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Silicon Valley Is the Best and Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Art

When tech workers are considered the true “creative class,” artists don’t appear to win.
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(Illustration: Susie Cagle)

(Illustration: Susie Cagle)

It was supposed to be Uber for art. Get Art Up was heralded as “brilliantly simple”: a platform for renting out art to corporations and individuals that did not have either the funds or the proclivity to make a commitment to just one painting. But, as with so many of the stars of the sharing economy, Get Art Up apparently made its products “more accessible” to the public by not properly compensating its workers. After artist Jenny Odell wrote about Get Art Up obtaining and renting out her work without permission or payment, other artists came forward with similar stories of deception and theft.

Get Art Up did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In some ways the company is an outlier, but it’s also representative of Silicon Valley’s current confusion about art.

“You look at all the great industrial revolution money that came to support the arts in New York—that’s what’s happening in the Valley in a very strong way. It’s a modern day industrial revolution and it’s global.”

Traditionally, few artists are “full-stack”—most rely on galleries and agents to promote, display, and sell their work. These relationships can be symbiotic and fruitful, or terribly exploitative. Technology has provided some positive disruption to this arrangement, allowing artists to reach their audiences directly, if they’re so inclined and able. Online art marketplaces including 20 x 200, InPrnt, and Society 6 make it easy for artists to produce and sell prints and products to their fan bases. Crowdfunding platforms have expanded the age-old culture of patronage to include the middle class.

But the rich are still the top target in the art market by default: They have tremendous disposable income to spend on culture. Last year saw the debut of Art Silicon Valley, an international art festival with sponsors including Maserati and the Four Seasons. “The global industry of technology has so many synergies with art and it’s such a creative community that it only made sense to bring a high quality fair to Silicon Valley,” says Nick Korniloff, the festival’s founder and director. “We believe they will be the next great caretakers of the art market. You could talk about just the wealth and you need a certain level of affluence to collect art, but we think it’s beyond that.”

Korniloff points to growing corporate and individual collections across Silicon Valley, as well as more sustained investments in creative culture. “I’m not just speaking of buying art, but funding institutions and creating new platforms for the preservation of incredible works,” he says. Dozens of large tech companies—including Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and PayPal— have established artist-in-residence programs.

“You look at all the great industrial revolution money that came to support the arts in New York—that’s what’s happening in the Valley in a very strong way. It’s a modern-day industrial revolution and it’s global,” Korniloff says. “So what footprint are you going to leave as your legacy and how are you going to preserve your legacy? It always turns back to the arts.”

Indeed, patronage models and philanthropy tend to thrive in times of massive class disparities. The Medicis famously commissioned some of the greatest art of the 15th century, in no small part to polish their bad reputation as greedy bankers. Direct sponsorship of artistic work was generally how it was made until the rise of the middle class and public investment in arts institutions. The recent fall of the middle class suggests that kind of patronage could make something of a comeback—but only if the new rich value art. So far, this seems to be working well enough for the few artists in residence at large tech campuses and the international galleries that are represented at Art Silicon Valley.

But local Silicon Valley philanthropy is more laptops and STEM education than paints and color theory. The local artists who bear the higher living costs of Bay Area living are not reaping the rewards of that growing local wealth, and neither are the less wealthy who love art too. In fact, galleries and museums are being displaced by pricier rents. And when they do find success with small-scale patronage on online platforms, artists give up big fees to platform managers—very few of whom are creative workers themselves.

So long as the rich are rich, they’ll seek status; and so long as the less-rich are less-rich, they’ll seek survival through profits. Even if Get Art Up were the “accessible” fine art market it claimed to be, it would still not be a means of real income for creators. For that, artists might need to be less focused on their work, and more concerned about their business.

Large institutions might always devote a bit of their profits to supporting art, but patronage doesn’t provide for unemployment insurance. Collective, artist-owned platforms could keep profits and control under the stewardship of the actual creators and protect them from exploitative tech forces. A co-op start-up might seem unusual, but collective art galleries like City Art in San Francisco already do this in brick and mortar, sharing costs and proceeds among members. It might not be as glamorous as refusing to set a price for your art, but neither is chasing down a scammy start-up to try to get your paintings back.

The Crooked Valley is an illustrated series exploring the systems of privilege and inequality that perpetuate tech's culture of bad ideas.