Empty Walls Got You Down? TurningArt Nabs $1.5M For Its Netflix-Style Art Rental Service

Over the last few years, a number of startups have begun to tackle the musty old industry that surrounds fine art. While approaches vary, they all in some way seek to capitalize on the Web’s ability to level the playing field, leveraging digital technologies to make art more accessible to a broader range of consumers. Paddle8, Artsy, Zazzle, and Art.com, for example, are all taking steps to democratize the purchase, discovery, and enjoyment of art by bringing it online.

In August 2010, Boston-based TurningArt launched its own unique spin on the democratization of art commerce with a Netflix-esque model that allows any and all to “rent” and enjoy contemporary art. To support its mission to transform the way people buy artwork, the startups is today announcing that it has raised $1.5 million in funding from a number of institutional and angel investors.

As a result of its new round, one of its angel investors, Fouad Elnaggar, who is currently an SVP at CBS Interactive (as well as a former VC at Redpoint Ventures) will be joining TurningArt’s board of directors. Elnaggar joins NextView Venture’s David Beisel, who was added to the board when his firm invested in TurningArt’s $750K seed round in May of last year. Niraj Shah, Steve Conine, Thomas Lehrman, David Aronchick, CEO of Hark, and Will Herman also contributed to the startup’s initial seed round.

While TurningArt declined to disclose further information about the participants in its latest financing, we do know that NextView re-upped its investment this time around and that angel investor Andy Rankin joined as a new investor.

All in all, with $2+ million in outside funding raised to date, TurningArt plans to build on the 350 percent increase in its customer base its’ found so far this year, using the capital to expand its artwork collection, build up its core team, and introduce a handful of new delivery options.

As to how it works: TurningArt partners with independent artists from across the country to allow consumers to test out (i.e. rent) prints of their original artwork, without having to commit to purchasing the piece, which in many cases would be far more expensive than one is willing (or able) to afford. For $10 a month, customers can search the startup’s repository of thousands of independent works, with the option to ship whenever a particular piece strikes their fancy.

The print arrives framed and ready to hang on the wall right out of the box (it even includes a nail) and users can keep the piece for as long as they’d like — although, admittedly, this sounds like the same policy that got Blockbuster into trouble with its late fees. However, as you show the piece off to your friends, loved ones, and cats, leaving it to hang on the wall, you earn credit towards a purchase.

If you don’t like the print, you can just head over to your Netflix-like queue and prompt TurningArt to send you the next piece on your list. What’s more, the startup’s handmade frames make switching prints easy — no tools are required.

Obviously, TurningArt’s value proposition is twofold. The thousands of consumers now using the startup’s platform have a simple way to discover cool contemporary art, test those artworks at home, live in 3-D, and then purchase the piece if they’re so inclined. However, on the flip side, the company has already attracted hundreds of artists for the simple reason that TurningArt provides them with an easy way to expose their work to a whole new set of customers — at no cost.

In addition, since all of the original works that the rentable prints represent are available for purchase directly through the startup’s site (prices for the works tend to frange from $50 to $5,000), artists have the opportunity not only to reach new customers and increase their own brand recognition, but to convert renters into buyers.

TurningArt gives the lion’s share of all sales to the artist, on top of a portion of the subscription revenue that comes from users “renting” their prints.

Going forward, the startup will look to introduce its platform to a broader segment of the $26 billion art market, iterate on its delivery options, and go after more high profile contemporary artists. While companies like Zazzle offer cool AR technologies that allow customers to customize and visualize their products online, the potential market for actual, in-home art test-driving has to be huge.

Applying a Netflix-style rental model to the ways by which consumers experience and purchase art is appealing, of course, it’s all about inventory. Scaling this distribution model, Netflix style, can be expensive, but it all comes back to quality. Too many steps in the process, or art that’s equivalent to something that can be found at Walmart likely won’t result in any significant customer retention.

What do you think?

Also: For readers interested in taking the service for a test drive, TurningArt is offering a TechCrunch sign-up code, which will give the first 100 people to follow this link to try their first month of TurningArt for free.