These days, it seems like everyone is interested in art. With the wealth of information on the internet and the abundance of art blogs and forums popping up on social media platforms like Instagram and Reddit, there’s been an upsurge in enthusiasm and desire for art, especially among young people. Everyone wants that perfect piece to complete the aesthetic of their interior space, and so everyone is on the lookout for good art to fill it with.
This, of course, is a good thing. The more people care about art, the more opportunity there is for hardworking professional artists to succeed and thrive. However, at the same time, growth in the market for affordable art also means a profusion of mass-produced and low-quality art objects to soak up that end of the market which hasn’t yet learned to distinguish between fine art prints and prints of fine art.
Let’s take, as an example, one of the biggest online vendors of art—Art.com—and their so-called “Museum Quality” canvas prints.
What is Art.com?
Art.com is a mass-market purveyor of art prints specializing in selling reproductions of famous works at an affordable price. Everything can be found here, from Ansel Adams to Andrew Wyeth, and pieces are offered in a variety of different sizing and mounting options.
Art.com boasts prices reasonable enough to fit any budget, from professional collectors with private collections to college students looking to spruce up a dorm. However, despite the low costs, buyers are also assured of the high quality of the pieces offered for sale. Art.com especially prides itself on its canvas prints, which carry the tantalizing attribute of being “museum quality.”
Is this too good to be true? Could you really, for as little as $50, own a piece of art fit for the Louvre or the Met? Before you consult common sense, let’s take a look at what this phrase “museum quality” actually means.
What Is Museum Quality?
What does Art.com mean when it says a print of a painting or photograph is “museum quality”? When we talk about paintings, we usually mean a piece of art that has something to do with paint, where an artist uses a brush to meticulously build up a unique textured image on raw canvas. So when Art.com calls a mass-produced reproduction of that same work, made by a machine automatically bonding a flat layer of ink to canvas in just a few seconds, this statement on quality seems a bit nonsensical. Museums aren’t interested in prints of paintings, they want the original artworks themselves with all their texture and one-of-a-kind mystique; so how do we decipher this strange statement?
When Art.com says “museum quality,” we should translate this as “archival quality.” As they say on their website:
“...we use only cotton-poly blend artist-grade canvas and 1.5-inch 100% pine stretcher bars. Sides are mirror edged, giving the canvas a reflection-like appearance without losing any of the original image. Professionally stretched canvases are printed with latex inks that retain color and resist humidity.”
So these artworks are manufactured to be resilient and safe enough that they would meet the preservation standards of a museum…if they actually displayed such things. Paintings simply aren’t made this way, though, so the point is nonetheless moot.
But what about photography? Photographs are created by the exposure of a piece of film or a photosensitive sensor. The final work usually involves some kind of ink printing process and the resulting piece is fully two-dimensional. So does this mean you trust a piece of photographic art purchased from Art.com to rival an original Stieglitz, Bresson, or Rowell?
What Do Art Buyers Say About Art.com?
At the time of this writing, the Better Business Bureau has ten complaints logged against Art.com. The majority of these complaints mention concerns with customer service. Issues like delivery time, canceled items not in stock and bothersome email advertising after the sale. Here is one review from early 2021:
On 12/17/2020 I placed an order with Art.com for a piece of framed artwork. I was advised that it would be arriving after Christmas and would ship out the week of 1/11/21 for arrival on 1/15/21. I followed up with them on January 11 to confirm and they advised that the frame was damaged so they needed to re-order it and it would ship on 1/28/21 overnite to arrive 1/29/21. Since that conversation I have periodically checked to confirm they were still on target for the end of the month and have been told they were. This week I have called 3-4 times and have been given 3-4 different answers and cannot get a clear idea from anyone, when I called yesterday 1/28 I was told they had 2 Fed-Ex pickups (morning and evening) and that it didn't make the morning so it would be going out in the evening making the arrival to me 1/30/21 vs 1/29/21. I just checked and nobody knows where it is, if it shipped or if it is even ready to ship.
Now this doesn't really need to be said, but that is clearly not the feeling that you want your customers to have about you or your business. The simple fact is that many of the benefits big art houses like Art.com provide are quickly overshadowed by the impersonal customer service you will receive both during and after the sale.
