Can fine art sell online in Egypt?

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Egypt is home to a vibrant contemporary art scene that includes established names such as Ibrahim El Tanbouli, Assem Abdel Fattah, and Britt Boutros Ghali. There is also an impressive crop of up-and-coming contemporary artists who are pushing the boundaries and adding to the depth of the genre in Egypt. However, despite the richness of the scene, there has been a disconnect between the artists and their work, and the potential market of art buyers in Egypt, as well as the wider region. 

It is this disconnect that led lifelong art enthusiasts and childhood neighbors Lina Mowafi and Dina Shaaban, to team up with marketing consultant Hatem Zaazou, and launch Arts-Mart.com in November 2012. The online platform sells Egyptian contemporary art, ranging in price from around $200 to upwards of $20,000 USD, with a majority of the pieces falling in the $1,000-$5000 range.

Although widespread poverty is a chronic problem in Egypt (an estimated 25% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2011), there is a sizeable market for the Arts-Mart team to target, as Egypt is also home to a large population with considerable wealth at the top, and one of the largest middle classes on the African continent.

“[Arts-Mart.com] aims to bridge the gap between art lovers – everywhere, not just in Egypt, although the focus is on the Egyptian market – with the Egyptian artists who have had some frustrations in the past decade showcasing their artwork under the current market structure,” said Mowafi, who sells her own art on the platform.

The Arts-Mart.com platform connects artists and consumers with a simple but effective format. Artists create a membership and profile page, and are then able to upload their art onto the Arts-Mart servers. Uploaded art is screened for quality and style by the Arts-Mart team, and approved art is then posted on the website where prospective purchasers can browse through an impressive selection of contemporary art, which can be filtered according to artist, style, medium, collection, and color. And since “not everybody can visualize how a painting will look in their room,” Mowafi says, the site has a ‘View on Your Wall’ feature that allows users to view a selected piece on a wall in a digital room that can be customized to resemble a room in their own home.

Artists must turn over any piece of art that is posted on the site to ensure that it is readily available for delivery if purchased. Despite this, artists maintain complete control over their art and can collect any unsold pieces at any time. They also set the price for each piece, but in order to keep prices competitive, artists will receive feedback from the Arts-Mart team if a price is either too high or too low. Arts-Mart takes a 35% commission on the final selling price.

Despite the simplicity of the website and the high quality art it features, the Arts-Mart team faces an issue similar to that faced by many regional entrepreneurs: unfamiliarity or resistance to e-commerce on the part of the general population. This issue is particularly acute for Arts-Mart because the products that they are selling are expensive pieces of art that require up-close, in-person inspection prior purchase.

To combat this issue, Arts-Mart allows purchasers, who have the option of paying with credit card or cash on delivery, to inspect the piece once it's delivered, with the option of returning it (albeit on the same day). “The art market [in the region] is somewhat immature, and we’re attracting all sorts of clients and people who are just getting into their art, and they’re just learning about it, just figuring out what they like and what they don’t like, so it’s very important for them to see the work before committing,” said Mowafi. “It’s a big decision. Most people only do it once.”

While relatively expensive contemporary art is likely an extreme example of a product that consumers may be hesitant to purchase online, flexibility is perhaps the best way to for e-commerce startups to attract more business. “Give people options. Give them different payment methods. Give them the flexibility to have a way out [so] it’s not a final commitment,” advised Mowafi.

In order to raise awareness of contemporary art in Egypt (and help out their business at the same time), the Arts-Mart team couples its digital presence with a physical one by hosting biannual exhibitions in Cairo that feature many of the artists and artwork found on the website.

The exhibitions serve as an entry point into the art market for non-art lovers, and they have helped build confidence in the Arts-Mart brand by allowing potential customers to view pieces in person. The exhibitions also serve as a space in which the curation team can interact with its customer base, adding a human element to the Arts-Mart brand that the team believes has been crucial to the platform’s growth and can help other niche e-commerce websites to grow as well.

“Try to interact more with your clients. Yes, you’re an e-commerce business, but clients want to see a face…. This personal interaction makes all the difference,” Shaaban told me on the eve of the 2014 summer exhibition, held in June.

Having attended the exhibition last summer, and as a writer who is in no way an art aficionado, I was struck by the overall quality of the work on display. While there, I had the chance to speak the renowned contemporary Egyptian artist Ibrahim El Tanbouli, who begrudgingly stated that Egyptian contemporary art typically sells better abroad than in Egypt itself. He noted that while Egyptian contemporary art was quickly evolving, the Egyptian market for art remained static. However, the Arts-Mart team believes that this is beginning to change.

“I think that the art market is changing,” explained Mowafi. “We’ve sensed it since we started, which wasn’t that long ago, that people are becoming more flexible in terms of appreciating different kinds of art, art that they weren’t used to seeing in their homes… and I hope that we have helped change the market in this sense.”

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