Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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The most popular online museum, user generated content and social networking

January 21st, 2008 by Seb Chan

In preparing for some of my upcoming papers, presentations and workshop, I came across the Saatchi Gallery’s Stuart. Stuart is like a MySpace for artists – it even looks a little like MySpace complete with visual clutter and flashing text. Create a profile, upload some ‘art’ and connect with others.

Within the sector I hear a lot about Brooklyn Museum’s social networking initiatives and MOCA’s MySpace pages amongst others but rarely a peep about Saatchi. Rose Cardiff mentions Saatchi’s YourArt in her paper about YoungTate. She writes,

Possibly the most major concern for Tate was that a social site of this kind would lose its relevance to Tate and its youth programmes. Once the site was opened up to the general public to contribute content, there would be nothing to stop people uploading content that didn’t relate to Tate or art in any way; the site could become purely a socialising space rather than an art-related space. Or else the site could be in danger of simply becoming a space for people to promote their own art work without setting up any meaningful dialogue.

However, it might just be this kind of social space that is in demand. High demand.

According to Compete, the Saatchi Gallery gets almost double the US monthly traffic of teen social networking site Bebo.com and ten times the traffic of Twitter.com. (And it isn’t even an North American site, and it has a comparatively difficult URL.)

Saatchi’s YourArt which launched in late 2006 but the real action seems to occur when Stuart went live combined with Chinese-language access. Browse the thousands of artist profiles in the Saatchi userlist and a lot of Chinese-speakers are using the site.

Very rapidly Saatchi has captured a sizeable chunk of the youth audience, as well as filled the site with user generated content. It is quite remarkable. And all this user generated content and the patterns of its usage are extremely valuable as we have seen from recent controversies around Facebook.

Museums have even been champing at the bit to add their content to the Saatchi site via their ‘global gallery listing’ service. Here is the Met’s ‘page’ in the Saatchi directory, which sits surrounded by Saatchi’s own advertising content. What the Google effect of this might be is itself, interesting. (Here’s the Powerhouse profile for balance).

There are more direct means of revenue generation too. From the New York Times piece on the site from late 2006, early in its life,

With dealers and collectors scouring student shows for undiscovered talent and students hunting for dealers to represent them, Mr. Saatchi has tapped a vein that can’t stop gushing. If Stuart gains anything like the cachet of MySpace, it has the potential to morph from a nonprofit venture into a gold mine for Mr. Saatchi.

For now, he said, he is simply enjoying the role of spectator. “When I launched the site, I took the view that the best thing was to leave it alone for the first year and purposely not buy anything, because I didn’t want to compromise what the site was supposed to do: appeal to a wide group of students,” he said.

The Financial Times reports from October 2007,

A poll of 2000 of the 70,000 artists on the site estimated that Saatchi Online is now responsible for annualised art sales of $130m (£64m). The figure is extrapolated from the $88,000 sales reported by 500 respondents for a single week in September.

The news comes as several venture capitalists and investment bankers have been seeking to persuade Mr Saatchi to commercialise the free site, either by exploiting the heavy traffic it attracts through advertising, or by charging commission for purchases.

However, Mr Saatchi told the FT on Wednesday: ”I am not interested in taking any advertising on the site, or any kind of commercial participation in artists’ sales.”

The Saatchi ‘brand’ has certainly helped the site attract a particular audience very rapidly but its undeniable reach and usage should make us seriously reconsider many of our comparatively minor efforts. And, by tapping the Chinese market they are quickly staking a claim in an area that most other museums have not even considered.

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