There May Be Money in Internet Art After All

New York Times, 13th of May 1999

Teo Spiller closed a deal this week, and digital artists everywhere may be enriched by his experience.

Spiller, an artist in Ljubljana, Slovenia, will pocket about $500 for “Megatronix,” a work of Web art that the Mestna Galerija, Ljubljana’s municipal gallery, has just agreed to acquire. Negotiations for the sale were conducted openly on the Web, and the outcome was announced Wednesday at a computer-arts festival in the Slovenian city of Maribor, which celebrated Slovenia’s thriving Net art scene.

“Megatronix” is among the first pieces of Internet art to be sold to a museum or collector, and the public nature of the transaction may help establish pricing in this nascent segment of the art market.

The sale also comes amid a slew of new attempts to determine how digital artists might be compensated for creating online works that, unlike traditional art objects, tend to be continuously changing, widely accessible and easy to duplicate.

At the CyberArt99 symposium held last Sunday in New York, Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, proposed a scenario that would involve paying royalties to digital artists displaying their pieces on a subscription-only site.

Soon after, Ciaran Doyle, director of Intel Productions, suggested that it would be possible to sell digital works through his division’s new venture, just as one might download a song from a music-industry site.

Starting this week, two online projects are trying yet another approach: a Web version of cable television’s pay-per-view model. At, visitors who pay a $5 fee via credit card will be granted two weeks’ access to “skinonskinonskin,” an interactive work by two of the private site’s members. And at BindiGirl, a Web-based project by the New York artist Prema Murthy, the artist is charging people $3 a month to view online videos of the weekly live performances she is doing to supplement the work.

One method of selling digital art that has not succeeded — so far — is the online auction. Wolfgang Staehle, executive director of The Thing, an arts-oriented bulletin board, recently used the popular eBay auction site in an effort to sell an archived area of The Thing featuring a number of Web-based art projects. But when the auction ended April 30, the top bid of $1,125 was far less than the reserve price of $45,000, so there was no sale. Staehle said he is now negotiating with a potential buyer.

The financial rewards of the booming Web economy have yet to trickle down to digital artists, most of whom are still performing labors of love or picking up the occasional institutional commission. So it will be fascinating to see which, if any, of these new funding models will prevail.

Spiller’s sale of “Megatronix” most closely resembles the typical art-world transaction, but with some digital-era conditions attached. For example, Spiller must keep the site up to date technically, and the gallery is required to host the project on its Web site. The gallery is also permitted to place an advertisement on the opening page of “Megatronix,” with a revenuesharing plan still to be negotiated.

The deal was hashed out over the past month in a public discussion forum on Spiller’s site involving a panel of experts. Issues included whether Spiller would benefit from future reproductions of the work. He will, although that condition resulted in a reduced selling price. Last week, he estimated that an outright sale of the project would earn him at least $3,500.

The game-like “Megatronix” has links to images submitted by other online artists, but Spiller said they would not receive any of his $500 fee. “That would be a problem,” he conceded in a telephone interview last week. “If I got a hundred new participants, then I would have to pay more than I get.”

But the complications of selling a work that is not a stand-alone piece makes Spiller’s project all the more interesting, said Brain Goldfarb, a forum participant who teaches computer art at the University of Rochester.

“He’s trying to close the deal,” Goldfarb said last week, “but he’s also trying to show the problems with it, and I think that’s why his project is so valuable.”

At Sunday’s symposium, the Whitney’s Anderson said the Art Museum Image Consortium, which he founded, might offer another model for generating revenue from digital art.

AMICO, which is scheduled to open in July, is a not-for-profit venture that will give educational institutions and other subscribers access to a huge database of art reproductions. In return for the rights to display some copyrighted images, AMICO will make small royalty payments to artists-rights organizations.

be made with a consortium of digital artists, which would then allow their works to be shown on the AMICO site. However, no such consortium currently exists, and Anderson ruled out deals with individual artists.

Intel’s Doyle put forth the idea that Internet-based art might someday be downloaded for a fee from, the company’s new site for online versions of museum shows like the Whitney’s current “American Century” show.

Doyle refuted the notion that buyers would insist on owning original work, pointing out that music purchasers are perfectly pleased to possess a copy of a hit recording. “I’ll be able to have the work of the next digital Picasso on my desktop,” he said.

Anderson’s and Doyle’s proposals were purely speculative, so the size of payments was not discussed. But fees are central to the pay-per-view programs that and Murthy are launching this week.

Kenneth Aronson, the founder of, said the $5-fortwo-weeks plan for Michael Samyn’s and Auriea Harvey’s “skinonskinonskin” will remain in force until June 1, when the fee will rise to $7.50 and the time period will drop to two days. He is also negotiating with potential sponsors, who would share revenues with’s members.

“Because it’s very complicated, I don’t expect the attendance to be very great,” Aronson said. But he is projecting that 20,000 visitors will pay to explore the site.

Murthy, who will also sell “BindiGirl” souvenirs like limited-edition digital prints and underwear, said, “I’m kind of ripping off the model of a porn site.”

At Sunday’s symposium, Martha Wilson, founder of the New York performance-art mecca Franklin Furnace, which now Webcasts its events, said, “Art does not have the same draw as [the boxer] Evander Holyfield, and thus pay per view is doomed.”

Aronson’s rejoinder: “We’re not presenting art; we’re presenting experience.” He noted that the average time spent by visitors at an earlier, free exhibition was 90 minutes.

Steve Dietz, director of new-media initiatives at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, said: “If we think of Net art as art, then we should be able to support it. If that’s not happening, then what is the problem?”

A few more “done deals” like Teo Spiller’s, and there may not be a problem.

Matthew Mirapaul, New York Times, May, 13th, 1999