Democratizing Art ⏤ In Conversation with Portia de Rossi & Slater Herman of General Public
Music, film-making, and photography are all mediums of art. Yet, anyone can enjoy them while supporting their favorite artist in exchange for a few cents, or even for free. If we agree to defining art as a way of expression through human skills and imagination, one could argue that art should always be made possible to enjoy by anyone. Although an artist may be interested in keeping his art to himself, shouldn’t art be allowed to spread? Isn’t it where its true power lies? Making humans feel more, giving them their humanity?
Portia de Rossi also asked herself those questions and decided to act on her answers. General Public, a start-up which she founded 2 years ago, is defining a new era of democratization within the art world. Using new technology to generate nearly identical works from an original painting, Portia and her team of engineers and art advisors are fully embracing the mission of taking great paintings out of the galleries, and into more people’s homes.
PR: Portia de Rossi, Founder
SH: Slater Herman, Art Advisor
LV: Laurent Veilleux
LV: What triggered the idea to launch General Public (GP) and how did the project come to life?
PR: I have always been an art lover and collector and I didn’t understand why the art available to folks who don’t wish to go to galleries or learn the art market was so poor, when so many talented artists are without representation and have no way to support themselves. I realized that the missing piece was in reproduction. In order to attract quality artists to the idea of selling their works into retail, I knew I had to elevate the standard of printing to better represent the artist’s work. I assembled a team of people who researched printing methods from all over the globe and we figured out the process of scanning and printing that best recreated the original.
LV: Slater, could you please describe your role at GP?
SH: As the art advisor, my first task is to look at all the submissions that come in and to make an initial selection. Then, Portia and I will work together at curating collections from selected works and artists, which will then be put up on our website and offered to the public. Another aspect of my work is to work with the artists directly regarding the whole process of putting their piece into production here at the factory. I am the one who will reach out to the artists and ask if we could see the rest of their body of work for example, and who will be handling communications with them, from start to finish.
LV: What challenges do you believe GP is or will be facing as it strives to accomplish its vision?
PR: We are creating a new category of art. A synograph is not an original but it’s not a standard, poster-type print. There will always be challenges when you introduce something new into the market. The main challenge for us is in how to get the costs down to a more affordable price point so more people can enjoy great art. Printing costs are still very high and will remain high until we can increase our production. The average price point for a synograph currently retails for around $800.
LV: Which artist(s) (either from past or present times) have captivated or influenced you the most in your life?
PR: Jenny Saville. I love paint and I love the female form but mostly I love that she explores the idealization versus the reality of what it means to be in a woman’s body. But politics aside, I love Martin Barre, Twombly, Kusama, Wool, Mitchell. I love so many artists. When I was a kid I was fascinated by the Dada and Surrealist movement. Then I was influenced by Interview magazine and the New York art scene—Clemente and Schnabel in particular. But I had also studied renaissance and baroque painting and loved Poussin—I guess you can say I’m just a big fan of art. I’m lucky enough to own some incredible works and I sit and stare at them for hours trying to figure out how they were made and what the artist was feeling when they made it.
LV: Does your personal taste in art influences GP's artists and artworks' selection?
PR: Yes. Slater and I try to be inclusive but I think it’s fair to say that what we like gets pushed to the front of the queue. I find myself drawn to still life and landscapes right now. And anything that reminds me of the great Ab Ex painters.
LV: Do you follow guidelines, rules or principles when selecting artists?
SH: I would say that the main thing we look for is consistency within a large body of work. We have seen artists in the past, for example, who have looked at our own collections and who have sent us work that they think we will accept, but that’s not interesting to us. We really want to work with artists who work for themselves. We are looking for artists who make the work that they want to make, not the work that they think we want to see.
LV: How would you describe your selection process compared to more traditional art galleries? In what ways is it different?
SH: There are several things in fact. For example, we don’t care whether an artist has an MFA or not. Neither do we care about where an artist has shown before or what country she or he lives in. We have a very large base of submissions from all over the world, whereas, in a traditional gallery, you might find out that all the artists presented are from New York or Los Angeles. We have artists from Ohio who are submitting work that might never get in front of a person who runs a traditional gallery. Don’t take me wrong, there are a lot of great galleries running amazing programs, but from the outset, we remain fully open to all visual artists.
In that sense, the main differentiating factor between us and a gallery is that we're not capitalizing on scarcity or the fact that there's only one unit of an artwork. Rather, we are interested in open editions and in allowing a piece to be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in it.
LV: Could you tell us more about your submission process?
SH: We launched our submission process about a year ago, and we have received thousands and thousands of submissions so far, which is amazing. Through that, we've been able to get all genres, from minimalism to realism, through great geometric art. It is so nice to see so many artists wanting to work in this new process!
LV: Do you envision GP to become fully opened and democratized, i.e. that one day any artist could sell its work through your platform, or would you hope for it to remain selective in the artists it represents?
PR: There are already online galleries that offer that platform to artists. GP is different in that we curate the best artists… artists who are educated and execute their paintings with forethought and skill… and we reproduce them so as many people who want to purchase and enjoy their paintings can do so—in the way the artists intended them to be enjoyed.
LV: With GP being the creator of a whole new market, how do you see this market growing in the future and what kind of role would you like GP to play in it?
SH: Good question… I think that Portia will have a great answer because she is very forward-looking. But I would say that our goal from the very beginning has always been to make sure that, at any point, we are working towards democratizing the way that artists are getting their work out into the world, getting their pieces in front of people's eyes, separate from a screen. And we will keep working towards that goal.
PR: I would love for the synograph to be the new standard of the fine art printing. We have seen other art forms be enhanced by technology, so I want paintings to follow suit. If we can 3D print a human organ, there’s no reason for a print of a painting to be one-dimensional and not capture all the marks a painter makes in the original work. I like to think of the synograph like a sculpture mold. The original being no more valuable than the editions. When you think of it like a sculpture, you have to ask yourself, why own a photograph of a painting, when you can own the painting?
All images courtesy of General Public