Eminent Domain

The .art generic top-level domain threatens to undermine the gallery system — if curators don't get it first

A gallery's street address says a lot more than its web address. We'll assume that a gallery at 555 West 24th Street in Chelsea sells more expensive art, represents more well-known artists, and is more influential on the market, than say, the residential address of an artist-run apartment gallery in Bed Stuy. A web address can't connote this same kind of prestige differential. There are no neighborhoods on the Internet, and the cost of rent is always somewhere from $1 to $15 a month.

740 Park Avenue doesn't exist on the Internet because so far it hasn’t made sense for domain-registration services to try to raise rents. They don't try to exclude customers by charging more than their competitors, because registration services have been commoditized, and competing registrars must race to the bottom to provide the same thing. Generic top-level domains (gTLDs) — domain suffixes like .com, .net, or .org — are available to anyone. The Internet has routinely been described as democratic in part because of this: not because it is structured, developed, and administered by the people, but because everyone has equal opportunity to acquire property on it.

The art market was structured without a territory like the Internet in mind, in a time when artists and galleries relied on storefront property to display art and impress select audiences. But especially since the widespread use of social media, artists and curators are able to use alternative exhibition platforms to reach new audiences without relying on the well-trafficked IRL gallery spaces typically reserved for wealthy gallerists and well-known artists.

Emerging artists, underfunded nonprofit arts organizations, and artist-run galleries or curatorial projects largely depend on web presence to develop their audiences. Galleries like Preteen Gallery in Mexico City, The Composing Rooms in Berlin,  and Generation Works in Washington, are artist-run galleries that could be anywhere. They don't have openings; their galleries act solely as photo-shoot studios, and their audiences are entirely online. ParallelogramsGallerie 5, and Domain Gallery are a few of the many artist-run online galleries showing web-based works that don't have a street address at all.

But while alternative, web-based galleries and curatorial platforms have thrived in terms of attention, artists and curators operating along these avenues still face challenges if they hope to turn a profit. The Internet’s click-driven attention economy potentially values an image by its popularity — how many views, likes, and shares it has accrued — regardless of who created it or originally hosted it. But wealth in the attention economy doesn't necessarily translate into wealth gained in the art market. The art market operates on a prestige economy, where the value of an artwork has less to do with its intrinsic qualities and more to do with the cultural value of an artist’s reputation built through carefully managed sales and associations to galleries and museums. While artists may be capable of autonomously promoting and disseminating their work, their brand needs to be validated by art-world authority figures to have value. These authorities — well-known galleries and museums, critics, curators — provide a frame of reference for collectors that legitimate their work as worthwhile investments. While the attention economy rewards ubiquity and large networks, the prestige economy relies on scarcity and exclusion.

The open nature of Internet real estate has forced the online art community to operate along populist rather than elitist lines. But what if artist-run websites could announce their status as reputable entities solely based on their web addresses, similar to how street addresses do now? What if users could immediately identify the quality of a site's content based on their URL alone? Would the prestige economy infiltrate that online art community?

These are the questions e-flux hopes to answer by proposing an exclusive realm on the Internet  reserved for the global art community and signified by “.art.” E-flux, an artist-run private arts organization, has attempted to provide an alternative model that combines the attention and prestige economies. The organization manages several newsletters announcing global events, exhibitions, lectures, and publications relating to contemporary art and has more than 50,000 subscribers. Each newsletter is curated by e-flux staff, who keep content exclusive and selective. According to Anton Vidokle, e-flux's founder, “there are no official criteria," for the content e-flux promotes. "Basically it has to be relevant in terms of our artistic interests and the interests of our readers. The process is simple: you contact us when you want to announce a new exhibition, lecture or a publication, and if we think it’s interesting, we include it in the e-flux announcements for a fee.” These fees vary for public, corporate, or commercial institutions, and they generate profits that fund e-flux's program, which includes a monthly journal, two exhibition spaces (New York and Berlin), special projects, and exhibitions. In the process, e-flux has come to be regarded as an authoritative source of noteworthy art-world happenings.

In disseminating content to an exceptionally large audience, e-flux has capitalized on controlling the spread of information, selling access to its network and reputation. Now it would like to extend the value of that reputation by using it to underwrite the exclusivity of the proposed .art domain, of which it has applied to become sole manager. By the end of this year, ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a private nonprofit organization that since 1998, assumed responsibility from the U.S. government for managing Internet protocol and domain-name registries — will release roughly 1,400 new gTLDs, including .pizza, .church, .sex, and of course, .art. Each new gTLD will be developed and distributed by a private third party, who will be chosen for its ability to sell the domain and effectively manage operations.

ICANN has made public versions of all gTLD applications available online. (E-flux's can be found here; deviantArt's here.) “Community TLD Applicants” — in the case of .art, e-flux and online image platform deviantART— are given priority in the selection process over companies with no particular affiliation and are expected to representing the interests of the community in question. All applicants had to pay a nonrefundable fee of $185,000, plus a $5,000 deposit, and if chosen, will need to pay $25,000 every year thereafter. The winning third parties will have the right to decide who can register for a site under that domain and at what cost.

