Art is becoming increasingly wrapped up with digital technology. Whether it's from people and companies with a predominantly technological history, or from those that have come from art, resurgent coverage and attention on art, artists and galleries has come at a time when digital business opportunities are greater than ever.
Working and living at the Danielle Arnaud Gallery for 16 years, Raphaëlle Heaf knows a thing or two about the wider art world – artists, curation, exhibitions, and the nuances of the gallery space. Bringing this knowledge into a completely new context – the development of a social network and mobile application – requires perseverance, determination, and an understanding of what works – and what doesn't. While these qualities are shared with many other entrepreneurs, they may not have been so rigorously tested in art, where there are fewer online services and apps. Consequently, now is a great time for digital innovation within arts and culture.
Although Heaf has a firm grounding in art, she has not worked uniquely in the sector. Studying architecture at university gave her an opportunity to marry creativity with technology, something that she remembers with fondness – including the chance to play online games while waiting for work to render in the middle of the night.
It was one of her first undergraduate projects that became something of a reference point for her later work. Working as part of a project team for the the Forestry Commission in Dorset, she started to measure and record the attributes of a park, every 5 metres of so, adding small posts from marble as indicators. She had decided to use these points as markers to communicate the location of her fellow students' work within the park, and that the posts would interact with visitors through SMS. Eventually, a strategy behind the project was formed: to provide a way for park visitors to receive information on park installations through their own mobile devices.
After University came her first job with a structural engineering business, working on many one-off projects that again gave her the chance to combine rigorous scientific thinking and discipline, with the chance to be original and creative. Several years of working at the practice provided opportunities to let these attributes rub off into work, but her desires to improve its digital capabilities ultimately became frustrating. At the same time, Heaf was becoming increasingly convinced that she wanted to start her own venture, giving herself carte blanche in terms of what this might look like.
Hearing about Geeknrolla gave her the chance to try her hand at something more technological, and to look at the world of the tech entrepreneur more deeply. Unable to take the day off work to attend the 2010 event, she went to the afterparty, where chats with others led to the confirmation that this was something pursuing – although the idea had still not been formed. After Geeknrolla came Launch48, which gave her a platform to understand more about how a digital business could be formed, and how investment is sought and managed. The more commercial side was perhaps the least understood, as Heaf had always worked for businesses that were self-funded, and had quickly established a firm commercial footing without the need to exploit other models. This, clearly, is not how tech ventures work, where open minds in both the giver and the recipient of advice and investment are critical.
The idea of a location-based app came via Danielle Arnaud herself. As one of the curators at the Tatton Park Biennial, Heaf was struck by the lack of flexibility offered by a paper map. "So I thought - how can I make an app for that?" The final product, ArtSpotter, has come from the desire of Heaf to investigate the flourishing tech scene, while retaining her lifelong involvement with art, and particularly art galleries.
The aim of ArtSpotter is, one step at a time, to build an ecosystem for how people can interact with art, galleries, and artists. With the first version of the app delivered on Christmas Day and a full public version launching shortly, it comes at a time when media interest in artists and galleries is resurgent. The opening up of new galleries; the conversion of old shops into art spaces; the focus on new British artists, suggests that ArtSpotter might be coming along at a time when, for the public, there is more to see and interact with than ever before. "[ArtSpotter] has grown from an idea, to an app, to a social network. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion and to talk about art. The art world doesn't need to be closed off. There is something for everyone. It's about making it accessible, diverse, creating the opportunities for something to be there."
For galleries, the service allows them to understand visitor metrics with a richness that other media simply cannot offer. It is possible through ArtSpotter to tell a gallery owner how many people visited the gallery from their listing on the site, how many people stayed in the area to visit other galleries, how many returned to the gallery, and how many shared information about the exhibition on social networks. For smaller galleries, this data can be enormously rich in terms of planning, marketing, and even helping to plan for new sources of funding.
With the development of ArtSpotter came some serendipity. While working as a secretary, one of her bosses helped her with access to investors and to build a wider network. Meeting Joachim Krebs and Dave Stone in particular allowed her to find the right developers, and to deliver an API, a fully-functional website, and the full version of the mobile app.
It is clear that Heaf wants to see a new audience for galleries, arguing that while publications such as Artupdate certainly provide information, they are not immediately accessible to the more casual visitor. Recommendations through the API, published to Facebook and Twitter, are clearly more visible to more people, even if they have less of a depth of interest in art. It is very apparent to Heaf is the way that technology is starting to be used to support art and galleries, although she marks out the differences in her approach. "Google Art Project and ArtFinder are really helping to promote the access of the art world, just by their presence. But, they are working, top-down, with the big galleries and names. Also, I don't necessarily want to go into a museum, pick up my Iphone, and look at a piece of artwork through it. The whole experience for me is - that work, that relationship with it, and not interrupting it... not using technology as an alternative medium through which I need to view artwork to get extra information."
Speaking at conferences across Europe about a product now in its launch phase has come quickly for Heaf, with an idea borne out of an in interest and curiosity as to how technology could be applied to her artistic grounding. "It's a learning curve, I'm learning how to run a business, how to work with developers... I'm discovering this whole industry for myself. However, there's always something humbling when someone likes what you're doing. I can't wait for the moment when people are downloading the app, and you don't necessarily know who they are. That's an amazing moment. Something you've created, your baby for so long... it's really exciting when people are using it, and it's spreading."
Raphaëlle Heaf is the founder of ArtSpotter.