With direct art sales from websites at an all-time high, recently there has been a sea change in the way people are discovering and buying art. The art world has been one of the last creative industries to make the move online, but many art businesses have now cottoned onto the fact that building a reputation in the digital world is needed to stay afloat.

The past couple of years have seen enormous investment in online art sales platforms which today are worth around €2.5 billion. It has even been estimated that this could total €10 billion by 2020, which would mean growing at a break-necking speed of 25% a year.

With this in mind, it is more important than ever for galleries, dealers and artists to think about using their web presence as a means to selling their art. Many first-time collectors probably will find it less intimidating buying art online, and there are huge advantages in being able to find artwork on the internet you would never come across in a gallery. What’s more, since sites selling art online are unencumbered by the four walls of a traditional gallery or auction house, they can also make their commissions lower and the whole business of buying art much cheaper and more accessible. Some might even say more fun.

More online art also means artists can reach infinitely wider audiences, increasing their chances of successful careers. Twenty years ago they would have had to rely on the good faith of a dealer and his network, if they could find one at all. Today they have a direct route to market that bypasses all of that.
New online portals seem to be springing up all the time. The advent of Amazon Art prompted Ebay to launch a rival platform. Christie’s increased their number of online-only auctions from seven in 2012 to 49 in 2013. Even large contemporary galleries are beginning to sell smaller works and limited editions online, with Gagosian offering a “click and buy” option and Hauser & Wirth setting up a shop webpage, which redirects you to a conventional gallery hotline.

The general consensus is that the rest of the art world needs to follow suit. There has often been a ‘wait and see’ approach as galleries follow what their peers are doing. But a reluctance to invest in new IT systems, equipment and web development is now seen to damage sales directly as well as undermine credibility. Technology has changed, of course, but it is the expectations of collectors that are driving a lot of the change. To a collector who does a lot of work and shopping on an iPad, a gallery with even a four-year-old website can seem outdated. Being old-fashioned may have its charms but it also indicates to some collectors that a business does not understand their needs and encourages them to interact with galleries that can communicate more effectively. Galleries not reaching out are missing out.

Not seeing the physical object remains the biggest hurdle to buying a piece of art online, and many feel that the gallery experience can never be replaced. Condition reports and certificates of authenticity are likely to become the norm for all art sold online above a certain price but 3D images and high-res zooms will probably make this less of a concern in the future. Even if galleries would rather not sell directly online, in this day and age it’s clear that a website is the most important promotional tool they possess. Using a good web developer should be just as important as courting a major collector. He or she can make the difference from a quick one-click look, to a repeat visit and potentially, a sale. For example, panoramic tours, super high-res images, informative and educational content, active engagement with social media platforms; all these aspects can and should be incorporated into a website design.

Above all, the internet offers the visual art market great scope for growth and change. Nothing will replace the feeling of standing in front of a piece of art in a gallery, but an understanding and an appreciation of new technology available, as well as changing expectations of collectors, will allow the art industry to thrive in the current digital revolution.