At the recent opening of Gallery.sg, there was art on the walls, an endless flow of wine and more than 100 guests in attendance. Except, one could not taste the wine and visitors to the gallery, open 24 hours a day, all wore similar pink outfits in the computer-simulated gallery.
Welcome to the brave new world of online art galleries.
Gallery.sg is a virtual art gallery built on a multi- player gaming platform by home-grown multimedia artist Eugene Soh. The site, which went live in the middle of this month, is the latest among a growing number of online art galleries based here that have launched recently.
Newcomers include Art Loft and The Artling, swish online art galleries cast in the mould of Internet retail sites, which specialise in fine art priced below US$10,000 (S$12,560). A fourth one, ArtBank, offers decorative art and made-to-order paintings.
For most online art gallery start-ups, the lucrative market is what makes them take the leap of faith into cyberspace.
In the latest online art market report released yesterday by British insurer Hiscox, which underwrites cover for fine art, global online art sales is projected to more than double to US$3.76 billion in the next five years.
The report, in conjunction with art market research company ArtTactic, estimates global online art sales last year to be worth US$1.57 billion or 2.4 per cent of the global art market with an estimated worth of US$65 billion.
Businesses hungry for a slice of the pie have been busy. In 2012, no fewer than 300 online art ventures were launched on the Internet, based on an art and finance report issued last year by global financial firm Deloitte and ArtTactic.
Even Internet retail giant Amazon has joined in the fray, launching a full-fledged fine art portal last year after first dipping its toes into the business with a pilot scheme that ran from 2000 to 2001 in partnership with auctioneer Sotheby's.
Here, online galleries have set up base as early as 2008. But many of these early players, no fewer than five, have shut down their sites or become inactive.
Artyii, which ran from 2010 to 2011, let artists upload their works on the site for sale. One of its founders, Mr Shannon Lim, 29, says the gallery drew a steady stream of buyers from Asia and the United States but the volume of sales was not as high as expected. "It was enough to break even but it would have taken two more years for the business to proliferate and we did not have the funds to keep it running," says Mr Lim, who is now a financial analyst.
For Ms Tolla Sloane, 35, founder and director of Give Art Space, its online retail site, which focused on art by emerging South-east Asian artists, was simply ahead of its time. It ran from 2009 to 2011, before South-east Asian art became a buzzword popularised in recent years by major art fairs such as Art Stage Singapore.
Ms Sloane says: "People weren't ready to just buy artwork by emerging South-east Asian artists online without further understanding the work, the artists and the region. As a result, I had to focus on nurturing artists, curating informative exhibitions and having conversations with new collectors and these personal interactions can't be replicated online."
The business now focuses on developing and curating cross-cultural art projects and shows that feature artists in the region and the United Kingdom.
But the allure of online art galleries persists, gallery owners, artists and art buyers tell Life!.
Online galleries are able to overcome barriers of space and time to reach a global audience of art lovers and buyers. And having no physical limitations on their online inventory, they offer a diverse range of works that make them convenient one-stop shops.
Their accessibility also makes them stand apart from physical galleries, which sometimes project an air of exclusivity and intimidate customers from stepping inside.
And as consumers become increasingly tech- savvy and accustomed to making purchases online at their convenience, the time seems ripe for the proliferation of online art retailers.
Ms Tian Qiuyan, 30, chief executive of Art Loft, says the "explosion of the online art market globally" was a key driver for its launch. Art Loft focuses on Asian art by emerging contemporary artists.
While fledgling online galleries here decline to give sales figures, they say they have been attracting buyers from as far afield as Europe and the US, places where art buyers and collectors have for many years been exposed to sophisticated cultures of art e-commerce including online art fairs and auctions.
As for veteran online player Contemporary Artisans Gallery, set up in 2009, between 80 and 100 pieces of its decorative oil paintings are sold a month, for upwards of $400 a piece.
The only newcomer that has not yet made a sale is Soh's virtual gallery, an outlier on the spectrum of online galleries based here.
For one thing, it simulates the environment of a brick-and-mortar gallery instead of laying out grids of works on a computer screen. The artworks it displays are also mostly not priced for sale.
For Soh, 27, the site, which cost an estimated $10,000 and three months to build, is primarily an experiment to push the boundaries of technology in art rather than fulfil e-commerce functions.
The idea for Gallery.sg grew out of the Web Art Movement project Soh began last January where he bought 56 single-word .sg domains such as good.sg and yellow.sg, and put them up for a free, one-year adoption by artists for creative use.
Fifteen artists, mostly Singaporeans, have each adopted a domain and Gallery.sg, which is among the domains Soh acquired, is used to host the creative output of the 15 artists.
Although unique, the presence of Gallery.sg underscores the varied, exciting landscape of art galleries in the digital age and it points to how the two models of galleries, online and offline, sometimes conflate.
The line between both blurs when online businesses partner physical galleries to sell works of art that the physical galleries stock.
Early adopters of this retail model include artnet, launched in Germany in 1998, and New York-based Artsy, which started in 2012.
Here, Art Loft and The Artling operate on a similar model, selling works by artists from galleries such as Galerie Steph in Keppel Road while also sourcing for works on their own.
The Artling's founder Talenia Phua Gajardo, 29, says working with physical galleries that are established and active "helps to give clients that extra confidence to make art purchases online". The works it carries from galleries, though, sell as well as the pieces listed directly from artists.
