Alumnus and Entrepreneur John Sewell talks to Culture Editor Nadia Sommella to discuss his business Eazyl, an online art marketplace turning the art world on its head
John Sewell is a University of Birmingham Alumnus turned Entrepreneur, having completed a BA and MA in History of Art. In 2018 he started his own business, Eazyl, which aims to make the art market fairer, as well as making art itself more accessible. John spoke to Redbrick Culture about making his mark in the art world and why even we can become art collectors.
Hi John! So we are here to talk about your business Eazyl, perhaps you could start by explaining to readers what it is.
So, in the simplest terms, Eazyl is an online art marketplace. However, it operates differently to how most galleries have done traditionally, in that we don’t charge a commission fee. Instead, we charge artists a small monthly membership, which allows them to upload and sell as much work as they like. This in turn also means that buyers are able to pay directly to our artists through the site without us taking a chunk out of each sale.
It seems like you have really identified a niche there, how did the idea come about?
It was kind of a coming together of a number of different things all around the same time when I was in my second year of Uni, I think. I’d worked in a traditional commercial gallery which charged a massive commission, in excess of 50% on each sale. And I just saw that this skewed prices and made people less likely to buy the work. I’d often hear people say, ‘I like it, but I wouldn’t pay that much for it’. And I realised that this basically meant everyone missed out… the artists, the buyers and the gallery – because so many sales were simply not happening because the pricing was wrong.
And on top of that, I knew a lot of people who said that going into a physical gallery in and of itself is an intimidating thing to do – so I felt that there were a huge potential audience of art buyers who just didn’t know how to go about buying art.
I combined this with the fact that I had been looking to buy some art myself and not really known how to go about it, even as an Art History student, and I thought well maybe there’s a gap in the market for a gallery who completely switch up the commission fee model and who are open, inclusive, accessible and transparent in everything that they do.
I think your aim to make galleries more inclusive and accessible is really important and it seems you have a real passion for art. I’m curious to know how your interest in the art sector started. Were there any moments at an earlier age where you realised this was the path you wanted to go down?
That’s a really good question and one I’m not sure I know the answer to. I think I always enjoyed being creative and making art – I had a pretty wild imagination as a kid. And then at school it was one of my favourite subjects because I wasn’t too bad at it and you could just kind of sit there, draw a bit and chat with your mates.
I think it was my mum who suggested Art History as a subject to me and at the time I didn’t really know what it entailed and wasn’t too keen. But then it came to decide what to do at uni and I couldn’t really pick between art or history so I split the difference and did Art History.
I think by doing an Art History degree I was able to examine the world through the lens of art and artists. Which I suppose has always been one reason I love art, is that it forces you to see the world through different eyes and from different perspectives. But I might just be kidding myself, my friends have always said it’s just because it’s easier to look at pictures and talk about them than it is to read books.
You kind of fell into the art world in a way then. What made you take the leap and set up your own business, as opposed to working for someone else? Did this come about in an equally organic way?
I don’t think I could say it came down to a desire to want to work for myself or be my own boss or whatever. I’ve found with most entrepreneurs, as with most artists as it happens, that when you have an idea and you believe in it – it’s pretty hard to just let it be. If it niggles at you for long enough, you eventually have to act on it really. So, it wasn’t a conscious thing necessarily but something that you kind of pick up and run with and just try to see how far it takes you and whoever else joins you for the ride.
I’m sure it’s not easy, starting something from scratch, and the business is only 2 years old– did you encounter any major obstacles on your way?
To be honest, most days you are confronted with obstacles when you’re starting up your business and as a young entrepreneur. You have to learn a lot and learn it very quickly, but thankfully there are a lot of support networks out there, both at the University and more generally in Birmingham. So, I suppose I’ve been quite lucky to have been able to tap into the knowledge and insight of a lot of the very helpful and generous people in both the Birmingham business and art scenes. That’s certainly made life a little easier than it might’ve been otherwise.
So, as I understand it, artists can sign up and pay a monthly fee to sell their work via Eazyl. Is there any sort of screening process where you consider the quality of the art and whether it is good enough for the website – or do you prefer not to place a value judgement on art, which is of course so subjective?
For the most part, there isn’t any screening process for our artists and so far, this hasn’t been an issue. I really wanted it to be open and accessible and I think that the market will decide if the work is good or not. My own opinion is irrelevant when there might be even just five or ten people out there who like an artist’s work, but who buy enough of it that they can then sustain their practice.
I’m a big believer in the idea that there is something out there for everyone. So, just because 99% of people don’t think an artwork is very good, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give that 1% a chance to find it and to buy it. And I think that the art world more generally could do with being a little more accepting in this way than it might have been in the past.
Yes I agree, and I have to say all the art I’ve seen on the website is of really great quality!
