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Making art accessible to everyone

Start-up firm ships prints to you for trial run at home

Jason Gracilieri, founder of TurningArt, at his Cambridge offices. Jason Gracilieri, founder of TurningArt, at his Cambridge offices. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Luke O'Neil
Globe Correspondent / December 23, 2010

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If you use Netflix the way a lot of people do — never quite getting around to returning the DVDs for a week or two after you’re done with them — the sight of those red envelopes can be an eyesore. But what if the rental was something that you didn’t mind keeping around, and actually wanted to look at? What if it was a piece of art? That’s the idea behind TurningArt, a Central Square-based start-up that allows customers to select art prints from an online catalog for display at home, and then exchange them for other prints. Jason Gracilieri, 33, founded the company. It’s his fourth start-up (his most successful was an early social networking site called Sconex.com, which he sold off). We asked him to explain how TurningArt works and why he believes he can do for art what the wine industry did for vino: make a luxury good accessible to everyone.

Q. Where did the idea for the company come from?

A. It started when I moved into a new apartment a couple of years ago. I got to a point where I had outgrown my old artwork — I don’t know if you’d really call it artwork. There were only a few pieces that I brought with me that I wanted to keep, so I had a whole lot of empty walls. I realized I wanted something more than Ikea prints, or something I found at Bed Bath and Beyond, or something I had stumbled upon. I wanted something that I actually took the time to think about, but I didn’t have the cash for original art. So I wanted to think about a way that I could discover, learn about, and shop for artwork in my home, and move past mass-reproduced prints.

Q. How does the process work?

A. The idea is, you have this spot in your home where you can try different pieces, but you may not have the time or inclination to go and hunt down art. As a customer you come to the site and you sign up for a subscription plan. We will ship the first piece to you framed, ready to hang in your home. All the pieces on the site are original artworks available from emerging artists across the country. What we send you is prints of those originals, high quality reproductions. Based on the plan you choose, at some frequency, you can change the artwork and explore new things. You can change it once every three months, to as often as you want. It starts at $9.99 a month, with all the shipping included as well as a frame. The kicker is, all the money you spend during your subscription plan earns credit toward purchasing an original work of art. It’s like an original art savings plan.

Q. Do you have a background in the art world?

A. My wife, Julie Kramer, is a painter and ex-gallery director. When we were starting the company she was obviously instrumental in the beginnings of the idea, and getting it off the ground and getting our first artists involved. Once we got it moving, the first person we hired was Liz Hall, our full-time curator and artist manager. Liz spent a lot of time at Internet companies, then went back into the art world and worked in a number of galleries in Massachusetts. The most recent one she was at was Judi Rotenberg Gallery on Newbury Street.

Q. How many people have you gotten to sign up for the service so far?

A. We don’t share that information. What I can say is that we have customers and artists across the country. Many people love the idea that they can explore a variety of artwork in their homes, while others use the service to explore art with the objective of purchasing. We just sold another original painting on Thursday.

Q. What do you think the average person’s relationship with art is like?

A. There are only three reasons why people don’t buy original artwork for every wall in their home. The first is price: It’s expensive. The second is the time and effort required to go and find that perfect piece for you. And the third is a perceived lack of knowledge. People say “I don’t know about art. I don’t know if that’s good.’’ We want to break down all those barriers. We let you build up a queue, and you never have to leave your home and go driving around to galleries or studios to hunt things down. When it comes to that perceived lack of knowledge, what we’re trying to do is to make the artist and the art more accessible to people. You do that in a way that people are used to, in the expectations that they have for how things should work online.

Q. Will it work?

A. We think there’s a real opportunity to do for art what was done for wine back in the day. Wine used to be this perceived luxury good. People were unclear about what was “good’’ and what they “should’’ drink. Now people are a lot more comfortable just saying “This is what I like.’’ And they can get good wine for not outrageous prices. That’s what we’re trying to do here. Provide a good price point, and some basic education about up-and-coming artists. This is work that’s pretty accessible to people if you take the time to find something that you really love.

Luke O’Neil can be reached at lukeoneil47@gmail.com.