Smartphone Exhibitions: Why Galleries are Taking their Art to Instagram

A picture of a wide-eyed, wet pomeranian peering out of a bathtub holds more power than you’d think. When Kathy Grayson, owner of New York gallery The Hole, posted a photo of her suds-soaked dog, Bertie, to her Instagram account, she did more than share a cute puppy picture.

“Everybody loves pomeranians—or I assume they do—and everyone loves wet pomeranians, so posting a photo of Bert in the bath oddly helped promote our summer show,” Grayson says. “I would be way better served to get collectors to remember me, remember The Hole, remember my summer show by posting my wet puppy than an install view. Know what I mean?” 

Grayson joined the app after a conversation with Jesper Elg, owner of V1 Gallery in Copenhagen, who told her he was selling art off Instagram. Her personal Instagram account, @kathy__grayson, and Bertie’s, @bertiebertthepom, amount to a combined total of almost 6,000 followers, ones that include not only friends and dog lovers, but also artists and her collector clients.  

Instagram is fast becoming a key platform for advertising art. With an endless scrolling feed of eye-catching snapshots and pithy captions, the app caters to the short attention spans of an increasingly mobile audience. As London gallery owner Rod Barton (@rodbarton) points out, Instagram is highly personalized and in the palm of everyone’s hand. “This is where the app excels, it’s discrete, personally modeled around your interests, none intrusive, addictive, and mobile,” Barton says. “The user chooses to look, so it is self initiated advertising, with the option to opt out or not to follow.”

Using Instagram alongside traditional marketing, Barton has been able to build his list of art world connections, ranging from fellow gallerists to artists, collectors, and regular gallery visitors. He took his gallery to the app after reading an article mentioning the use of Instagram as a promotional tool, and says the American collector circuit was already very active in browsing works on the app. His feed is a curated collection of install shots and events from his personal life, for example, a white gallery wall displaying a recently acquired painting by emerging artist Alex Clarke, two clock faces painted by Luc Fuller that will display at ABC Berlin Art Fair in September, and the wake from the ship Barton was on during a recent vacation to Spain.

Sharing photos of art does, however, pose a certain challenge to artists working in the Instagram age. Grayson adds that if an artist’s work does not photograph well and must be viewed in person, the artist’s career faces more of a challenge than for those whose work is photogenic and can be sold over an email. 

“Looking at art on Instagram is causing problems or exacerbating an existing one: For the past ten years I have been worried about artists making a painting look as good as JPEGs,” she says. “I found that many artists were essentially upping the contrast and punching the color so their paintings looked great in photos… Instagram is a furthering of this, of course, as the images are so tiny that only ‘art brands’ read on there.”

So then, what should artists working to establish a brand presence do if their work does not translate well into a bitesize square photo? As I explored in my previous column, “An Instantaneous Medium: How Instagram is Influencing the Art World,” the app is also a forum to share anecdotes and find inspiration for new work. Grayson advises that emerging artists experiment with other platforms that might cater better to the aesthetic of their oeuvre.

For New York gallerist Zach Feuer (@zachfeuer), Instagram is proving instrumental in encouraging audiences to engage with available works. “Instagram really is perfectly designed for a lot of new artwork—or a lot of new artwork is perfectly designed for Instagram—in that it allows a work to be shared and discussed and viewed with minimal external distractions like sponsored posts and dumb Facebook articles, or the inconvenience of actually having to go outside and interact with other humans.”

Feuer launched his gallery on Instagram after analyzing statistics on the gallery’s Facebook feed and realizing that works posted online were more likely to engage a greater audience and drive sales. At the same time, he says, he also started to become interested in a few of the “Post-Internet” artists, such as Artie Vierkant, Jon Rafman, and Brad Troemel. He claims the app has taught him about how audiences like to interact with artwork in this format. His audiences prefer install shots over tightly cropped images, for example. And often, the works sell right after he posts them. 

With Instagram gaining popularity in the art world, Feuer has also toyed with the idea of moving his gallery’s website entirely to the feed. “I’ve also been thinking...that at some point I will get rid of the static gallery website,” Feuer says. “They are boring, rigid, and document a kind of fixed representational model which seems more and more outdated to me. Instagram is going to make it easier for me to eventually pull the plug on the URL-based, unmoving pile of static documentation.”

Barton adds that Instagram is also extending the reach of shows, giving international followers the ability to directly keep up with what’s on view in the gallery. From any smartphone, you can already check out Alex Ito’s upcoming show being installed in Barton’s London gallery.

“Instant is the key word; it is the immediacy and the pace of the world we live in today that is the catalyst to continuous growth,” Barton says. “Each post on my account is as important as each other, but at the end of the day, it is an app, it is fun, but powerful if used well.”