Canvas Prints for Photography
Aside from the seeming incongruousness of putting a photograph on canvas (a notion the early Pictorialists would have surely found intriguing), there are some very practical reasons why the majority of professional photographers do not choose this medium.
Canvas Print Image Quality
One of the chief concerns for photographers has always been image quality. Film photographers have to worry about grain size and digital photographers have to consider noise. Both of these show up as a slight loss of detail and minute differences in color through a sort of salt-and-pepper or tv static effect. Enlarging photographs can exacerbate these effects and begin to introduce pixelation, where individual squares of color are plainly visible in the composition.
Canvas is a woven medium composed of small knots and intersections of thread. This creates a sort of grid pattern which can expose and/or replicate grain, noise, and pixelation. This causes a loss in definition, a distortion of high-contrast areas, and a general feeling of disappointment on the part of the artist.
Canvas Print Durability
Art.com’s claims about the archival quality of its inks and resistance to humidity are reasonable and probably quite true. Nonetheless, we are still talking about canvas. Canvas is a cloth, and thus vulnerable to tearing. Canvas artworks are some of the most difficult things to move, whether you’re relocating to a new house or just taking a new piece home from a gallery. One wrong move or rough contact and you’ve got a big hole through the middle of your art.
Paper prints, of the type preferred by professional photographers, are also fragile. They, however, will not rip if you bump against them on the wall, and in any case are usually protected by a sheet of acrylic or glass and a surrounding frame. Even in a rough move, any damage which occurs doesn’t reach the art itself. A housing can easily be replaced—canvas repair, however, is difficult, and usually reserved only for real museum artworks.
Better Alternatives To Canvas
Most photographers don’t choose canvas simply because there are better alternatives. Fuji creates some of the finest photographic papers in the world, used throughout the photographic establishment for serious artistic endeavors. Art.com’s canvas photo prints might have good color reproduction and be of archival quality, but it’s simply not up to par with the industry standard.
So, if not true for painting, can Art.com reasonably claim its photo prints are “museum quality”? It’s hard to say. While the majority of professional photographers likely to have their work end up in a museum wouldn’t choose canvas, there is no hard and fast rule like with painting. What we can say is that if an experienced photographer were to employ canvas in their work, it would probably involve a more complex and nuanced process than that used by Art.com’s mass-market production facilities, built to pump out tens of thousands of pieces per day for as low a cost as possible.
Art.com, Artists, and Art Enthusiasts
This article isn’t meant to dissuade you from purchasing canvas photo prints. As a cheap and simple option for filling an empty space or adding some personality or color to a room, a canvas print can’t be beat. The important thing is for serious collectors to understand the tradeoffs and limitations of the medium, and not to let themselves be wooed by commercial buzz-phrases like “museum quality.”
When choosing the right artwork for a space, however, there is more to consider than just the quality of a piece, and there is more to think about when using a site like Art.com.
We all fawn over the genius and iconic impact of past masters and their work, and if you have a favorite artwork, you should absolutely obtain a copy for your own personal enjoyment. However, by placing past artists on a pedestal, we and the companies which sell their mass-market reproductions often overshadow and marginalize the work of rising and contemporary artists. This is not to say anyone should feel guilty for buying a repro Ansel Adams or van Gogh, only that those who are looking for a new piece of art and are not dead-set on a specific work should consider other commercial avenues besides places like Art.com.
Sites like YellowKorner and Lumas offer a huge catalog of original and affordable art by contemporary artists who each benefit directly from sales of their work. Through proper promotion and compensation, these platforms make a real difference in the careers and success of aspiring and established creators in a way which Art.com and other sites like it simply don’t. For those passionate about art, sites like these offer a great chance to give back to and keep the community healthy and thriving. The only drawback? No “museum quality” canvas.
You Deserve More Than Just Fine
The worlds best fine art photographers market and sell their work through their own personal websites and brick and mortar art galleries. True museum quality art is not mass produced and distributed through online storefronts. True museum quality, original photography is superior to mass production methods used in any case. There simply is no substitute for the worlds best photographic prints. You deserve better. You deserve more.