An Interview with Jessica Backus
by Jessica Backus
October 11, 2018
frank: One of the things that we're talking about is technology and how there are so many different ways art is moved online. Art is moved online through the public getting to create it, art is moved online through social media, art has moved online through companies like Artsy, who are providing access to people around the world in every sphere of the art world. And in other ways. Like, performance art going online. I mean, I could go on and on. When you hear this mammoth question, what are the first things you think of as the highest impact ways that people are seeing art online today?
Jessica: That's a good question. You have to think what does impact mean? And that's actually the critical question a lot of us who work in this field are working on now. Five years ago, pretty much anyone who was doing a start up, working in a museum, working in the arts, knew that access had to be front and center. That's shifted today because, by and large, we've increased access tremendously. Even five years ago a lot of museums didn't want to put their images online because they worried about things like copyright, which is definitely a valid concern and you have to understand what it meant to have art online and what the ramifications are for an artist copyright or the artist estate.
But they also thought that it would compete with in person visits. That's something where we've seen a sea change. Today, you have a lot of museums that have opened up their collections via open access APIs. An API is a big data stream that you can tap in and use to develop an app, or use for whatever purposes you want to. And that's been a huge shift, and I think that museums have been very much at the forefront there, also working with various academic institutions, and companies like Artsy. We're working to think about how we can make art—and information about that art—more accessible.
Now, that brings us to today. Where are we today and how do we define impact? I'm going to speak a little bit out of order here, but I think it's worth it to think about what that impact has been for access. A few ways to talk about that access is the fact that every major museum now has a website, they have images available—you can visit the museum website and see a million different objects in the museum’s collection. Other pieces of that impact are at Artsy, and you know, not even just saying this as a plug, but honestly we have something like one million art works published on our site. And those are works from galleries often, from the primary market, from auction houses, works that most people never would have seen before.
If a gallery in, say, Dubai has an exhibition, and I'm based in New York, how am I actually going to be able to see those works? How am I going to know what's happening? You can do that online today. That was not the case five years ago. Yes, there's always room for improvement in terms of access to the actual works that are being created and access to information about artists. Now the question is becoming a lot more nuanced.
Nobody really knows how we're going to measure that impact or what that really looks like.
I always like to say that availability is not the same as access. You can put something out there, but that doesn't mean that it's going to go into the world and do anything. The big question is how do we get that art actually moving? How do we get it actually moving in the world and moving people? I don't know the answer to that, but I think if we can start to see that impact in a way that many people look at art and they're moved by it, people know more about it, they feel comfortable talking about it, and that they can have a personal relationship with it, I think that's when we'll know that we've been able to actually have an impact on access.
I had this experience once, I was walking by a school looking at a piece of art, they must have been six or seven. And it was Starry Night. And every one of the kids was like, "wait, there's one? There's one Starry Night? I've seen it. What do you mean there's one?" Mind blown. Because they didn't understand, they couldn't understand that there's only one of these paintings in the world.
I think a lot about it. Is that piece of art, that image being available online, is that access, are they experiencing it? Does it matter how they're experiencing it? Does it matter that it's different online than in a museum? You have a really good distinction of what exactly access means. But how would you consider that in person, visceral, once in a lifetime, single painting feeling? Verus how it's put online.
There's nothing like that experience in the world. That in-person experience for the work of art is so unique and it's one of the unique things that we get to do as humans. I think Duchamp said that a work of art is a rendezvous. You are meeting a new thing. You're meeting a new being. And there's a person behind it that created it and this is like a snapshot in time of that person—or a snapshot over time, because it takes a long time to make a work of art.
I can speak passionately about why I love that experience and why I love art. I kind of feel that the closest thing to love money can buy is art. Honestly. When we experience people when we're in love, it's their whole being. It's their whole self. That's why vulnerability is so important in love. And if you're making a work of art, you're making yourself vulnerable as an artist. You're taking a snapshot of part of yourself. I'm not saying that art has to be biographical, I'm not saying it's about you. I don't believe that at all. I think as an artist you have to reach a lot higher and you have to reach out into the world around you to put something forward, but ultimately you're that distillation point through which this new work of art passes into the world.
Another metaphor I like to use about art, can I continue going on here?
Okay. This is a fun thought experiment. I cannot take credit for this because I read about it in a New Yorker article. But here's the thought experiment: imagine you're a superhero and you have lots of different powers and some of them require a greater level of energy. How would you rank these super powers? Turning something a different color, making it levitate, making it disappear or making it come into being? What's the hardest?
Come into being, levitate, disappear, change color.
That's what pretty much everyone says, right? I think a lot of us think of artists as those who change the colors of things, but really they're like superheroes who have this unique capacity of actually bringing something into being. That's the hardest thing there is to do. I think that those are all of the reasons why unique art objects and that experience we have with them are always going to be a part of our lives as humans. I don't think that having access to an impression of that via an online channel is ever going to replace that, but I also don't think that's the goal of many online sites or market places.
There's parallels with the way we live our lives online. You can FaceTime with someone, but it's not the same as seeing them in person, but you're still going to FaceTime with them. Online access to the arts is kind of that analogy.
I've heard many times that we used to go online to escape our lives.
Like, via Second Life?
