A big idea, from a Somerville entrepreneur
By Ilan Mochari
Let’s get this out of the way first: TurningArt (turningart.com), the startup launched in August by Somerville resident Jason Gracilieri, is not quite Netflix for paintings.
Netflix charges subscribers a monthly fee to rent DVDs of movies or TV shows. DVDs arrive in the mail; subscribers mail them back to Netflix whenever they want. There is no charge for shipping. Subscribers determine which DVDs they will next receive by managing an online queue of available titles. Through its convenient delivery methods and absence of due dates, Netflix has rendered video stores nearly obsolete, netting nearly 17 million subscribers and more than $2 billion in annual sales. So how, exactly, is a young enterprise like TurningArt, with its five employees at 359 Green St in Cambridge, comparable to the Netflix behemoth?
The customer experience is similar. Instead of rotating DVDs, TurningArt subscribers rotate framed 12×16 prints of original artwork. As with Netflix, subscribers manage an online queue and all shipping is free. In addition, TurningArt’s monthly subscription rates ($9.99-$19.99) are in the same ballpark as Netflix’s ($7.99-$9.99). One key difference: TurningArt will ship your new print before you return the old one – ensuring that you never have a house with an empty frame.
Another difference: With TurningArt, every dollar a subscriber spends becomes a credit toward the purchase of an original painting. So, if you’re on the $19.99 plan for three months, you’ll earn nearly $60 toward the purchase of any TurningArt painting. (Paintings range from $500-$5000.)
Providing a path for purchasing originals is a large part of what Gracilieri, 33, wants to do. From his perspective, there are three main reasons people don’t ante up to buy art: the high price, the time and effort required to find a worthy piece, and a self-perceived lack of knowledge about art and what it means. TurningArt’s business model – allowing subscribers to affordably keep framed prints in their homes for months – addresses the first two reasons. And several features of TurningArt.com – its curating of paintings, its tabbed browsing by style and medium – address the third. “A lot of people talk about us as Netflix for art, but we think we can do for art what was done for wine – democratize this previously inaccessible luxury good,” says Gracilieri, who lives near Porter Square with his wife Julie and their 8-month-old daughter.
But in Somerville, at least, original art is far from inaccessible and a long way from luxury. “There are very good affordable outlets for original artwork, not least of which is the Somerville Open Studios (SOS) event,” notes Somerville artist Beth Driscoll. “We make an effort at the little house studios to have an accessible range of prices for SOS, so people can walk away with a hand-screened print for $20. I get feedback from people that they come back to our studio annually specifically for that reason.”
Indeed, there’s a reason art buyers have traditionally relied on galleries and studios: It is a risky business to purchase artwork before physically inspecting it. For this reason, Gracilieri is aiming to establish concentrations of artists in metro areas. So while it may still be farfetched for a TurningArt customer in Utah to inspect the painting of a New York City artist, at least the New York subscribers won’t have too far to travel. Gracilieri also wants to provide subscribers with more ways to get an accurate look at paintings online. “We’d like to show more snapshots ‘in the wild’ – showing how the piece looks on the wall, and even doing videos of artists working in the studio. We want to do as much as you can do via the Net to bring a piece to life,” he says.
How is TurningArt doing so far? Gracilieri won’t reveal how many subscribers he has. He says he’s sold one painting so far, and is in the process of selling three more. He has yet to take on outside investors – he bootstrapped his three previous startups – but he’s “been talking to a lot of people for a while.” He sees the “wall art to core market” as a $40 billion space in which TurningArt can occupy a fruitful niche: the huge netherworld between affordable, mass-reproduced prints and pricey, auction-fetching originals.
Would the world of corporate art be receptive to an online art-rotation service? Scout posed the question to Alexander Glauber, whose business, Corporate Art Solutions, rents artwork for six-month periods with an option to buy. Glauber appreciates the scalability of TurningArt, but believes that dealing with prints “goes against what I try to promote, which is a carefully tailored content and installation, which can be leveraged by companies for the purpose of external relations with clients.”
All told, there are 75 artists in the TurningArt stable. The Somerville contingent includes Pauline Lim of Brickbottom (1 Fitchburg St) and Antonietta Kies of Ball Square. For the most part, the artists support the TurningArt cause, but there are quibbles. Lim wishes artists would receive residual payments based on how frequently their prints get shipped out to subscribers. She has also struggled trying to gauge how the colors and textures of her paintings will show up in print form. “Having to shoot a high megapixel picture with perfect light and color balance – it’s not that fun,” she says. “I’d rather be painting.”