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The art of the Internet

One frame may not fit all

By Porter Anderson

As Leslie Cohen focuses on the more traditional art galleries for her work, Jeff Cohen has become a leading artist on eBay.
Arts (general)
eBay Incorporated

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- She has just signed with one of the Southeast's major art galleries. He just finished an $8,000 month on the Internet.

Artists Jeff and Leslie Cohen share a studio, a home in Marietta, Georgia, their kids Spencer and Emily, and fast-growing status among collectors of contemporary American work.

Their venues and the strategies behind them, however, are as different as their canvases.

Together, wife and husband have explored an online art market still in a promising but uncertain infancy. Jeff has been formally recognized by his peers on eBay as Best All Around Artist, a leader in hanging wares on the auction site's digital walls. Leslie says her message-driven approach looks better under the halogens of a bricks-and-mortar showroom.

But these former graphic artists will tell you that neither traditional galleries nor the humming halls of the Internet offer the perfect answer for fine art.

"At a gallery," says Leslie Cohen, "the artist is the product. The gallery wants plenty of pieces. And it wants similar pieces. The gallery wants consistency in its product, the artist."

"Online," Jeff Cohen says, "if all your pieces look the same, collectors will buy one and move on. I never, ever paint the same thing twice."

Leslie has just been added to the artists' roster at Mason Murer Fine Art, based in Atlanta and Lake Oconee, Georgia. When the 24,000-square-foot flagship facility in Atlanta holds a reception Friday for a new exhibition, she'll be represented by some of the monumental-size figurative work she has produced during the winter. The largest, "Male Figure in Thought," is a salon-commanding eight feet wide and six feet tall.

Jeff this week is offering collectors on eBay the latest entries in his "Fragments" series, each comprising as many as 70 paintings-within-paintings to produce a larger image. He also is listing still-life work, an entry in his whimsical "Robot Guy" series, and the gleaming "Modular Nut and Bolt," a painting that can be joined to other modular works.

Leslie Cohen's works start at around $500 and run to $8,500. Jeff sets his prices in the $250 to $1,250 range. And price point is a good place to start in looking at the differences of art dealing in cyberspace and at your local art gallery: Notice who's setting those prices.

Rules of the road

eBay classifies Jeff Cohen and his cohorts as "self-representing artists," and this week lists more than 7,000 original works offered by them at auction.

When an artist joins this crowd -- as Jeff Cohen did five years ago this month -- and lists a watercolor or an oil or an acrylic painting; a sculpture, a drawing, a mosaic; an object in glass or metal or ceramics, that artist sets the price.

"I sold my first painting on eBay for $4.75," Jeff says. "On eBay, you don't have to have a lot of money to own original artwork. There are bidders who will get onto the site and bid on every single painting I put up. And sometimes the result is the joy of the lower-end buyer, folks who are thrilled when no one outbids them. They tell me they can't believe they've got a painting they wanted."

On the other hand, getting good gallery representation can double your prices. Generally, the house will take 50 percent of a sale as its commission. And it wants new pieces always on hand to replace anything that sells. There's no chance for a "This seller is not currently offering any items for sale" note as there is on eBay.

"When I first hung my work years ago at Heaven Blue Rose," an artists' collective gallery in Roswell, Georgia, "I sold four or five pieces in the first week. I didn't have the inventory to replace them," Leslie says.

A gallery handles a lot of details that can take artists away from easels, such as handling and shipping of sold works. eBay artists, by contrast, must ship out their works to buyers and maintain online listings and transactions.

"Sara," excerpted here, is one of Jeff Cohen's "Fragments" series. This one, 24-inches square, is 36 small paintings mounted on a box.

"And every painting I put up," Jeff says, "I spend $20 to make it a featured listing." eBay's listing-upgrades page offers sellers featured-area listings for $19.95, saying that on average, such an expenditure may increase bids by some 65 percent.

