doubt, widened the arts community. With over 700 million users worldwide, Instagram has developed into the leading photo-based media platform on the web, and for artists navigating this modern world, an Instagram account has replaced the canvas, portfolio, and private gallery—and become a prime tool when pursuing a career in art.
How many Instagram followers you have is becoming the new standard of popularity, and a prerequisite for art curators serving millennial clientele and searching for emerging artists. According to the European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF)’s 2017 art market report, the internet is the second most fruitful platform for meeting new clients; half of the art dealers reported making contact with 40 percent of their new buyers on the web. This is something myself and fellow artists have noticed happening more and more. My own client base is increasingly growing through social media, and a high percentage of my painting and installation sales are initiated through Instagram.
I now find myself spending more time on my phone than ever before, and my Instagram inbox pings far more often than my three email accounts, with inquiries about painting sizes, installation material, and prices. Social media has replaced traditional communication channels and developed into a new platform for artists like me to interact with fans and clients. Instagram specifically has gained fame among artists for its emphasis on visuals and lack of words. “The platform strips away all the pretense and bullshit, and forces artists to make cases for their art with little or no hype,” explains art consultant Alan Bamberger in an article for his website, Art Business. The simplicity of Instagram’s medium allows art lovers to engage with art and its creators directly.
In the art world, as in most industries, social media has become about more than exposure. Artists and buyers are using it as a tool for art sales—an approach made even more valuable in the era of social media influencers. According to Artprice, a French online art price database, the total auction value for art globally reached $14.9 billion in 2017, an increase of 19.8 percent from 2016. Online art sales, meanwhile, according to insurance company Hiscox’s 2018 report, reached an estimated $4.22 billion in 2017, up 12 percent from the previous year. While online art sales are small scale compared to auctions, finding art through social media and buying it online has a clear generational divide. According to the TEFAF report, more than 40 percent of 18-24 year old consumers in the US discovered art through social media and over 50 percent in that age bracket would buy art online. Compare this to the 55-64 age bracket where less than 9 percent discovered art through social media, and just under 23 percent would buy art online. The argument can be made that social media and online buying are trends set to increase as millennials come of age.
My own eureka moment with Instagram came when I installed an artwork for a prominent social media influencer who ended up posting to her feed a picture of her living room that included my installation. I woke up the next morning with hundreds of additional followers and a barrage of messages asking about my work and where it could be bought. This eventually resulted in increased sales. It was this experience that helped me understand the power of social media.
Having a digital interface has allowed me to dedicate more time to the creation process than the marketing process. From 2005 to 2010, I worked to be present at every art fair and exhibition in Lebanon and Dubai to promote my work and gain peer recognition. Today, I tend to exhibit in select galleries in London and Singapore, and use Instagram as the main showcase of my work, and as the primary communication channel with agents and clients. And I am not alone.
To catch-up with the trend, even reputable art websites such as Artsy and Saatchi Art are offering guides on how to market art on social media. Tips range from identifying which hashtags to use and at which times to post, to the captions to write and the people to follow—all aimed at helping artist increase visibility and rise to fame.
One of the most successful examples of using social media as a trampoline to success was the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC), which opened its doors in 2016 in New York after months of online hype and anticipation. With more than 400,000 followers on Instagram, the museum became the “it” place to see and be seen, with hundreds of selfies posted each day alongside #museumoficecream. After a three-month wait for an $18 entry ticket, I had the chance to visit the museum’s Los Angeles location with my three children. All of us enjoyed the museum. While definitely not on the scale of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), with its 3.8 million Instagram followers and prestigious curation, the MOIC is part of a new generation of exhibition areas and art spaces that specifically target millennials as a desirable new audience. One of the gimmicks of the MOIC is that you are only allowed to spend three minutes in each gallery—enough time to take a quick selfie. And let’s face it, if it weren’t for social media and the buzz generated online, the New York MOIC would only have been visited by local students on field trips and curious locals. Instead—in less than a year—the MOIC has had over 500,000 visitors and has opened locations in Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco.
Social media not only assists with the promotion and sale of art, it has also begun to shape it. As Carolina Miranda wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2016: “The relationship between art and social media is a tricky one. The former is about pushing boundaries; the latter, enforcing them.” She goes on to argue that social media is “quietly shaping the way art is produced and shown.”
Social media often drives artists to worry more about accumulating likes and followers than creating beauty, sharing emotions, and raising voices via their art. While it has made it possible for many artists to have greater access to the world, it has also lowered the threshold to becoming recognized as an artist. Anyone can call themselves an artist on Instagram; no one can bestow the title upon them, or take it away. And while this means greater access to talented people, it also means that less-than-talented individuals are able to thrive and prosper. As the street artist Plastic Jesus pointedly preached in a 2013 slogan stenciled across the city of Los Angeles: Stop making stupid people famous.
Nayla Kai Saroufim is a Lebanese art director and illustrator. For a decade now, she has been engaging in creative expression through her work, which embodies her attraction to colors and interest in varied forms of expression, especially steel installations. You can see her work at: www.naylasaroufim.comlations.