Creative Conversations: Aki Karja

Aki Karja has lived in New York for nearly 20 years. His experience as an investor and a skateboarder led him to create Artfare, a platform that aims to connect artists and patrons, making the experience of buying art more effortless and accessible. The Artfare app offers artists an alternative to gallery representation, and allows patrons to follow the work of interesting artists as well as purchase their pieces.

You have just launched app and website Artfare. How did you get the idea?

My roots and background as a skateboarder and my wife’s connections in the art world made me aware of how my artist friends struggled and were frustrated with the existing system. My professional background is in investing so I could also look at the problem from the point of view of an economist. I realized that there was a problem and nobody had figured out how to solve it. People talk about democratization of the music industry, for example. Something like that hasn’t happened in the art world.

So what exactly is the problem of the art world?

Art as an industry is adding layers of distribution while the opposite is happening in many other industries or creative fields. Galleries are suffering from increasing rent and salary costs but the main issue is that half of gallery sales comes from art fairs, which are very expensive for galleries to attend. Because of this trend, galleries do not want to take risks and are less eager to represent younger artists. The artists are the ones who are set to lose the most in this situation. They have fewer places to show their work, and galleries continue to take 50% or more in commissions and often take a long time to pay the artist.

And how does Artfare solve this issue?

Our solution is a digital platform that works as a tool and a facilitator of in-person experiences. On the Artfare platform, users can explore and purchase available works by a carefully‑curated, diverse group of professional artists, engage with the artists directly, and experience artwork in person in New York. Additionally, if a user sees a piece they like at our exhibition, they can identify the piece easily with our image recognition tool, save it as a favorite on the app, and purchase the piece later on after virtually trying it out on the wall at home. Or maybe they find another piece by the same artist and schedule a studio visit to see it in person before deciding whether to make the purchase. Artfare can offer you access in a way that previously has only been available for very experienced collectors.

What have you learned about the New York art scene during the process?

Firstly, art is very relatable to most people but the process of buying art is not. Secondly, contrary to popular belief, artists are often extroverts as opposed to introverts and they are happy to connect with people. Thirdly, there are three main reasons to buy art: love, money and the social aspect. Art can make you feel better and happier, art can be an investment and sometimes people might buy art to feel more included and connected with their tribe, so to speak.

Carl Tahir, one of the artists featured on the Artfare platform, photographed by Anna Bauer.

Carl Tahir, one of the artists featured on the Artfare platform, photographed by Anna Bauer.

Have you discovered any new favorite artists during the process?

There are too many to mention. For me, the most exciting part is to start understanding the process behind art and meeting the artists behind the work.

What are your favorite places to see art in New York?

I really like open studios events. Every neighborhood in Brooklyn has its own from Dumbo to Bushwick. Those are a lot of fun, especially if you get into discussions with artists. Unless it’s the opening night, I am not a huge fan of gallery hopping. I do like to go to art fairs though.

How do you see the future of the art world?

I believe that in 5-10 years there will be fewer permanent galleries but many more fairs, show openings, and parties. I think the gallery model will evolve away from permanent physical space to pop-up exhibitions and art fairs that are being organized by curators and artists directly. More people will be engaged and interested in art and it will become more accessible. The future of art looks good as there will be more opportunities for artists. We at Artfare are not trying to replace galleries but to help the artists – we only make money if the artist succeeds. We want to make buying art more accessible to more people.

Also featured on the Artfare platform: artist Alex Wolkowicz, photographed by Anna Bauer.

Also featured on the Artfare platform: artist Alex Wolkowicz, photographed by Anna Bauer.

You moved to New York in 1999 to study business at the New York University. Then you stayed for work and built your family here. How has the city changed during these years?

Whenever somebody comments that New York has changed so much I think it is more reflective of those people changing as opposed to the City. For example, we used to live in the Lower East Side until it got overdeveloped, then we moved to Williamsburg until the same change happened there and now we live in Boerum Hill. You can always count on some neighborhood in New York being hip and cool and people doing creative things which will always lead to things changing.

Interview and portrait of Aki Karja by Liisa Jokinen. All other photos courtesy of Artfare.