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20x200's Jen Bekman On Collecting Art Without Breaking the Bank

Let’s be honest: Those blacklight posters don’t really carry the same weight they did in your college days. Maybe it’s time to graduate from dorm life and upgrade to some legitimate artwork. But before you blame your apartment’s drab décor on the spiraling economy, check out this amazing site: 20x200. New York gallery owner Jen Bekman is bringing limited edition, covet-worthy originals to the masses through her online endeavor. Named after the project’s first batch of 200, $20 prints (in their own words, “200x20 just didn't sound as good”), the site now offers a variety of editions and sizes.

Join Jen for the 20x200 San Francisco Collectors Confab this Monday, April 6 at Chronicle Books (680 Second Street, between Brannan and Townsend) from 6 to 8 pm. In honor of the event, 20x200 will be featuring editions from two Chronicle-published artists: Stuart Klipper’s The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole, and Mark Richard’s Core Memory. RSVP via Facebook, Upcoming or via email at rsvp@20x200.com.

We caught up with Jen to learn the art of transitioning from naïve newbie to qualified collector, without breaking the bank.

You’ve had a variety of jobs, and were successful as both a chief creative officer and a VP of User Development—why art?
It was sort of a spontaneous decision. I don’t come from an arts background, but a friend of mine was an artist and I saw how frustrating it was for her to get her work shown. So I decided to open a gallery! It was that simple. But it was a two-part thing: I saw how difficult it was for her to get her work shown, and I also realized, for myself, that I was dissatisfied with the existing galleries and I wanted to create a different kind of environment.

What motivated 20x200? Had you heard complaints on both sides (from consumers and artists) that the art world was difficult to maneuver?

I opened a physical gallery in 2003, and then in 2005, I established a photo competition called "Hey, Hot Shot!", and then 20x200 launched in 2007. The genesis of that was based on my experience that a lot of people came into the gallery and fell in love with pieces of art, but couldn’t work up the nerve to take the plunge. I always describe 20x200 as the gateway drug to the art world. I thought if you could just make it affordable, people wouldn’t worry about taking the risk as much. The idea is that people will get hooked once they try it.

Some people only ever collect $20 prints, which is fine. But I’ve seen that buying art and understanding art is intimidating for people, and because it’s intimidating, it’s hard to find a way into it. We send out two to three newsletters a week, and try to sound serious but approachable at the same time. The broader approach is for people to learn to make decisions. Once you buy enough inexpensive pieces, you become more confident about what your taste is.

The responses have been great – I’ve had people tell me they’ve never collected art before this, and I also get sheepish emails from people saying, “You call that art?!” But I encourage people to disagree with me because that’s how you find out what you like and what you don’t like, and you especially learn your tastes based on what you don’t like. I like to give people the opportunity to accept and reject different pieces. 

How do you determine your artists?
It’s a combination of things. It’s not specifically emerging artists that we feature, because more established artists also have the opportunity to make works for people who normally can’t afford them. It’s affordable work, but instead of being cheap, you get the unique opportunity to get something that is usually much more expensive at an affordable price. I find artists at benefits for organizations, the photography competition is where the bulk of photographers come from. One artist I found at a museum show, I’ve found them through Chronicle books. I’ll ask anybody, anywhere—the worst they can do is say no.

Photography seems to be an important part of your life – was it essential that 20x200 offer both a printed work and a photo each week?
One of the things that’s great about "Hey, Hot Shot!" is that I engage with photographers and do small group shows, and get to build relationships. It’s a big deal to engage in relationships with the artists, and 20x200 allows me to engage with artists in other media, aside from photography. When I opened the gallery, I gravitated to photography because I was more confident in it. Now that it’s been open for 6 years, I’m a lot further along in finding my own tastes in other media than when I started.

Have social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook made 20x200 even more accessible?
It’s been huge—the Internet in general—from the start. I definitely think Facebook and Twitter and blogs have all been important parts of how we spread the word about new editions. We’ll release new work, talk about it, and release images on Facebook – that’s been a big part of what we do. For me, it all falls in line with the broader goal, which is to create opportunities for people who wouldn’t normally look at art, to look at art.

How did the Chronicle Books partnership come about?
I’m friends with Nion McEvoy and Alan Rapp, who was an editor there, and I’ve done different things with some of their artists. The reason I love working with Chronicle is because I think there’s that shared responsibility of making beautiful books, and amazing objects, and they work with great artists. For me, it was perfect. It’s a publisher I admire and love working with. We’re releasing an edition with a Chronicle Books artist the day of the party, and we’re doing a bonus edition of another artist. It’s a nice opportunity. To me, I see books as a great introduction to learning about art. This is a way for people to understand the value of visual art, whether it’s because it’s beautifully made or because it features interesting artists.

Any final thoughts for amateur art collectors?
Because I own a gallery, when I started 20x200, it was never an option for us to make cheap prints. The prints are beautiful – you can get beautiful, archival prints for $20 that are worth much more. I had a friend say to me, “You start your newsletters with, ‘Hello Collectors,’ but I’m not a collector – I just bought one thing.” But I think the minute you buy a print, you’re a collector. I want people to have the experience of collecting art, and we’ve thought hard about every aspect of the experience. Our pieces cost the same as posters, but are worth much more. The hope is that once people get a print from us, they’ll never just be satisfied with posters again.