Brick-and-mortar galleries also benefit from such collaborations.
The Singapore Tyler Print Institute, for example, sells art through online galleries such as Artsy, artnet, Ocula (which has offices in Hong Kong, Sydney and Auckland) and The Artling because it expands its sales network and allows it to reach the different groups of audiences that each site attracts.
Explaining its strategy, the institute's head of communications Nor Jumaiyah, 33, says: "Artsy and artnet possess a strong international following, Ocula is making its presence known in the region and The Artling is a new channel to reach out to potential collectors."
She adds that these sites also generate their own marketing initiatives, including editorial write-ups on artists and their works, which further promote the art the institute stocks and sells.
For now, however, online galleries pose no threat to the offline version, and vice versa, because each has its own niche, say gallery operators.
The traditional art gallery continues to be relationship-driven, cultivating its base of collectors and buyers by offering expert knowledge and advice that is personalised to meet the individual tastes of clients and the needs of their art collections.
Online galleries, on the other hand, thrive when they have something for everyone so their primary focus remains building up a sizeable inventory to appeal to all tastes and types of buyers.
ArtBank's business development director Pamela Ting, 30, says it chose to be an online gallery because "most of our paintings are made to order, and an online platform allows an inexhaustible range and style for our customers to choose from".
The distinct modes of operation between online and offline galleries explain why Ms Stephanie Tham, 44, owner and director of Galerie Steph, which lists works with The Artling and Art Loft, has no plans to set up a sales portal on its website.
She says: "Websites like Art Loft and The Artling fill a gap for small- to medium-sized galleries in Singapore that do not hold a large and varied inventory to start their own online sales portals."
Their fundamental difference, though, has not stopped online galleries from aspiring to be more like their offline counterparts, particularly in providing a personal touch to the business.
Contemporary Artisans Gallery, for example, offers free art consultancy services. Its owner, Mr Imran Md Ali, 30, says: "I'm selling colours on a wall so I have to value-add. Customers who buy three or more paintings receive free consultations to help them pick out colours and genres that better suit the space where they hang."
Physical galleries, however, continue to have an edge over online galleries, at least until technology makes it possible to transmit the aura of a work of art when viewed in person.
Indeed, artist Jahan Loh, 37, continues to sell his paintings through physical galleries even though his prints retail on The Artling, because he believes the texture and dimension of his paintings can be fully appreciated only in person.
But he says: "I won't rule out selling my paintings online. It could happen one day, although I'm not too sure now how it would work."
Before technology makes the necessary strides, online galleries are trying to circumvent this problem creatively.
Art Loft allows customers to rent works before buying them. Its short-term art rental service costs as little as $20 a month and if customers decide to purchase the work later, part of the rental payment is credited to the final purchase price.
It also collaborates with retail partners who have physical stores to hold pop-up shops. Its latest tie-up features a display of works by Korea- born New Zealand artist Park Shin-young at the multi-label design store Foundry in Seah Street.
For art buyers who take the plunge and buy works online, they are often rewarded for their faith in purchases that they do not see at the point of checkout.
Wedding and corporate photographer Matthew Low, 30, who recently bought an acrylic pop-art style painting from ArtBank for his condominium apartment, says: "I buy speakers and cameras online all the time, so I am used to the risk of not seeing what I buy until I get it."
The seamless, convenient experience he had browsing and buying art online for the first time, however, has got him thinking about building an art collection through online acquisitions.
He says: "In the past, I would visit art galleries but few works caught my eye. I've realised that if you don't hit the right gallery or show, you may think you don't like art or that buying art is not for you. But there are many choices online and if there is anything I don't like, I can just skip it and scroll on. It doesn't take a lot of time or energy."
Will you buy art online? E-mail email@example.com
Where to go online
Art Loft (artloft.co)
What: Art lovers keen to discover emerging contemporary artists from Asia will have a field day browsing its database of about 500 works ranging from prints to photography, all priced under US$10,000 (S$12,560). They are sourced from galleries in Singapore, Myanmar, the Philippines and Japan and directly from artists.
The Artling (theartling.com)
What: Contemporary fine art from Asian artists and galleries is its speciality. Works, priced between US$150 and US$10,000, span a range of mediums from photography to painting and sculpture. Its partner galleries include Singapore's Space Cottonseed and Galerie Perrotin, with outposts in Paris, New York and Hong Kong. It stocks art by emerging and established artists, including acclaimed Indonesia-born Albert Yonathan Setyawan, who was picked to exhibit at last year's Venice Biennale in the Indonesian Pavilion.
What: Decorative paintings and sculptures for home and office interiors are its speciality. It offers both original works as well as reproductions of masterpieces with prices ranging from $100 to $1,000.
Contemporary Artisans Gallery (www.artisanpieces.com)
What: Decorative oil paintings sourced from the region, including Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand are its stock-in-trade, with pieces priced from upwards of $400. It also offers made-to-order paintings.
What: The virtual art gallery has a group show that runs till July 19 featuring works by 15 artists who adopted single-word .sg domains acquired by the site's founder, home-grown artist Eugene Soh. While most of the works listed are not priced for sale, some pieces are available, such as the matchbox dioramas by British artist Nicola Anthony, and may be purchased by contacting the artists directly.