Can this start-up shake up the art world?

Consumers can already rent dresses, cars, and DVDs by the day. Why not fine art?

Everyone wants nice things. The problem is, most people can't afford everything they want.

That's a basic, simple example of customer pain—and as an entrepreneur that should get you really excited. Especially so, because there's an obvious cure: the rental business model. (Sometimes it's referred to as collaborative consumption.) Instead of selling new goods, some smart entrepreneurs have built businesses around the idea of renting them in bite-size morsels.

Think about it: Rent the Runway, as the name implies, rents high-fashion by the day. Airbnb rents short-term real estate. Zipcar rents cars by the hour. Netflix sends DVDs to people who still actually rent DVDs (yes, we know they stream online too).

Now we're about to find out if the same model will work in the world of fine art.

The Big Idea

Lorenzo Thione, a native of Milan and a serial entrepreneur with a successful and eclectic background, found his first success with the technology company Powerset (which he sold to Microsoft) before producing Broadway shows including Catch Me if You Can, Addams Family, West Side Story, and Allegiance, among others.

His new company, Artify.it, just began a soft-launch in San Francisco. It offers customers, "free delivery, white glove installation, [and an] amazing database of original fine art."

The company rents great art to customers, with an ever updated selection of new works—at a fraction of the cost to purchase. Customers can also freshen the art hanging on their walls and experiment with different artists, styles, and media.

"Talk to anyone who has ever bought or thought about buying original art," Thione told us. "They will tell you that their first foray in the art-collecting market was a painful, long, and intimidating experience."

But building a rental business "lowers the stakes for both artists and would-be afficionados," he continued. "Artify.it increases the total size of the art-collecting market, providing an instrument to begin the journey to become a collector of contemporary art."

But Will It Work?

It's an intriguing model. But it remains to be seen whether it will work for at least two reasons.

First, can Thione's company maintain its highbrow image without becoming the Rent-A-Center of the art world?

And second, many sharing services operate on the theory that people would rather not pay for assets when they're not using them. Why pay for a car when it's just sitting in the driveway, or for a designer dress when it's hanging in the closet?

But is the art world different? When you return a car or a dress, presumably you no longer need it. But if you return a painting, you're left with a blank space over the couch.

So far, industry experts we talked with say they think Thione can overcome these issues, in part because the idea seems a natural extension of existing art museum rental galleries that have been sharing and renting art for years.

Laurie Ghielmetti, who advises clients on major art purchases told us, "It offers a different and additional level for customers who can't take the time to view the resources of rental galleries."

Artify.it says the company has already raised about $800,000 in seed money from investors, including ex-PayPal CEO Peter Thiel and former Google and Facebook exec Benjamin Ling, and recently opened offices in San Francisco. Will renting work in the world of fine art? We're about to find out.

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