Startup makes art collectors of apartment renters

“Inner World” by Somerville artist Pauline B. Lim and “Urban Sprawl 2” by Boston artist Josh Falk are two works available through a Central Square startup called turningart.com.
“Julia,” by Bradford artist Chris Lovely, “Kitchen Aid Mixer” by New York artist Alicia Purdy and “She Will Cut You” by Malden artist Paige Wallis display the variety of the carefully curated website.

Turningart.com, a startup based in Central Square, could be the next Netflix.

But having opened to the public only in the past couple of weeks, it has already served its purpose for founder Jason Gracilieri.

“It started with me trying to solve a problem I had, which was a bunch of empty walls,” said Gracilieri, a serial entrepreneur who confronted that common problem when he moved recently. He found the answer in a familiar business model — letting people pay a flat fee to borrow works of art on a rotating basis. In this case, the works of art are actual works of art, prints that arrive in a tube and slide easily into a provided frame.

Over time, as monthly fees as low as $9.99 add up in a turningart.com member’s “piggy bank,” borrowers can turn into collectors and buy the original of the print that appealed to them most. If people jump right into buying canvases, that’s all right too.

The idea first occurred to Gracilieri almost three years ago, around the time he moved to Somerville from San Diego. (He’s a Reading, Mass., native.) But other ideas took precedence, and it took another move to remind him of the problem and its solution.

“I was really kind of done with things like Ikea prints, and I didn’t have the money or wasn’t ready to make a decision on which piece of art to buy,” he said. “And my walls were empty because I was stuck.”

The walls actually stayed empty while Gracilieri and his wife, art gallery director Julie Gracilieri, launched the site, starting with artist friends and drawing in works from across the country as word spread. There’s now about 35 artists represented in the online gallery, most in the Northeast.

“We’re still recruiting, because we want to be very selective. We hand-select our artists; this is not a free-for-all,” Jason Gracilieri said. “But now we’re also getting requests from artists.”

Test subscriptions, including the founder’s own, began only about four months ago, also with friends who agreed to serve as aesthetic and aspirational guinea pigs.

Easy to experiment

Cambridgeport resident Jason Whaley is one of those friends, already an owner of some art who still credited the site not only for its distinct “curated” sensibility — prints by the next Thomas Kincade are not available on turningart.com — but as “an easy, inexpensive way to get to know local artists without having to lay out a bunch of money on original artwork and without having to go to a gallery and feel like an idiot.”

Whaley isn’t one. He’s a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and a strategy consultant for businesses. But he prefers browsing a website to the intimidation he feels browsing in galleries.

“I’ve been to a few galleries where they talk about one current artist with reference to another current artist, neither of whom I’ve ever heard of. They’re trying to say ‘A is like B, except they are influenced by C.’ I have just no idea what they’re talking about, and I kind of give them a blank stare and they say, ‘Oh, you don’t know doing, I see I’ll have to dumb this down,’” Whaley said.

Turningart.com makes the whole process easy, he said, including swapping out works in the frame sent when users sign up. Although he initially put off dealing with the process for about two weeks, “when I finally sat down and did it, it took me less than a minute.”

The first piece of art he hung was controversial — in his home. He’s a fan of funky, angular, urban landscapes, and his wife prefers more abstract and colorful compositions, Whaley said, and the first piece of art that arrived leaned to his tastes. Two months later, though, the work was gone and replaced by another. (Subscribers can also choose one- or three-month rotations.)

“I’ve been able to experiment,” Whaley said.

Starving artists

The idea also draws applause from artists such as Pauline B. Lim, who works out of Somerville’s Brickbottom building and was introduced to turningart.com by a fellow artist. “It’s an excellent concept,” Lim said. “Because he’s basing it on something like Netflix, which is very popular, it seems like if it’s managed well, it should be popular too. It’s low-stakes, which is really good. It’s aimed I think at emerging collectors, people who may not have ever invested in art before. It’s great for just filling up your walls with images if you need stuff for your walls. And you’re not risking much. And that the money you do put in goes into a kitty you get to use for a real purchase of art, that’s pretty awesome.”

It may also be an idea that comes at a good time — meaning it comes along at an awful time economically, when many artists are suffering.

Gracilieri

“These past couple of years have probably been the worst ever in my entire career as an artist in terms of sales,” said Lim, a 1988 graduate of Harvard with an extensive list of showings and residencies from Newbury Street and New York City to Morocco and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. “All the galleries I used to show with are all down the tubes or bouncing checks or having a really terrible time also.”

Her hope is that if the site takes off, the model changes to include more compensation for artists. They now get a percentage of the proceeds if an original work is sold, and Lim would prefer also getting residuals — even a penny each — for the prints that go out.

“Imagine if this thing is really giant,” she said of the site. “What if there are a million people out there with my print on their walls? Even if I got 1 million pennies, that would be pretty awesome.”

Gracilieri isn’t there yet. He’s been through three startups, including a social networking site for high schoolers, and so far he and a staff of five are focused on the basics at turningart.com: adding work to the site and getting customer testimonials, and some publicity, for it.

If he were to dream a little, he said, it would be nice to someday turn his little offices into an actual gallery showing what’s online.

“It could be cool to have a nice big place for customers to come in,” he said. “I can envision a massive wall of rotating art space.”

Of course, he’d still have to decide what to put up.

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