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eArtvolution.net, a Crossroads of Art and Entrepreneurship in Tunisia

October 21, 2012

(Below is my article to be published on Wamda.com)

The connection between art and business has always been a complicated one, and the debate on whether so-called “pure” art can be market-friendly is never-ending. ‘Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art’ Andy Warhol once said… which does not make the picture any clearer. Particularly recently, with the continuous budget cuts and the decreasing reliance on state support, artists have to pro-actively look for sponsorship,  new sources of income and innovative ways to combine good taste and the taste of money. No wonder then that entrepreneurs are embracing art as a new area of innovation and have fresh business models to explore. In the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, the art market is very heterogeneous and often hard to assess, but the emergence of very expensive and demanded artists[1] in Asia (something unthinkable a decade ago ) might signal a similar outcome for local Arab artists.[2]

eArtvolution.net, a young start up that made it to the final round of the prestigious Arab MIT business plan competition, is definitely betting on this. The story began in Tunisia and its share of the cultural effervescence that rolled out of the so-called “Arab spring”. Following January 2011, innovative art exhibitions and happenings (some of them breath-taking) had begun invading cities. The challenges faced by local artists remained however; a huge lack of funding, difficulty to access local markets, high fees charged by the renowned galleries, lack of connections with other local and international artists and other opportunities. Let alone the very challenging economic and social context that is offsetting the newly gained freedom, big problems, fortunately pushing for new business models and technical innovations to help address these needs: eArtvolution’s core team, four art passionate entrepreneurs, combining software coding, business development and design experience, envision a holistic solution that is to be deployed over three stages:

  • Social Network: Yes, one could say there are enough social networks nowadays, but this one will have different capabilities and will be targeting Tunisian artists primarily. They will be enabled to showcase their art pieces online and connect with one another, enhancing collaboration and stimulating new project ideas.
  • Online Art Gallery: The core marketplace will help both new clients and artists achieve optimal deals. Comments, grading plus high quality pictures could also be included.
  • E-learning Art Entrepreneurship: This part looks at first a little odd. Why would one add a whole e-learning module to this platform? When you look at the purpose of it, training artists on how to effectively generate revenues from their work, the module looks suddenly vital and very in-line with the endeavour’s mission. The team is currently in discussion with the Institute of Art Entrepreneurship (a “creative entrepreneurship” school in Chicago) and is considering adapting its curriculum to the local context.

Fees on transactions processed through the website, revenues generated from advertisement and training would drive the financial sustainability and success of this ambitious and innovative project – literally a small art ecosystem online!

What results could be expected out of these services? The team is confident the outcome can only be positive: empowered artists who leverage technology to improve their access to market, to fill the gap between them and new audiences and hence, breaking the monopoly of a small number of galleries. ‘We want to make art much more popular in Tunisia and the internet is obviously a great tool for this’ says Mohamed Amine Chourou, a technology consultant and co-founder of eARTvolution. Partnering with the Ministry of Culture and the Artists Union is crucial, and under way, though…with some difficulties: ‘The public administration is still unstable, inconsistent and unclear. One can agree on a deal with them one day and they do not recognize you the following one’, reports Slim Ben Bahloul, another co-founder.

As for an overwhelming number of start-ups in the region, and particularly in Tunisia, fund-raising is also a big obstacle. Building a MVP[3] that would attract interest and buzz would allow the team to approach local VC funds (called “SICAV” in Tunisia) and foreign funders with more confidence. A lack of historical data in the local e-business also makes it difficult to properly estimate the market size and the potential growth. It is like walking in a foggy area, not very surprising for the crossroad of art and entrepreneurship.

Even more challenging, ‘what keeps me awake is to translate on a laptop screen the feeling of standing in front of a masterpiece’ confesses Mohamed Amine Chourou. 3D glasses and appropriate beverages might help, but this goes beyond serious business model discussions.


[1] Among the ten most expensive artists working today worldwide, two are Chinese—Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi

[2] Not long ago, the main offer was calligraphy. It has greatly diversified since then.

[3] Minimum Viable Product

 

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