Empowering Artists after the Tunisian Revolution: eArtvolution

by Hatem Mahbouli, November 12, 2012

The connection between art and business has always been a complicated one, and the debate on whether so-called “pure” art can be market-friendly is never-ending. “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” Andy Warhol, who was famous for blurring the line between the two.

Recently, thanks to the global economic downturn, artists have to increasingly look for sponsorships and new, innovative ways to combine good taste with the taste of money. No wonder then that entrepreneurs are embracing art as a new arena for innovation with fresh business models to explore, especially in Tunisia, where a cultural renaissance is on the rise following last year’s revolution. 

Innovative art exhibitions and events (some of them breathtaking) have begun invading Tunisian cities. Yet local artists faced several challenges, however: a huge lack of funding, difficulty accessing the local market, high gallery fees, and a lack of connections with other local and international artists and opportunities. Not to mention the challenges of operating in a country in economic and political transition. 

Fortunately, eArtvolution (@eArtvolution), a young startup that made it to the final round of the Arab MIT business plan competition, is pushing for new business models and technical innovations to help address these needs. Four passionate art entrepreneurs who combine a love of art, software coding skills, business development, and design experience envision a holistic solution that they hope to deploy over three stages:

  1. A social network. Yes, one could say there are enough social networks nowadays, but this one will have specifically target Tunisian artists, and will enable them to showcase their art pieces online and connect with one another, enhancing collaboration and stimulating new project ideas.
     
  2. An online art gallery. An online marketplace will help both new clients and artists achieve optimal deals. Comments and grading plus high quality pictures could also be included; the idea is not dissimilar from AlHoush, an existing website for art e-commerce in the region, that tends to have a slight focus on Jordanian and Palestinian artists.
     
  3. E-learning in art entrepreneurship: This element of their business will focus on training artists on how to effectively generate revenues from their work, a element that’s vital to artistic success. The eArtvolution team is currently in discussions with the Institute of Art Entrepreneurship (a “creative entrepreneurship” school in Chicago) to potentially adapt the university’s  curriculum to the local context in Tunisia.

The goal is to ultimately create a comprehensive art ecosystem online. “We want to make art much more popular in Tunisia and the internet is obviously a great tool for this,” says co-founder Mohamed Amine Chourou. 

The team is confident that despite the challenges in Tunisia, the outcome can only be positive: it will empower artists to improve their access to audiences, and thus will break the monopoly of a small number of galleries. They also intend to make their venture financially sustainable by gathering fees on transactions processed through the website and revenues from advertisement and training.

Partnering with the Ministry of Culture and the Artists Union will be crucial, and this process is under way, with some difficulties. “The public administration is still unstable, inconsistent and unclear. One can agree on a deal with them one day and they do not recognize you the following one,” reports Slim Ben Bahloul, another co-founder.

As for an overwhelming number of start-ups in the region, and particularly in Tunisia, fund-raising is also a big obstacle. Building a minimum viable product that would attract interest and buzz would allow the team to approach local VC funds (called “SICAV” in Tunisia) and foreign funders with more confidence. A lack of historical data in the local e-business makes it difficult to properly estimate the market size and the potential growth, yet eArtvolution will have to pioneer in this domain. 

Despite the challenges, passion for art reigns. “What keeps me awake is translating on a laptop screen the feeling of standing in front of a masterpiece,” confesses Mohamed Amine Chourou. 

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Hatem is an investment officer at FMO, the Dutch development bank, in the Hague. Previously, he has worked with Ashoka and Gray Ghost Ventures to support social businesses, and contributed to strategy consulting and business modeling  projects for  Shea Yeleen InternationalHelloWallet,Gnewt Cargo, and IBM Brazil. He also previously worked in consulting at the Paris office of Accenture. He co-founded the Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship in 2011 to help promote social entrepreneurship initiatives and a social economy friendly legislation in Tunisia. He holds an MBA from Georgetown University Mc Donough Business School, and an Master’s of Engineering from Telecom SudParis.

 
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