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Carter Cleveland

The art-world Steve Jobs on space travel and the magic of mixing art and science

Carter Cleveland, the 26-year-old founder and CEO of – now due to the Syrian conflict’s escalation – is on a mission to make all of the world’s art freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. A few years ago it was a fantasy imagined by Cleveland in his Princeton dorm room; last October, Artsy launched to the public with a sleek platform to view, save, share, discuss and buy art. Although backed by art-world figures like Dasha Zhukova and Larry Gagosian and tech entrepreneurs like Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, it’s a company about function as much as alliances. Last December, Artsy partnered with Design Miami/ as the event’s exclusive online platform, and it’s doing the same with this month’s Armory Show in New York City.

What did you want to be growing up? 
Carter Cleveland: A theoretical physicist. I’ve been obsessed with science and physics for as long as I can remember. I read Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe twice when it first came out, when I was 12. It talks about string theory and particle physics. I got obsessed with it, and then I started reading lots and lots of physics books. I can talk your ear off about black holes, dark matter, dark energy and the phases of the universe. I originally went to Princeton for physics.

So how did art become a part of your life?
Carter Cleveland: I’ve always been interested in art. My dad (David Adams Cleveland) is an art writer. I grew up being dragged to galleries and museums. He wrote A History of American Tonalism, which came out in 2010, and he writes for a few art magazines. He’s also a collector himself. Growing up, my bedroom was covered inch to inch with paintings. I never had posters as a kid. I never had the option.

So is it true that you came up with the idea for Artsy when you were looking for a poster for your dorm room at Princeton?
Carter Cleveland: Yeah, I grew up surrounded by art, and then when I got to college I was surrounded by blank walls. I started searching online, and I assumed there would be a website with all the world’s art, and there just wasn’t. I kept searching and thinking I was missing something, and I eventually realised that this would be a really fun project. I had switched to the Computer Science major and was interested in things like artificial intelligence. I thought I would just build a website and get all the world’s art on there.

At what point did it get serious and become more than a side project?
Carter Cleveland: I just kept researching. I was already fairly obsessive to begin with. I took a class on entrepreneurship, and loved the idea of building something from nothing. I read a lot of science fiction as a kid, and I would always fantasise about creating a huge technology company that would usher science fiction into the present day. I remember I came home one night at 2am, and my roomates thought I was on drugs or something. I was just manic and intense and excited... A friend convinced me to apply for the Princeton businessplan competition and I got second place, which gave me money and free office space in Silicon Valley. When I graduated, I hired some interns and flew to Silicon Valley to start working on Artsy there. Eventually I found engineers to help me build it, then I started running out of money, and then I got more investors. It’s one of those things where you take the next step, and then you have to take the next step after that. It just starts to get its own momentum very quickly, and then there’s no turning back. But there was no moment when I felt like I was going to make the decision; I just couldn’t stop it.

How would you describe Artsy to someone who doesn’t know anything about it? 
Carter Cleveland: We want to make all the world’s art freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. We’re working with galleries, museums, and artists’ estates to get their art online, make it easily accessible to everyone around the world, and also create an educational context. If you have an artwork or an artist, and you want to understand the historical context around them, you can do that using all the metadata we’ve added through The Art Genome Project. Fundamentally, we want to be the platform for art. What can you do with art? You can learn about it, you can read about it, you can write about it, you can buy it and you can sell it. We just want to be the platform that enables all of these activities.

If you could share Artsy with one person who hasn’t seen it yet, dead or alive, who would it be?
Carter Cleveland: Steve Jobs, because he felt that the fundamental property that made Apple special was the fact that it brought together the liberal arts and the sciences – technology and design. That’s also the fundamental value that drives Artsy. Artsy is fundamentally about bringing art and science together, technology and design together – intuition versus logic. All of these things that attempt to be separate in the world, we think that the magic happens in the space between them. He represented those ideals, and I would have loved to know what he thought. It was so close. It would have happened if he were alive a little bit longer, too.

Your Artsy profile says that you’re ‘a space explorer in training’. What does that mean?
Carter Cleveland: When I have enough money, I’m going to go to space. For about $300,000, Virgin Galactic will be able to take you in a year or two. Or for about $15/20 million, the Russians will take you up there for a week.

Where do you see Artsy in the future and will it change the art market?
Carter Cleveland: Artsy will eventually be a platform for human expression in general. We’re starting with art, but pretty soon we’re going to have video art, performance art and dance. Artsy will ultimately be about people being able to access human expression and relate to each other through it. We’re going to make the art market a lot bigger and more efficient. When people are passionate about art that leads to people buying art. The only way to really help more artists is to fundamentally increase the demand; it’s not a supply issue, it’s a demand issue. It also means that a lot more artists will be able to pursue their passions more sustainably.

Can you describe the purpose of Artsy’s alignment with big-name investors and events like Design Miami/and the Armory Show?
Carter Cleveland: The art world is predominantly a relationship-driven business. You need to have relationships and trust; you need to build a brand. A lot of our investors and partners allow us to have those relationships. Ultimately, the goal is to make art very accessible and remove a lot of the elitism that currently perpetuates the art world – all the intimidation, all the negative emotions. We want art to be as ubiquitous and a part of our culture as music is today. Music also used to be something that was only for a select few in society. With the record player, the radio, the internet – once everybody has access to it, it’s no longer a big deal. All that matters is the music itself, your enjoyment of it, and talking about it with your friends. I see art becoming the same way. It won’t be about who’s who or any other superficial stuff that has a lot of people feeling unwelcome.

The Armory Show opens tomorrow, Thursday 7th March