This sounds a lot like real estate development. And depending on who gets the right to develop and administer the .art domain, there could be a lot at stake. Aside from e-flux and deviantART, none of the other 8 .art applicants have art-world backgrounds. The rest are mainly large corporations, including multinationals Top Level Domain Holdings Ltd. (which submitted 68 TLD applications) and Donuts (which submitted 307 TLD applications.) E-flux and deviantART both predict that if the .art domain isn't overseen by a responsible member of the global art community, the community will suffer in the hands of out-of-touch profiteers. According to e-flux's application, e-flux “has been an established authority in the field of art, having provided open and free access to extremely high-quality content for the global public and specialized professionals alike. Consequently, it has become a trustworthy key node through which most of the important information about art on the Internet passes ... E-flux envisions this new space [generated by the .art gTLD] as a reliable, ethical, selective, and educational resource for art professionals, educators, institutions, and especially the public at large.” E-flux's believes its management of  .art "will not only add significant credibility to this new space, but will also ensure that the TLD, the domain names registered therein and the content provided thereunder is relevant, genuine, and of high quality.”

If either e-flux or deviantART were granted the right to develop and distribute the .art gTLD, a board of art-world professionals would screen potential registrants, ensuring that every .art site hosted only trusted and “reputable” content pertaining to the arts community. Collectors, art professionals, academics, and the general public could use “.art” as a search term to find content backed by the reputation of e-flux or deviantART. Web addresses ending in .art would thereby be imbued with some of the same art-world prestige that is conserved by IRL galleries.

This could represent an opportunity for the artist-run curatorial projects mentioned above, which could potentially benefit from the .art aura. Such institutions could more easily participate in the prestige economy; their stamp of approval intrinsically bound in the URL under which they operate. If artists have .art at then end of their URL, their work could, in theory, become valuable in the eyes of collectors.

Whether e-flux or deviantART's development of the .art gTLD would be good news for independent artists and curators, or whether they will make the domain yet another gated art-world community is all in the fine print. DeviantArt's application is a bit vague, but e-flux describes its plan in detail. It proposes a two-step plan. If chosen, e-flux would initially invite a select group of museums, residencies, biennials, galleries, and publishing houses to register. In other words, it will try to motivate moma.org to become moma.art. With significant participation from this “primary category,” it hopes the .art domain will gain visibility and validation, creating demand within the rest of the art community for use of the gTLD. “Only after the TLD has established its credibility, which is likely going to happen when a substantial part of the ‘primary category’ of registrants have established their presence on the Internet under the .art TLD, the TLD would be opened up to commercial entities and individuals within the international art community.”

Domain registry services generally try to sell as many registrations as possible, which keeps price points competitive. But if e-flux has its way, using .art will be very expensive: “Considering the fact that the .art TLD will be presented as a highly specialized, highly reputable, and focused Internet extension, the envisaged price points for domain name registrations that are currently being considered by e-flux need to be sufficient in order to allow the Applicant to execute the vision and mission statement described above.” The success of e-flux's plan rides on artificially limiting the number of available registrations for .art, creating a demand for it that translates as cultural capital. And for those who can't afford it? E-flux would have a special application procedure for registrants who demonstrate the quality of content and ethics the program purports to uphold but are of limited resources. What this “special application procedure” might entail is left for the imagination. Given the application expenses, e-flux may have to charge a hefty price for .art registration just to cover costs. My hunch is that even with financial aid, emerging artists and artist-run galleries will have little chance of participation. (The good new is, e-flux promises to donate a small portion of proceeds to underfunded art programming.)

It's hard to predict which applicant ICANN will grant .art to, but after receiving vociferous support from the art community, e-flux might stand a chance. While e-flux didn't pass the Initial Evaluation after failing the technical and financial evaluation, it is still in the running. It has been granted an Extended Evaluation to provide additional information necessary for the panel to make a decision.

If e-flux is successful, we will see a new hierarchy on the web that could restructure the ways in which art is viewed, collected, and sold online. A designated corner of the Internet administered by the art world for the art world might sound promising. But are these gatekeepers really desirable? And if the .art gTLD was managed by a random profit-driven corporation, would it really be as detrimental and irresponsible as e-flux and deviantART claim?

I wonder whether an art Internet curated by e-flux might actually be the worst-case scenario. It's nice to fantasize about an art world that values web-based projects and artist-run galleries just as much as it does the galleries with Chelsea addresses, but I don't think e-flux has that revolution in mind. More likely, the art world of the web would start looking more like the real world, where prestige can be bought and sold and where wealth and visibility go hand in hand. If the Internet is going to get stronger gatekeepers, it's likely that those who get keys won't really need them to begin with.

If e-flux and deviantART lose to a big corporation, we probably won't notice much of a difference in how we search, judge, or produce online content. The .art domain will most likely be accessible to anyone who wants to pay for it, and .art would connote nothing more than a personal preference. If that's the worst that can happen, it isn't any worse than the status quo. Under the regime of a profit- rather than a prestige-maximizing company, .art would act like .us, .biz, or .net — domain suffixes that some artists prefer, but often only for the way they turn domain names into a medium for creativity or puns. Would http://f.art really be the end of the world?