Two Years In Coming, Art.sy Finally Brings Pandora’s Genome Project To The Wacky World Of Art

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At TechCrunch Disrupt NYC in May 2010, a young startup named Art.sy took home the “Rookie Disruptor Award” for its art-focused search engine, which allowed users to find art by style, category, size, color, and more. Art.sy also tapped into users’ social graphs to offer personalized recommendations to make art discovery a little less overwhelming.

The idea caught the attention of investors, and over the next year-and-a-half, Art.sy raised $7.25 million in two rounds from the likes of Eric Schmidt, Jack Dorsey, Keith Rabois, David Tisch, Charlie Cheever, Dave Morin, Peter Thiel, Josh Kushner’s Thrive Capital, Wendi Murdoch, and Dasha Zhukova.

This week, after two years of development and beta testing, Art.sy finally opened its doors to the public and announced its partnership with over 50 art museums, estates, non-profit institutions and more than 275 art galleries. The result is a free platform that allows users to discover, learn about and peruse digital reproductions of over 20K works of art provided by Art.sy’s roster of partners.

Just as Pandora has done for music and Netflix has done for movies, Art.sy is on a mission to not only help digitize art, but give people a trusted resource for discovering artwork based on their personal preferences. The startup aims to take advantage of how image-centric our digital consumption and presentation has become, thanks to Tumblr, Pinterest, Behance, Instagram, etc.

Art.sy Founder and CEO Carter Cleveland has said before that the startup’s goal is to make the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. In order to educate and expose people to new art, Art.sy itself has had to spend the better part of two years developing a taxonomy system that will help its own understanding of the nuances and trends in art.

The result is Art.sy’s “Art Genome Project,” which borrows both its name and inspiration from Pandora’s Music Genome Project, and provides the startup with a reference system by which to analyze and label commonalities and contrasts between different works of art. When Will Glaser and Tim Westergren first conceived of Pandora, they knew that they would need to develop an almost scientific method by which to break down music into its essential features.

The idea was not to be reductive, but instead to be more granular and rigorous in their classification of musical types, going beyond the handful of genres used by terrestrial radio to identify music. The idea was to use this rigorous analysis to provide results that are fine-tuned to listeners’ preferences.

Art.sy’s conception is much the same. Using its algorithmically identified art “genotypes,” the startup offers a more refined search mechanism for artwork than you’re likely to find anywhere else on the web, with the ability to break down discovery based on particular colors, patterns, schemes, and even sensations.

To this last point, like Pandora, Art.sy employs a dedicated team of data scientists and art historians that add that level of human touch (and interpretation) to its machine-based deconstruction, which manually assigns values to each piece of art based on categories. Technology can only do so much. In the end it’s up to humans to decide how much a particular painting is representative of Impressionism — or any other genre. (And it’s worth mentioning here that, according to the New York Times, Pandora CEO Joe Kennedy has previously served as a consultant to Art.sy, so it’s not as if the startup is doing all this behind its elder’s back.)

On the front end, all this complex backend gymnastics comes together in a fairly straightforward user experience. Users search based on geography, trends and styles, and clicking on results takes you to the artwork’s page where you can view descriptions, context, artist’s bios, etc. After choosing your favorite pieces of art, Art.sy starts populating your feed with personalized recommendations in a way that’s reminiscent of Netflix’s “If you like this movie, then you’ll love this movie.”

You can then sift through filtered results to find stuff you like, and if a particular piece is for sale, you can click to find more info and get connected with a broker. Of course, the artwork in Art.sy’s collection is definitely high-end, so the site isn’t going to be a destination for you to find affordable artwork to hang on the walls of your dorm room or apartment. (Ironically, Cleveland founded Art.sy after being unable to find art to hang on the walls of his own dorm room.)

For affordable, poster-type art, you’ll probably have better luck at TurningArt, Art.com, Zazzle, or many of the others in this space. And to that point, writ large, Art.sy has plenty of competition in the lets-digitize-art-and-educate-people-while-we-do-it movement — Paddle8, for example, has the same goal in mind. Educating the unwashed masses (like myself) on the finer things in life is a mission we can all get behind. Just as Google aimed to democratize knowledge and information, Art.sy is trying to do the same for art.

The other area that needs improvement is content. While Netflix-ifying art is awesome, it’s not too far into the Art.sy search experience that one starts to feel the limitations of its catalog. As the New York Times pointed out, the Google Art Project (itself an image-based art collection) is double the size of Art.sy.

That’s an easier problem to fix than a business model, and I’m not totally sure how the startup will monetize its model, even if it does continue to scale based on the pleasure we take in its serendipitous connections and edification factor. (Prior to launch, Art.sy had 60K registered users, 100K invitation requests and 50 million artwork impressions in 170 countries, so it’s off to a good start.)

Perhaps it can follow Google, Netflix or Pandora’s leads toward monetization, or strike out on its own. The pressure to define that approach will grow, but for now it’s just awesome to see a Disrupt alum attacking such a daunting goal. Applying the Pandora formula to art may not work, or sit well with the notoriously offline and discerning tastes of the art industry, but it’s an important experiment — and one that could help develop our inner art critics.

Meanwhile, I’ll be working on my finger paintings.

More on Art.sy at home here.

Top Photo by Crosstemporal