Jen Bekman of 20x200
Jen Bekman is the founder of 20x200, an online venue for affordable limited edition prints by artists and photographers from around the world. Her business has helped transform the way people shop for art, making a once implausible activity for many, both possible and enjoyable. We at Ghostly have long-admired the ideals championed by 20x200—we strive in our own way to make the work of artists with whom we collaborate, equally accessible—and so it was a thrill to have Jen not only respond to our request for an interview, but to offer up such heartfelt insights on her business and approach to collecting art.
[GI] Do you remember the first piece of art you ever bought?
[JB] I bought Andrew Kuo’s My Favorite Places as of November the night of his opening reception, at a gallery on the Lower East Side. It was a big leap, an impulse buy, but I loved the work and felt sure about it. I’ll always remember the great vibe of the evening and how the Lower East Side was just-under-the-radar cool—it was not Chelsea. I’ll always connect that work with the reception, which was all about a talented artist being celebrated and supported by friends. I love that work as much now as I did then.
[GI] When it comes to filling your own home with art, what’s your secret sauce?
[JB] I live by the rule “buy what you love.” I’m totally uninhibited when it comes to mixing high and low. I have an Ed Ruscha print, I have fun illustrations that I bought directly from artists via their websites, original paintings + 20x200 editions galore, of course—it all coexists happily on my walls.
A piece doesn’t have to have provenance to be in my home, and the work that does have provenance isn’t put on a pedestal. I’m also probably more laissez-faire than most when it comes to putting nail holes in my wall—I can almost always just cover them up with art! I like the flexibility of moving things around and I love the challenge of making a diverse array of work go together.
[GI] What advice do you have for people looking to start their own art collection?
[JB] I truly believe that buying what you love, as I said before, is the first and last rule. But for many, diving in to begin with is the hardest part. So, I say: set a goal. For instance, resolve to have three pieces by the end of the year, or give yourself a quarterly budget and have a list of places you’re going to go to find the art you want. Obviously, I’m a fan of finding stuff online, but going for a treasure hunt in the real world is also awesome. Go to art fairs in your price range, like the Affordable Art Fair here in New York. There are an increasing number of artists selling at cool flea markets and craft fairs. But again, there are no wrong answers, as long as you buy what you love.
[GI] Tell us about starting your gallery and what led you to found 20x200.
[JB] When I opened Jen Bekman Gallery in 2003, my own walls were bare. I felt excluded from the art world and it frustrated me, so I created a warm, welcoming place: a place where I would want to buy art. Still, a lot of people weren’t buying a thing even though I could see that they could afford it. I realized that all the warmth and welcoming in the world couldn’t address the emotional baggage most people have about art and art galleries. It’s not an environment that most people are at ease in, and there are not a lot of reliable tools out there that can help people get started as collectors.
So, I started 20x200, which is most simply described as the gateway drug to the art world. We’ll get you hooked on the good stuff for next to nothing and keep you coming back for more. If we get people engaged at a non-threatening price point, they become confident in their taste. It’s not about selling tons of inexpensive art, it’s about engaging people in the experience of collecting and giving them a framework to make bigger decisions about the art they love and want.
[GI] What were some of the biggest challenges you faced early on with 20x200?
[JB] Many people are trained to think that if art is good, it is expensive and in turn, if it’s not expensive, it can’t be that good. I believed I could deliver something good and affordable, and people thought I was crazy and were like, “You can’t possibly do that.”
People telling me that I can’t, shouldn’t, or won’t be able to do something has always been an excellent motivator, and that aside, of all the wacky ideas I’ve ever had (lots) the idea of 20x200 is the one that sprung from my imagination the most fully-formed. I came up with the concept and how it would work over the course of one evening, and was instantly certain that it’d come together as it had been envisioned. (A singular experience in my life, thus far!)
[GI] How do you go about discovering new talent for 20x200. What is the “isness” of the art you seek?
[JB] I find inspiration all over the place: I’ve spotted artists in museum exhibitions, via my Tumblr stream and everywhere in between. I look everywhere—I don’t sleep much and devour more content probably than anyone I know: online, in books and magazines and not just art books and magazines. Let’s say, I’m promiscuous in my taste. Someone’s credentials don’t intimidate me—there is a short list of internationally recognized artists that I dream of adding to our roster: Julie Mehretu, Ed Ruscha, Rinko Kawauchi are at the tippy top.
Of course, it’s also always exciting to think about all the artists who are completely undiscovered; artists with a substantive practice who know what they are doing. We think about what will engage people on an emotional level but we don’t want to present our collectors with ‘art lite.’ I am particularly fond of finding work that will appeal to people who don’t think that art’s their thing. For instance, I consider it a triumph when people who would typically hang a poster on their wall, collect and hang art. That certainly plays into what I seek out and where.
[GI] Looking back on the first five years, what have you learned about entrepreneurship (online or otherwise) that you would want to pass on to others?
[JB] Firstly, I’d say: bootstrap whenever possible. It’s important to talk about the aspect of money. We’re living in an era in which tech moguls are the new Hollywood—it’s very seductive. There’s definitely a mystique surrounding entrepreneurship right now and the headlines are basically all about who raised money from whom. Venture is sexy but the fact is that it’s not the only form of capital out there and successfully raising money and having a successful business are not the same thing. Be open minded about what financing there is: debt financing, small business loans. That’s not what’s sexy, but it’s a different pace and might fit you.
Make sure you have a proven model and that your vision aligns with your investors’ expectations because I can guarantee that you will underestimate the time and attention that’s required once you’ve raised money, in terms of developing specific relationships. I’m not saying that this won’t work, but venture capitalists are not there to fund your dreams, they’re there to create big returns for their fund and its investors.
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