Bluethumb is a platform for Australian artists to exhibit and sell their artwork. It was originally founded by Edward Hartley, his brother George Hartley and Philip Slusarski in 2012. They took on external investors in late 2015 and 2017 and in 2020 Barry Newstead (former CEO of Redbubble), joined as an investor and advisor. Co-Founder and Director Edward Hartley said ‘All this has helped us accelerate our growth; double down on technology and expand our brand and reach.’
We were interested to chat with Edward to learn more about his views on being in business with art, as well as hear his meditations on the value of art and how to start an art collection. This comes as the Bluethumb Art Prize is in its 10th year, and as part of the celebrations they are offering the richest prize pool yet of $250,000.
On Bluethumb’s origins, he shared; We grew up in an entrepreneurial family and one which also celebrated art. From a young age my brother and I always wanted to build a business and ‘be in play’. To go for it. George (my brother) has always been into technology and became a UX designer before we launched our own start-up. In 2012 we just saw the need for artists and collectors to be able to come together online and so Bluethumb was formed. As a child I never imagined one day our business would be in art, but here we are super lucky to be at the intersection of technology and art and building something we believe in.’
Read on to see how Edward’s passion for art and insights in business and technology have coalesced into a sustained and successful career.
Can you give us a sense of the scale of Bluethumb?
Well we have sold over 70,000 original artworks, and on average have doubled every year. We are now the biggest seller of art in Australia and earn an income by taking a commission. It’s lower than traditional galleries and is a far more natural experience for artists who literally only have to paint, list their art and then package it once sold. We take care of the technology, marketing, finances, and safe delivery of artworks.
How mature is the business and does it make a profit?
As a technology company we are a marketplace – connecting artists and buyers through technology. That means priority of growth (as opposed to profit) and delivering on a mission to empower artists to create a sustainable living. However we’ve being doing this for over 10 years now and the last two years growth have been strong enough that we have been profitable (not the intention) but this meant we have been able strengthen our balance sheet in order to fund more ambitious growth initiatives (which are unfortunately confidential just now) and also fund the full $250,000 prize pool ourselves.
Has your co-founders’ experience in User Experience design and email tools for e-commerce shaped the site and what innovations are you working on now?
Absolutely. To quote an old Audi slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik” – progress through technology. It is as core to our success as nurturing our community and a deep understanding of tech has been a great advantage when competing against international competitors with deeper pockets.
Why do you think art is important?
A lot could be said here. But keeping it simple, my artworks are about the only items I’ll own for life. A house typically is sold every 8 years, cars depreciate, furniture unless a family heirloom has a finite life, technology is superseded and so on. Whereas the artworks I’ve collected I love and that never changes. They will come with me wherever I live. Some will appreciate vastly and some won’t – either way it doesn’t matter to me.
Of course it runs deeper than the object or ownership. The story behind an artwork, the power of a few brush strokes can have, or a bond created between an artist and the collector these things transcend material ownership. Many Indigenous artworks are stories from the land that may be 50,000 years old. Often only that artist or a small number of family members from their dreaming group are even allowed to tell that story in art form or paint a certain part of the land. And here you are, the custodian of that incredibly important piece of ancient, yet living culture and a gateway to between their world and yours through a single painting. I love that.
What advice do you have for someone starting or expanding an art collection?
The standard advice to buy what you love is evergreen. At Bluethumb we also have a team of art advisors and interior designers on hand. So, whether you are looking for your first artwork, a statement piece at home, are fitting out a commercial project or want to find investment grade art you can get advice for free. Most people just don’t know it’s available.
Other than the prize money, how will artists benefit from applying, or eventually being named a winner?
Bluethumb’s art prize is the biggest in the nation. Last year we had over 6,500 entries – the most of any Australian art prize (and to my knowledge in the world). So it’s ultra-competitive and winning it is a career launching milestone. This year with $250,000 prize money it’s getting dialled up again. It’s also being judged entirely by artists and some of the biggest names including: Blak Douglas who won this year’s Archibald prize and Loribelle Spirovski who won the 2021 Bluethumb Prize.
Building your brand as an artist is really important and this does it in spades.
The artists entering also typically sell very well during the prize as collectors are being exposed to incredible emerging artists, often quite early in their career. It works well on both sides of the art equation.