Shifting the system
We’ve all felt it. Those feelings of imposter syndrome, of somehow making it somewhere a little trendy or high-brow, but without the credentials to back it up. The art world is rife with this sort of judgement, inexplicably bound to class, knowledge and wealth. While most of us are avid admirers of a graphic Warhol screen print or dusty fridge door decorated with the boisterous scribbles of Basquiat, it’s unlikely we could even afford a slinky framed reprint by such talents, much less an actual slice of their artistic history.
This is where Bettina Huang jumps in. In 2020, having worked at Christie’s the e-commerce entrepreneur met David Zwirner, one of the most successful and sought-after gallerists in the world. After seeing Zwirner’s show in aid of the art world’s small-yet-rising entities amidst the chaos of the pandemic, the pair concocted a plan to connect the dots between art and commerce with an accessible and totally unpretentious system that opens up the buying conversation for both consumers and artists alike, and named it Platform. Here, Huang details the beginnings of the art-centred e-commerce space that gave legs to her curatorial dreams, all the whilst sticking it to hallowed, and frankly stodgy, institutions in the process.
‘Aweng’, Kennedi Carter, 2019
Bailey Slater: Can you tell me a little bit about why and how you started Platform?
Bettina Huang: A little under 20 years ago now, I started my first job at Christie’s. I spent a few years there and it really helped me realise that the art world is a place based on relationships and elitism, and was quite averse to innovation. It still is those things today. It was just so incompatible with what I cared about, so I went to business school, and then I shifted into the world of start-ups, mostly e-commerce, and never thought I’d work with art again.
At one point, I was on the leadership team at a company called fab.com. and we were selling design objects and furniture to people. I had this moment of thinking, “These people care about aesthetics, they would want to buy really great art too” – but they’re not. They won’t go make relationships with a gallerist and they’re not going to go bid in auctions, so what will it take to create the experience that actually gets them to buy art for the first, second, or third time? Those were the seeds of what became Platform.
BS: Was this around the time David Zwirner came along?
BH: Yes! At the very beginning of the pandemic, he knew the small galleries were having a really hard time. So he put some of their artwork up on Davidzwirner.com and called the project Platform. It was different in that you couldn’t buy anything from that, it was more of a group show, but it had the same spirit.
BS: What steps did you take to develop this further?
BH: Platform is really different from any other start-up that’s tried to approach the category of art, because what we’re doing is convincing the art world that it has to meet the rest of the world where it is. And in contrast, other start-ups have made this assumption that the rest of the world just wants to be like the art world, they want to be fancy and schmooze and go to auctions, which is just not true. So Platform is designed to be kind of like Net-A-Porter. It’s a destination where everything is really high quality, there’s always something you want, and then we make it easy to buy.
“What will it take to create the experience that actually gets them to buy art for the first, second, or third time?”
‘Hierarchy’, Yulia Iosilzon, 2022
BS: You mentioned before that some galleries were super protective of their artists, how did you go about changing their minds?
BH: It hasn’t been as hard as we thought. The amazing thing is that we’ve worked with, at this point, a few 100 galleries, and we have the rest of the year scheduled, so that means we have about 100 more who really are excited to work with us. The way we initially convinced them was by creating a story that really emphasised both our experiences. So my expertise is in creating a really great E-commerce experience, and David Zwirner knows exactly what it’s like to be a small gallery, because he was one at one point, and people trust him. So that combination really unlocked a lot of doors.
The fact that an artist appears on Platform, generally just once is helpful, because it doesn’t feel like they’re committed to a whole career of this selling format, it’s a good way to test and so we’ve been letting people take it slowly and feel comfortable with it.
BS: How has the reaction been from the rest of the art world?
BH: I mean, the art world is notoriously judgemental. One of the things I like to remember is that two months after we launched last year, there was a journalist who wrote about Platform: “We were making it as easy to buy art as it is to buy a tube of toothpaste.” The idea was that what we were doing was so declasse, but when I read that, it was like, “Yeah, actually…” So there is some amount of scepticism, but actually, most of the art world has just acknowledged that this is really innovative, and it’s the future.
“Art is such an important and centuries-old part of culture that has made itself kind of irrelevant and not cool by being so stodgy.”
BS: Can you tell us how you’ve gone about choosing the artists and galleries you work with?
BH: The key to Platform is that we’re trying to make art available for anyone to buy. But actually, on the supply side, we have to be really selective. We’re not open there. We’re very thoughtful about the galleries we invite to partner with Platform and eventually we’re going to open up to UK galleries and hopefully the world beyond that, but right now, it’s just the US. We scour the country to look at every single gallery really carefully, the quality of the artists they have in their roster, but also how good are they at developing those artist’s careers, getting them into museum shows? That’s what really starts to indicate the artist has a lot of relevance to the world and cultural value. Another important threshold for bringing artists on Platform is they have to be really technically skilled, and the artwork has to be really interesting to look at, if not also beautiful, and affordably priced.
BS: Why do you think it’s so important to open this conversation to everyone?
BH: What is being a human, if it’s just without culture? Art is such an important and centuries-old part of culture that has made itself kind of irrelevant and not cool by being so stodgy. It’s also super exciting to think we can take art and start connecting it with fashion, film and all these other things people care about today, and make it feel relevant again. Art adds to the reason people exist. Then opening it up on the artist side is so exciting too, because as everybody knows, there are so many artists out there who can’t make a living. If we can sell more work by young artists who are going to be like the next Yayoi Kusama, then that helps give more of them opportunities to actually do what they love.
BS: Are you doing anything for New York Frieze?
BH: I don’t know if this is gonna be disappointing or not, but we’re not doing anything exactly for Frieze. One of the things about Platform is that we are trying to do things differently. And art fairs are just… if you talk to the average person, they don’t even know why an art fair exists, or what you do at an art fair. It’s a total mystery to them. So if we’re trying to get art to be more exciting to people, it’s not that.
We are doing something concurrent, though, very intentionally at this time of year when billions of dollars of art are being sold within elite ranks. It’s a free art stack project, like that of Felix Gonzalez-Torres in the Tate or in MoMA. Inspired by that, we turned four of the works we’re offering this month into stacks and put them in four stores around New York – people should just go and take them and get excited about art.
BS: Is there a specific end goal in mind for the project?
BH: If we were backed by like a VC instead of David Zwirner, we would be going public and becoming a $10 billion company. But the goal is really to keep the platform pretty small, because it’s supposed to be edited and it’s supposed to be just the very best. So in a lot of ways, the goal is instead about making sure lots of people know about Platform. Nobody really knows where you buy really good art, so we want to be that very first place that becomes a household name. Our goals are much more about being a real cultural destination.
Discover more on Platform.