“What’s the unscalable thing that we can make scalable?” That’s a question that lingered for Andy Blank before he founded the retail art company that bears his name.
Handmade art that is affordable for first-time buyers and suitable to mass consumption has been a tantalizing business idea for decades. In 1962 Sears experimented with the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art, with work selected by the storied actor and noted art aficionado sold through stores in places like Denver, Hartford, Harrisburg, Madison, and Oklahoma City. In the internet era, companies ranging from eBay and Amazon to various upstart dot-coms have sought out markets for the work of artists thought to be worthy but undiscovered.
Most online art businesses aspire to be double-sided marketplaces that match buyers and sellers without having to produce their own art. Supply will scale to demand, such businesses hope, by means of the invisible hand. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Individual artists simply stepped around those marketplaces and appealed directly to buyers through channels like Instagram, where artists such as Julia Powell, Ashley Longshore, and Donald Robertson have built up large followings that translate into sales of original artworks for thousands of dollars in addition to lower-priced prints. That’s an equation that the 30-year-old Blank was looking to invert when he started his company.
Instead of trying to scale the audience for the limited production of individual artists, Blank is trying to scale the inevitably bottle-necked production of handmade works of art. And rather than rely on the ingenuity and inspiration of a sole proprietor, Blank—an unusual artist for his interest in delegating duties—has created an entity that can do the work of not just one artist but of many.
“Andy Blank” is the artist who creates the works—but there is, in fact, no actual Andy Blank. The Instagram account promoting him does not include headshots, opting instead for pictures of the artist alone or with his production partner, Jonny Lake—in either case with yellow circles covering their faces.
Conceived and executed by a team of one full-time production partner and three or four part-timers, works credited to Blank—often produced in editions of 30, 50, or 100 and pitched on Instagram and Pinterest—come as package deals that include the framed art and all that’s needed to hang it (tape measure, pencil, hooks, even expert tips), all for $199 or less.
By promoting works of art at price points so low, Andy Blank—the company—offers buyers a chance to live like collectors and experience the alchemy of art. In doing so, the operation takes a page from vertically integrated fast-fashion businesses like Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo that borrow inspiration from the runway to produce timely garments available to consumers with aspirational tastes and limited budgets. It also offers jobs to creative types who might not be working the same otherwise. “It saves them from a coffee shop,” Blank said. “They get to work in an artist’s studio instead.”
For the uninitiated, the art of Andy Blank comes across as appealing and well-executed imagery to display on a wall. But to anyone who has spent much time in the art world, the inspirations behind the enterprise are obvious (starting with the yellow dots obscuring the faces of Blank and others—surely an allusion to the late John Baldessari).
That’s the way Blank wants it. “I’ve been to nearly every art fair a dozen times,” he said. His wife is a successful independent artist who found her footing in the market after moving from their native Brisbane, Australia, to New York. Blank worked behind the scenes for years supporting her at art fairs, staging pop-up exhibitions, and handling relations with collectors. “I looked after the back end,” he said.
Blank knows his art history. Among the artworks on offer, here’s a take on Roy Lichtenstein; there, a supermarket sign inspired by Andy Warhol. A brightly colored target evokes Ugo Rondinone, and a photograph might resemble a famous picture from the moon landing—though, upon closer inspection, you see that the lunar dust is actually concrete and the footwear is not astronaut’s boots but instead a pair of what the company calls Nike Moon Force 1s.
“It’s a remix of everyone’s favorite songs,” Blank said. “People from the art world really know where I got that inspiration from. I’m not hiding that.”
But there’s something deeper too. Some of Blank’s most popular works are explorations of color, texture, and materials. “Famous artworks show me how to put colors and textures on a 2-D surface,” he said. “But I [also] get inspiration from the food I eat, the clothing I see people wear.”
That may be one of the reasons his art seems so relatable. It’s also the product of collaborating with Lake, a trained cook and food stylist who worked with chef Jamie Oliver in London for years. Through a mutual friend—and fellow Australian—Blank and Lake met and bonded as creators. “A lot of the time,” Lake said, “I feel like I’m in the kitchen working, in so many different mediums.”
