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Natasha Arselan has spent the past month trawling UK art schools, a process she has described as “like running into Macy’s on Black Friday”. The resourceful 28-year-old is founder and chief executive of AucArt, a new online auction house connecting collectors with art school graduates.
“This is the busiest time of the year for us, as we are not only travelling the country seeing the degree shows in person but also gathering data. It’s intense but also very exciting, being on the front line witnessing the outflow of talent,” Arselan says.
Each auction on AucArt runs for a calendar month, with the number of works equal to the number of days in that month. If the reserve price is met, the work is available for five more days (the highest bidder wins the piece); there is also a “buy now” option. Works that are not sold during the live auction are available at a set price for three additional months in the “available work” archive. There is no buyer’s premium.
Arselan aims to create an ecosystem whereby artists are able to support themselves straight out of art school. Final year students or artists who have graduated in the past three years are invited to submit works, and artists receive over 50 per cent of the proceeds.
“AucArt gives many more people outside of the art world access to a selection of curated works of potential value before they inflate, and are out of reach,” she argues. Prices on the site range from around £250 to £6,000, and Arselan says that sales have been consistent since it launched in December. Three thousand collectors are currently on the company’s database.
The London-based collector Roland Cowan has bought work by the Slade School of Fine Art graduate Sonya Derviz from AucArt. He is impressed by Arselan’s venture. “With her business model, [she] is selling selected, filtered work in the primary market — ie artists’ first sales — and by doing so is creating a new market for graduating, mainly young, artists,” he says. Another collector says that navigating sites such as AucArt turns you into “a curator of sorts but you have to fine-tune your tastes”.
Cutting out the middle men — the gallerists — is bold. Does Arselan ever go head to head with dealers keen to sign up promising emerging names? Artists are poached, she says, but stresses that this is a “positive challenge” which demonstrates that the quality of the work is high.
A well-established method for collectors keen to purchase work by undiscovered talents is to attend art school degree shows themselves. “I go to see graduate shows and visit studios,” says the London-based collector Luo Yi. “It’s important to discover artists through their work, not on jpegs.” But AucArt arguably complements this process, providing access to a wider pool of talent than collectors may be able to find in person — especially since it features work by artists outside London.
AucArt does not only exist online, however. As part of a new partnership with Gazelli Art House in Mayfair, a recent graduate will be commissioned to create a work for the gallery façade this summer.
Other entrepreneurs have been testing this area of the market. For more than a decade, former art teacher Sarah Ryan has trawled art schools for the cream of the graduate crop. She founded the online platform NewBloodArt in 2004, offering works for sale priced between £175 and £10,000 (she takes 40 per cent commission on all sales, which is a lower rate than most traditional galleries). Browsing the NewBloodArt site brings up, for instance, the vibrant work of the young painter Isaac Aldridge — who graduates this year from Falmouth University — priced between £420-£1,400.
More established artists, known as New Blood Art Masters, also show their work on the website. “We tend to lose artists when physical galleries sign them,” Ryan says. “If we do continue to show them, their prices need to increase so there’s parity in pricing with their new gallery.” She has adapted the website over the past 14 years, responding to the changing demands of the online art market. One buyer suggested, for instance, that she start a section featuring investment tips.
“In terms of quality, work produced by some talented art graduates [is] arguably every bit as good as much of the art being sold in galleries, at exponentially higher prices,” Ryan says. For her, finding exceptional works at degree shows is still the driving force. “Scouting and curating is thrilling. There’s the buzz of coming across an extraordinary piece of work, perhaps in a show where much else is underwhelming.”