Five years ago, Chris Batty, until this week Gawker’s vice president of sales and marketing, was looking to fill un-purchased ad space on the site. He wanted to forgo the “horrendous creative” of ad networks that litter sites with penny stocks and would keep his sales teams pushing buttons instead of building relationships. Batty sought something prettier, more intimate, more unique for the company’s growing real estate. At the time, he was living with a woman who worked for Christie’s Auction House, and he prodded her to find artists to fill the empty space. She didn’t act on Batty’s inspiration, but he did — bringing images of artists’ work to stand alongside Gawker’s blog posts.
The result was a workaround that gave Gawker full control over its pages’ aesthetics. Born as a stopgap to complement blog posts, Gawker Artists is now taking on an unexpected life of its own — it became a standalone site in 2006 — in large part by thinking of art not merely as a pretty placeholder for text but as something that could survive on its own. Something that could be modeled and monetized. “Gawker Artists is an art brand rather than an editorial brand,” Gawker Media’s director of marketing, Erin Pettigrew, points out. That’s a major distinction in an industry that uses the word “art” as shorthand for photos, infographics, cartoons, and any other visual.
G.A. curators — working with more than 1,400 artists with 35,000 images — tailor and export work to media partners like Elle, Curbed, and The Atlantic. They hang pieces at Gawker’s notoriously bit-focused office, and are in talks to curate work for the headquarters of another high-profile startup. G.A. organizes sponsored exhibitions and events and collaborates with brands on creative projects. Soon, it will launch an art shop that sells limited-edition prints.
It’s an experiment that suggests the power of looking beyond text in journalism’s business models. As Ivan Askwith, director of strategy at Big Spaceship and a founding member of MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium, puts it: “Let go of the idea that content needs to be created in a certain medium.”
In hindsight, Batty says he would have found a simpler solution for the ad space. Networks are more versatile now, and Gawker can collapse un-purchased space, folding the pixels away and making them disappear. That would have been a shame, though, for Jonathan Fasulo, a photographer who shows on artists.gawker.com. A company that builds websites for photogs found Fasulo there, liked his work, and is giving him a free site for two years. Berlin-based Winston Torr started exhibiting on G.A. earlier in 2010 — and within a week of signing on, his Facebook fan page jumped from 175 to 275 followers. That was followed up with a phone call from the curator of a new Berlin gallery, who wants Torr for a show.
Gawker doesn’t represent artists, but it provides free profiles and exposure. “We both want to communicate with as big an audience as possible,” says Liz Dimmitt, drawing a comparison between artists and journalism companies. Liz and her 24-year-old sister, Genevieve, curate Gawker Artists, visiting studios and taking submissions.
Right now, G.A. is a corporate art program: It’s not charged with generating revenue, producing traffic, or breaking news. The site is an endearingly calm space among Gawker’s tumultuous, often cheeky media properties. “We are sort of a good karma project,” says Liz, who interned with JP Morgan Chase’s corporate art program seven years ago and joined G.A. in 2006. Genevieve, fresh out of Savannah College of Art and Design, says, “I didn’t really know what Gawker was,” but adds that it’s “kind of genius for them to be placing art in their ad space.”
That genius is not just about G.A.’s use of ad space; it’s also about their construction of an entirely new community (in this case, artists) that builds an entirely new resource (in this case, art) that is entirely monetizable: exhibits, art-based events, prints, etc. Some of the most promising media organizations are bringing their business models offline: Mashable inaugurated Social Media Day; Vice invited its merry band of hipsters to watch Eastbound and Down; the Economist holds business summits; Vogue brings out the fashionistas; GQ opened a restaurant division; Wired pops up its SoHo store; Tyler Brule’s traveling journalism operation, Monocle, has an office that publishes in the back and sells products in the front. What makes G.A.’s model work is that they move offline by harnessing community-generated content online.
Since Gawker differentiates between a Torr painting and, say, a picture of Putin, the company can use each resources in different ways. One way they do that is to spread their new resources to visually-based websites. Each month, the Dimmitt sisters cycle new content through Gawker Media properties, and G.A. offers to share the code with anyone who wants it (simply fill out a form with preferred display sizes). More than 200 sites — many of them those of Gawker Artists — feature Gawker’s art on their blogs and Flickr and Etsy profiles. Digital Americana, a literary and culture mag made strictly for the iPad, exhibits Gawker Artists as a footer banner on its site.
For bigger journalism outfits (like Curbed, Elle, and The Atlantic), the Dimmitts hand-curate. Curbed, a real estate-focused network, features art from thematically-related artists in the top-right corner of its site and as banner ads to break up blog posts. General Manager Josh Albertson trusts the Dimmitts to pick images that fit, and if you check out Curbed, there’s a pleasant mix of architectural work co-branded as the “Gawker Artists Curbed collection.” Even though Albertson looks forward to the day when Gawker Artists content is replaced by paying clients, “we’d rather be running this than 25-cent weight-loss CPM ads,” he says. Gawker curates these collections for free, but along the way, they’re building their second brand — and curators are getting to know their community for the time when bigger projects come along.
Gawker Artists also brings a three-dimensional sensibility to Gawker Media sites. Not Avatar 3D, but events, exhibitions, community. “I think Gawker has been somewhat of a pioneer in that respect,” says Erin Smolinski, media planning manager for Diesel USA. As part of Diesel’s Be Stupid campaign earlier this year, she spent $30,000 with Gawker Media, a buy that included run-of-site banners, custom roadblocks, co-branded posts, and a contest moderated by James Frey. Click-throughs were through the roof — 3.8 percent on custom builds, almost five times the industry average — and Diesel’s first-ever online campaign garnered Gawker up to $7 CPMs.
Simultaneously, Gawker Artists was curating its NSFW (“Not Safe For Work”) show featuring artist Justine Lai’s “presidents” series (somewhat SFW). Account exec Meredith Katz told Smolinski about the event, and Diesel put $5,000 of the buy to sponsor NSFW. “I liked the way it made our plan robust,” she says. Smolinski, who partnered with Gawker for its Silent Rave — a dance party with headphones (really) — says NSFW was “a little more intimate and brave” than the rave. It made the campaign resonate more, and Diesel got to wrap party guests in a room full of branded information.
This summer, the Dimmitts helped build an event with $10,000 from smartwater, a Glaceau (Coca-Cola) brand. Artist Ryan Brennan created a multimedia installation that synchronized with music and played well against the setting sun. Infinitely more engaging than a display ad, “the event creates a lot of value, no doubt about that,” says Clotaire Rapaille, author of Culture Code. He likes the fluid nature of Gawker’s creation. “Water is only good when it is in movement. Smartwater is ‘being’ movement, being alive and being in the moment. That reinforces your brand in people’s mind.” Not bad for community-generated content. “I’m actually shocked that more people haven’t done what we’re doing,” Liz says.
Image — “Rapture,” by Robyn Alatorre — courtesy Gawker Artists.