Bridging the Gap
Erik Culver and Alok Marwaha launch ArtStartArt to connect student artists with the growing
market for their work.
by Anna Andersen
Photographs by Molly Culver
When Erik Culver graduated with a BFA from The University of Texas at Austin in 2008, he went home with hundreds of photographs, paintings, drawings, and prints and almost all of it went into storage. Ten years later, while his own art is still collecting dust, he’s helping students find better homes for their work through a platform he wished had existed when he was in their shoes.
Culver and his co-founder, Alok Marwaha, launched ArtStartArt to sell student artwork through monthly flash sales that began in May after an initial pilot sale last year. So far, they’ve worked with 15 schools, 13 of which are in Texas, and they’ve facilitated the sale of about 100 pieces, which have made their way to cities all over the United States, from San Diego to New York City.
“A lot of sites sell original artwork online, but I don’t know of any that exclusively focus on selling student artwork, supporting them at this stage,” Culver says. “I know personally the pride and excitement that comes with selling a piece of art you worked hard to create, and I want more students to have that same, empowering experience.”
Culver, who graduated with Marwaha from the McCombs School of Business in 2013, previously dreamed of pursuing his passions for oil painting and photography but found it difficult to leverage his art degree and make it as a practicing artist.
“I really thought I would work my ass off trying to be an artist, make a good body of work, graduate, and then opportunities would present themselves,” Culver recalls. “Really, it was like a screeching train for me. I realized I couldn’t make any money doing it, and in fact, I needed money to pay my rent and eat.”
In Culver’s experience, students receive little instruction in the essential real-world skills for life after art school. “If you want to be an artist, you better learn how to paint or to photograph, because it is a skill, and you need to hone it,” he says. “But when you graduate, if you don’t know how to translate that to selling to some extent, you may find yourself in a very challenging position.”
A lot of sites sell original artwork online, but I don’t know of any that exclusively focus on selling student artwork, supporting them at this stage.”
From that perspective, Culver sees ArtStartArt as a nice complement to the art degree. Every month, they give students the opportunity to submit a photograph of their work with a title, medium, description, and suggested price. Throughout the process, the artists not only have access to tutorials but also receive curatorial feedback on their art and guidance on pricing.
“I don’t expect that every student who uses the platform will go on to become painters for a living, but they will be given the tools to figure out how to sell something and learn to market themselves, and that’s the beginning point of figuring out whatever comes next,” Culver says. “Yet some of them may very well go on to get their MFA, become practicing artists, or become the next Picasso who’s to say?”
For buyers, ArtStartArt offers rare access to competitively priced work, with most pieces in the $300 to $500 range. The rotating inventory means it’s not overwhelming to browse and there’s a reason to come back to the site every month.
“If a student decides to sell their work through ArtStartArt, it’s only available for about four weeks, and they may not choose to sell it anywhere again,” Culver notes. “If I were to say, ‘Where do you go and find paintings from senior studio painters who have been working on their craft for four years?’ most people would not know the answer to that. You would basically have to show up to a senior show, try to find the student, and haggle with them. You’re not going to find this work anywhere else.”
When a piece sells, 60 percent of the revenue goes to the artist 30 percent goes to ArtStartArt to fund its operations and pay for marketing, 5 percent goes to the curator, and 5 percent is donated back to that student’s fine-arts program. “For some people, it’s not just about finding a piece that moves them,” he says. “They like that they’re supporting a student and that a percentage goes back to the greater cause of supporting the arts. For them, that’s compelling.”
Culver’s biggest challenge now is to raise awareness and generate more sales. “Starting a business isn’t without its challenges, and sometimes I have moments of doubt,” he says. “But every time I walk into a painting studio or photo lab on a new campus and see the unbelievable, undiscovered artworks all over the room, my resolute belief in the raw talent and rare energy is renewed. There is a well of world-class art produced by students all over the world, and I know the way it works now, the vast majority of it will be forgotten before it’s ever discovered. It’s a problem and an opportunity that I hope to solve through ArtStartArt.”
ArtStartArt’s resident curator, Lilia Rocio Taboada is a master’s student in art history at the University of Texas with curatorial internship experience at renowned institutions like LACMA and MoMA.
Taboada says she’s excited to help support emerging artists. “Looking through submissions, I see my role as helping the artists be successful,” she says, explaining how she gives them feedback on their work and guides them through the pricing process. When selecting works for the flash sales, she imagines the typical buyer to be someone who enjoys going to museums and galleries and appreciates what art brings to our everyday lives but who can’t afford gallery prices.
“I pick works that I’m really drawn to, and I try to think not just about my taste but about what might be interesting to someone who isn’t as well-versed in contemporary art and historic styles or periods,” Taboada explains. “I also think about whether or not the piece would be well-suited to live with, as there’s a lot of artwork out there that I personally love and appreciate but I wouldn’t want in my home.”
From the curator: Zachary Brock often looks at large scale architecture in his photography. I like that he’s developed a distinct style with his attention to space and the way he captures the built environment. There’s something very futuristic about his manner of depicting the city [many of his photographs are of Austin]. Because of the lines, framing, and lack of people, the compositions seem from another time.
From the curator: I love that Maria Ramirez uses such bright neon colors in her paintings. She has a strong ability to layer and create dimension…while managing to achieve balance between the vibrant hues and complex forms. She’s interested in Henry Darger, an artist who depicted the broad range of emotions in the human condition. Ramirez is also interpreting and communicating complex interaction between people, but because of her use of bright colors, she reinterprets Darger’s style with a contemporary, pop-art-esque accessibility.
From the curator: Jayné Valverde’s prints are distinguished by the patterns she layers on top of and around photo imagery. Through her accumulation of multiple techniques, Valverde manages to communicate real emotion to the viewer. Setting a photograph into the print alone would not produce the same effect, but the added framing of pattern and color distinctly changes the resonance of the photograph’s image for the viewer.