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Online art market brings creations to the masses

The Web wipes the painter's palate clean, clearing the way for a new kind of art buyer--one that can sidestep dealers and steer closer to affordable art.

As a local artist, Lynne Sonenberg can't stand art galleries.

Instead she displays her work at venues such as weekend fairs and open-air shows. And--like an increasing number of artists--she shows her art on the Internet, which is bringing once-unknown works to the masses.

In the past year, art sites such as NextMonet.com, Paintingsdirect.com and Visualize.com have launched, selling everything from limited-edition prints and one-of-a-kind paintings to photography and poster art. Several sites actively commission artists and galleries to show works online, providing original art to anyone with a modem.

"The art gallery runs on such a different system of elitism," said Tom Burkhardt, a New York-based painter who primarily shows his work in galleries, but who also has posted select pieces on NextMonet.

"Like the stock market, an artist's work can go up in value based on perceptions. The market is built on rarefied things that are often cultivated on mystique," he said.

The Web wipes the painter's palate clean, clearing the way for a new kind of art buyer--one that can sidestep dealers and steer closer to affordable art.

Through sites such as Visualize, novice art buyers can learn about art and buy without the notoriously intimidating experience of visiting galleries or going to auctions. Instead of looking through several galleries just to find something they like, buyers can shop around on the Web.

"God bless (the Web and) anything you can do to put art in the hands of the people," said Gil Edelson, administrative vice president of the Art Dealers Association of America, which represents 140 dealers and galleries nationwide.

The artists benefit as well. A print of Sonenberg's "Essential Posies," a bright brushwork of flowers, has sold more than 130 times on Visualize, a San Francisco-based start-up.

Not all of these sites offer original art; many focus on poster art or prints of famous works. Overall, the online art market has the potential to be highly lucrative, with estimates swinging from $4 billion to $25 billion in annual sales.

But the notion of buying original art online isn't for everyone.

"People who are serious collectors would never buy something they hadn't seen," said Sarah McKenzie, a painter and art teacher in Colorado. "I don't think emerging artists are selling art on the Web sight unseen."

Instead, companies such as Visualize hope to be the Pottery Barn of the art world--selling high-quality limited edition prints for between $100 and $1,100 to people who care more about color, style and how the art suits their homes than the artist's name and reputation.

"We're democratizing the art market," said Abby Adlerman, Visualize chief executive. "Up until now people haven't had a convenient, friendly, easy way to get in the art market."

Visualize and NextMonet educate would-be buyers with online magazines and art glossaries. Visualize also publishes a quarterly catalog that draws two-thirds of the company's customers.

Many in the art world agree that the Internet is good way to buy art with which someone is already familiar. A collector of Jasper Johns' originals, for example, could find his work through the Web.

For many artists, the Net is still a blank canvas. Some are for it, looking for exposure, while others are more private about their work. It doesn't seem to be launching anyone's career yet, said Nick Lawrence, an owner of galleries in New York and Massachusetts.

"But it all helps--anywhere an artist can sell their work is helpful to their career and in turn to us," he added.

Venture capitalists are drawn to the industry's worth and high margins. Art sites, like galleries or dealers, pull 50 percent to 80 percent commission on a sale.

Visualize has raised $7 million from Venture Strategies and plans to close a second round of funding in the next two months.

In Sonenberg's case, the Internet can often be the breadcrumb trail leading back to the artist's original work.

"Somebody saw my work on his friend's computer, found me, came to my studio, and bought an original work," she said. "It leads people to my original work, and for people who want prints, they have Visualize."