A typical workday at Andy Blank—on the fourth floor of an industrial building in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn—revolves around a rhythm perhaps more familiar to the back end of a restaurant than an artist’s studio. Reached by a large freight elevator with doors that fall flush to the floor, the 22,000-square-foot headquarters has everything needed for a vertically integrated art operation. There’s studio space to photograph finished works in a pseudo-domestic setting, complete with a variety of flooring samples, furniture, and lamps. Around the corner is a gallery of finished artworks hung salon-style, bathed in natural light from a bank of large mullioned windows. The rest of the space is divided into three distinct assembly-line areas.
On the left is a space for production with rows of aluminum tables set up to batch out artworks at scale. They need the space to store supplies readily at hand and have room to use heat lamps to dry the sometimes stubborn gels and resins dripping all around. When setting up the business, Blank did the opposite of what one would do to create a lean start-up. Instead of just-in-time deliveries, he stockpiled art supplies.
“It took me about 12 months to find the suppliers,” Blank said of amassing materials before getting started in the spring of last year. He knew he wanted to be able to create limited-edition series, and he also knew he needed to be agile to respond to customers’ tastes and trends. That meant having everything on hand to create art—and then frame it and ship it out.
Part of the company’s appeal is its claim to being an expression of the craft renaissance in Brooklyn, so Blank bought materials to be taken to hand in pallet- and drum-size bulk. There are barrels of resin and a machine that can produce paint of any color, stockpiles of canvas and primer, and museum-grade plexiglass for framing. “I knew everything was going to be cheaper if I bought in bulk,” Blank said. “I spent tens of thousands getting a mold made to make frames before I even sold an artwork.”
Referring to the workspace, Blank said, “It’s like a hardware store in here. Call me a control freak. [But] imagine if everything you needed was within 20 steps of you? Everything becomes easier.”
In the middle of the shop, they’ve set up an assembly line to pack and ship orders. “We ship five days a week,” Lake said, “six days in the holiday season. Around lunch we do logistics. Then we jump into production for four hours that takes us into the afternoon. That’s when we’ve got great light, and Sonos speakers are everywhere. It’s a very motivating environment. If we’re happy in our space, things flow. Everything for us works well when you scale it up.”
They work by batch, priming plywood with a base coat or pouring resins and gels into abstract color patterns—sometimes for canvas, sometimes for more unusual media like skateboard decks. After exhausting themselves in production, Blank and Lake indulge in what they call “crafternoons”—research and development sessions spent experimenting with images or materials.
Andy Blank sells art through a dedicated website, but Instagram and Pinterest are important agents in bringing in the audience. “Instagram is a tool to show the process,” Blank said.
It’s also a great way to get feedback from their clientele. “People are shouting at us, and we listen,” said Lake. Sometimes that listening leads to making a work in another color that gets released a few months later. Other times, a successful work can expand into a series to be collected as they continue to create it piece by piece.
Armed with feedback from the internet, Blank and Lake are able to blow off steam during their “crafternoons.” Whatever they come up with, they document the process by filming start to finish, so they can replicate any serendipity. Sometimes short snippets will end up on Instagram even if an artwork never comes together—“to build up a little bank of things we have to lean on when we need them,” Lake said.
As the team generates more ideas, sales are rising. “In the first year, we’re into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Blank claimed of the company’s revenue, which he said has reached a pace of $100,000 a month. As start-ups go, that’s the kind of traction most entrepreneurs dream of. And beneath those rising revenue numbers, there can be good margins in making art, something Blank knows from his engineering and finance background before moving to the United States.
All the while, art is moving out and into new homes. “A lot of the people I’m marketing to don’t know who I’m riffing off,” Blank said. “They don’t see dots and think of Damien Hirst. [But] later, they might see a Hirst and say, ‘Hey, that’s like my Andy Blank!’”
Blank hopes buyers will continue their habits elsewhere too. “I want to create collectors,” he said. “The idea behind Andy Blank is to create a gateway drug to art. Like Zara helps people dress like they’re straight off the runway—when they are ready, they go to Chanel.”
Time will tell how many Hauser & Wirth clients Andy Blank ultimately creates or even what the enterprise will become. “To me, it is still a test,” Blank said. “It’s still an experiment. I’m still building the story. It hasn’t really worked yet.”
But that hasn’t stopped him from dreaming of a triumphant exit in the future. “Maybe one day,” Blank said, “Ikea will want to buy the business.”