Right. But now, we shut our phones off and we get offline, to escape our lives. I wonder if the availability of art online is almost having the opposite effect that museums worry about and it's driving people into the in person experience. You see that with magazines. Now there's a ton of festivals around magazines. Music festivals are doing well. More access to art is going to create more desire to see them in person or go to a museum.
Do you think there's a bright side to having so much imagery in the sense that maybe that makes that moment even more valuable?
Yeah. I'm actually trying to think, what is the downside to having so much imagery everywhere? Historically, when we talk about the downsides, it's a fear that it's going to detract from in person visits. Or that people are going to have access to images and recreate them, and so copyright infringement has been a fear.
In general, in media studies too, there's a fear that being saturated with images means that we can't take in our real lives.
I think if anything, here I want to draw on Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. If anything, that is something to be aware of, in that it is going to form how you interact with these images and there is great power in being able to contribute in the way that that access is created. I think that's undeniable.
Being able to see more art is always a good thing. I do think if you're a creator and your images are getting out there, obviously you want to know that whoever is creating the ecosystem for these images has your back. You want to know that it's going to be an even playing field. You want to know that you're going to be presented in the best light. All those things are important.
One of the big barriers for people to see art in person today is that a lot of them don't know where to start.
A lot of people don't know, for example, that you can go to so many different cities around the world and go into a gallery for free and look at art and nobody is going to bother you, you don't have to pay anything, you don't have to know anything about it, you can do that. The more familiar people can get with the concept of galleries where they are, what you do in a gallery, what kind of art you're going to see there, that familiarity is actually going to decrease those barriers to entry. To go out to a part of town that you maybe never knew before and actually feel confident walking into this foreign space and know that because you have that online connection to this offline world, you can feel comfortable in that.
You bring up an interesting intersection, galleries are for commerce, but in some ways, galleries are more accessible than museums, because most museums you pay for. When you're an artist that makes too much art, your value goes down. You want to be accessible but not too accessible when it comes to the market. How do you feel about the intersection of the commerce, gallery, auction world?
There's a lot there to unpack. It's funny because there's always been a market for art. I think that's a constant. And at the end of the day artists needs to sell their art to make a living. That's always existed. This is maybe a bit of a personal bias—I studied East German art history and see what happens when the arts are almost fully government funded. Obviously that's one extreme, but basically if you don't have a market for art, the question is, how else do artists survive?
Typically that meant governments support them. And that, of course, leads to a lot of censorship around art, a lot of ideas being clamped down on, and lack of artistic expression, at the same time a lot of artists could thrive and live financially from their works.
I think the market is a vital part of how art exists in the world today and it's not so much about this divide between the commercial side of the art world and the not-for-profit side of the art world that we should be making, but more a question of how do we improve the infrastructure across the entire art world so that the artists can survive? Because every part of the art world needs the other part. You need a market for artists to be able to sell their work and survive. You need museums for people to have access to art they might not otherwise have access to. You need to have curators who can work as art historians and keep that infrastructure up and running, and also look historically back at the past and make sense of the present moment in the context of the past.
And you need auction houses to ensure that there is the secondary market for art (if you purchase a work of art and you want to resell it, you typically resell that work at an auction house). It's similar to a secondary market for concert tickets. This is a very testy subject, but, if there is a strong secondary market for tickets, people are often more likely to purchase them in the first place because they know that there's a value attached to them that they can resell. The same goes for art. That's not to say people don't buy art out of love for their art. I think most people buy art that they love, that they've fallen in love with, or that moves them. But when you're shelling out sometimes thousands of dollars for a unique work of art, the more you know that it's also some sort of value, the likelier you are to also spend more.
I like to think of museums, auction houses, and galleries not as opposed to one another, though certainly frictions crop up, but they really all are supportive of one another.
Who do you wish could see more art?
Oh. I don't like to make proclamations about groups of people. I'm not a demographer.
Let me rephrase the question. What do you think would get more people to look at, be moved by, and have access to art?
This is a huge question. I wonder if any single person knows this. I'm a bottom up kind of person in that I think the people who are closest to these issues are on the ground: artists who are actually creating their art and want to be able to create more of it; artists who want to be able to survive from their art.
When we talk about people having more access to art anyone who is out there who feels like there is something lacking in their life, they're going to be part of the change too.
For me this question comes down to who are the change agents? The art world creates something like three million jobs, and the services that people working in the art market take advantage of creates an estimated additional few hundred thousand jobs. That's a lot of people! There's also a new generation of people coming up working in the arts today.
I do want to highlight, too: I think it's very much a privilege to be able to work in the arts. The barriers to entry are high. You need to have a good education. It's not the most meritocratic industry out there by any means. If it could be a more meritocratic system I think we'd be able to attract a more diverse pool of people who work in the arts. Not that I want to make assumptions about who those people are, or what it is that they want to do, what their goals will be with their own career path, and with the place that they want art to have in the world. But I do think that the trend in the world at large is for industries to become more diverse and for the people in those industries to look for more. To want to grow the industry that they're in and to want to open up access.
What do you love most about your job? And your job could be your job at Artsy or your job as an art historian.
Wow. You know it's funny that I've talked about art a lot this time, and I've talked about it as very close to being human, but I'm also like any other person. I think one of the big things that drives me and the work that I do and the company I'm at is the people I get to work with. That's true.
It's a truthful answer.
It is, yeah.