Eazyl is obviously a digital platform, could you ever see yourself having a physical space? Lockdown has of course meant a lot of galleries have had to shut their physical doors; do you think this could have a lasting effect on the nature of the art market?
Eazyl being digital is central to everything we do. It’s exactly because we’re just a digital platform that we can afford to charge our artists such a comparatively small fee. We don’t have massive overheads that many bricks and mortar galleries might have had. That said, I think those galleries that have had to shut their doors will be back and I certainly don’t wish for them not to – they’re businesses whose success supports lives of a lot of people, so I hope they do bounce back.
I think my vision is for Eazyl to have a central HQ with a gallery space, although it will be more flexible than traditional galleries and possibly be more like a workspace and studio than anything else. I definitely don’t think Eazyl should exist in a kind of online bubble. Art’s meant to be enjoyed in the flesh and while we mainly facilitate people getting to do that online, we want to continue to have pop-up exhibitions that give our artists a chance to showcase their work publicly and be able to interact with the people who come and see it.
Following on from that, we’ve seen that the arts have been hard hit by COVID-19. Have you been affected by this at Eazyl?
The fact we are based online means that we have actually done quite well during the pandemic. We’ve been able to continue to sell artists’ work and have even had an uptick in sales and sign-ups. We’ve actually offered new artists three months free membership to help them make the most of the site and find their feet under the sort of uncertainty that COVID put them in.
The other issue on everyone’s minds at the moment is the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you feel about representation in the contemporary art world? How does Eazyl approach this issue?
My experience of the art world has been that it is definitely one of the more inclusive industries out there. That’s not to say I don’t think there are issues but I know a lot of work is being done to remedy this. I’m actually working on a project in Birmingham called art.quarter which is going to be looking to directly address issues of racial disparity and difference by providing a really inclusive place for people to come together.
In terms of Eazyl, I suppose the essence of our model is that it is entirely democratic. Anyone can become a member and then go and upload and sell work. That’s ultimately one of the business’s main aims, that it is open to all and, to that extent, it encourages involvement in both buying and selling art, whoever you are and regardless of your background. So, it’s my aim and my desire that in this way Eazyl’s concept is structured in a way that encourages this more than might have been the case in some more traditional settings.
So anyone can sell their art on Eazyl, but who are your buyers? I think art is often thought of as quite elitist, (and certainly collecting art or owning art is usually reserved for the very wealthy), what sort of price range does your art sell for?
The fact that you asked that question how you did says everything you need to know about the mission we are on. I mean it’s obviously the case that the art which grabs the headlines is generally reserved for the very wealthy, but the truth is that anyone who has a home and even arguably those that don’t, are able to create, find, enjoy or buy art that resonates with them and makes their surroundings that little bit more beautiful or enjoyable to be in.
We’ve sold artworks on the site from £5 to £150 and on average our sales are generally around the £40 mark. So, I think there’s something for everyone. However, our aim really is to help first-time art buyers to find something that is both affordable and which they like.
I’m sure seeing an alumnus who has started their own successful business will be inspiring to many. What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs at UoB?
Just make the most of being at UoB, to be honest. I wasn’t part of it while I was a student, but I know the Start-Up Society does some really great events. They helped me out a lot and even helped provide funding for some of the initial work I had to have done to launch Eazyl.
But also, make the most of just being in Birmingham. Get into the city centre, go to start-up networking events and just get to know more of the people who are out there making things happen. There’s so much going on in the city at the moment and so many great opportunities out there that you’d be silly not to make the most of it.
I’ve been very lucky to have been accepted onto the Birmingham Enterprise Community’s Forward Start-Up Programme. BEC supports students and young entrepreneurs from all around the world, but they specifically want to help students in the city and are a really great team. So, I’d reach out to them and see if there is anything that they can do to help you.
Thanks so much for your time John. To close, I wondered what you would say to people who might feel intimidated when going to art galleries, or purchasing a work of art, and think they don’t ‘understand’ it?
The main thing is to try not to care what anyone else thinks. The only thing you have to ask yourself when you stand in front of an artwork is, ‘Do I like it?’
If the answer is yes, then great! Ask yourself why you like it and what you like about it. Once you’ve got those ideas in your head then you ultimately understand the artwork. It doesn’t really matter what the artist thought or what anyone else thinks.
If you don’t like it then that’s equally great. Maybe spend a moment again asking why you don’t like it and then just move on. There’s so much art out there that you’ll soon find something you do like. I generally think if people thought about art like they think about music, then the fears and stereotypes that surround the art world might not play quite such a significant role in how people perceive it.
That’s a great way of looking at it.
It seems we could all be starting our own art collection. There’s certainly never been a more important time to support artists.
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