Gallery artists have business responsibilities, too, however, and not just in terms of inventory. Leslie Cohen is represented not only by Mason Murer, but also by BeOriginal, another Atlanta-based artists' collective gallery. She's in line for new representation this spring with Artsonian, a gallery in Miami, and she's putting out feelers in Chicago and Birmingham, Alabama.

Jeff, on the other hand, has sold to collectors in the United States and Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Venezuela, Taiwan, Australia, Switzerland and, just this past weekend, the Netherlands, all from home. He's talking with potential buyers in Italy and Belgium.

The talking with collectors is important, he says. "One of the great things about eBay is you're in touch with your collectors. Direct contact."

"Still, a lot of people don't take eBay seriously" as a legitimate place to buy art, Leslie says. "We have an artist friend who was at a Los Angeles seminar on marketing art and he was told, 'If you want to be taken seriously, get off eBay.' He then told them that he'd made $150,000 in art on eBay last year. He was immediately told, 'Keep doing what you're doing.'"

"And in talking to other artists at Mason Murer" where Leslie's work is hanging and Jeff says he'd like to be represented someday, himself, he adds, "they've been asking me how to get onto eBay."

View from the galleries

Ruth Robertson is both an artist and a dealer. Her "Medieval Magdalend c. 2003" is a work of mixed media on an 1890 French manuscript page.

Washington area art dealer Ruth Robertson says she found that "my bricks-and-mortar gallery (District West Fine Art) did so well online that I closed it in May 2004 to open Ruth Robertson Fine Art" on the Net. "We do one or two 'salons' per year for a selected artist an an exclusive group of collectors. The rest of our sales are online.

"I look for the next blue-chip artist to come from the Internet as opposed to the gallery system."

Joanna Fink, on the other hand, isn't yet ready to sell the farm. She's a co-owner of Alpha Gallery in Boston and a founding member of the Boston Art Dealers Association. "The Internet for us is definitely a useful tool," she says, "but the vast majority of our sales are not online. Collectors use my site as a reference tool."

Robertson and Fink agree with the basic characterizations the Cohens see in the nature of gallery and online representation.

"I agree with Jeff completely," Robertson says. "Self-representing artists online can work in different styles without having to worry whether it pleases the gallery."

And Fink understands what Leslie Cohen is saying about a gallery's need for inventory and consistency: "It's hard to sell what you don't have, isn't it?" she says. "A gallery likes an artist committed to a certain vision and working clearly and consistency within that vision."

The right fit

"Modest Mary," a detail of which is seen here, is a new work by Leslie Cohen to be shown in an April show at BeOriginal Arts Alliance in Atlanta.

"I'm based in galleries in part because if you call what I do postmodernism, nobody on eBay is searching for that," says Leslie. "eBay does well for traditional work and people who collect it."

Her figurative studies start with dozens of photographs of models she takes under carefully controlled lighting. She then manipulates her photos electronically to get a sketch, which she paints in oils on handmade Thai papers. The paintings are soaked and mounted on canvases or wooden boxes she builds herself, then given a UV-protective varnish and finally coated with beeswax.

"I wanted to work big," Leslie says. "To work on eBay, always in a shippable size, just wasn't where I wanted to stay."

"I'd given up my idea of being a fine artist," Jeff says, having wanted to paint since he was 5. "The Internet, eBay, made this possible."

"In the online world," Jeff says, "the aesthetic is king. Your painting had better look good at the thumbnail size" image applied to eBay's listings. "

"And those thumbnails aren't good for my work," Leslie says. "That's about impact. Jeff has the variety for the Internet market and that's just not my thing. I have something I want to say and a way to say it. That's good in galleries, not online."

So the conversation continues, the Cohens sharing and refining their understandings of their needs to satisfy their artistic drives, their collectors and the old and newer markets in which they move.

As Leslie puts it, though, the bottom line isn't flexible for either of them. "An artist has to be a business person," she says, "whether you're in galleries or online."

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