Founder Marc Billings expects to install a million of Blackdove’s digital canvases globally over the next few years. ‘The world is ready for digital art.’
By Doreen Hemlock
Pioneering tech entrepreneur Marc Billings aims “to make original artwork as accessible worldwide as books or movies,” and he’s launching a global network of digital-art galleries to bring that vision to life.
As part of Miami Art Week, Billings is debuting Blackdove Art Gallery in Wynwood to kick off the international network. The gallery specializes in “digital art in motion” – images created on a computer that feature some movement, such as colorful shapes that change position. It offers the art for sale, rental, or just for viewing, with prices starting below $100, says the Blackdove founder.
The gallery also sells the special “digital canvas” that Blackdove has developed to display the digital art, a screen-frame now produced in partnership with LG Electronics. The South Korean powerhouse will make, distribute and install Blackdove canvases for the gallery network, Billings says.
Miami-based Blackdove already has more than 500 of its canvases (made both by LG and an earlier providers) in homes and offices, with subscribers to its art service as far-flung as Buenos Aires and Shanghai. It’s now pursuing joint ventures to start galleries in key cities, with the first non-U.S. locale just set up in Istanbul, Turkey and another to open in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in March, Billings says.
“I expect we’ll install about 1 million screens around the world in the next few years,” says Billings, envisioning hundreds of Blackdove galleries in key cities across Europe, Asia and beyond. “The world is ready for digital art. The quality and amount of digital art that’s available now is amazing.”
Billings: a Miami tech visionary
Billings has strong tech and art credentials behind those ambitious plans. In the 2010s, he started pioneering business accelerator Incubate Miami, helping kickstart the local tech ecosystem. Then, he co-founded two thriving South Florida tech ventures: Itopia, which streams cloud-based labs for students, and Boatsetter, a platform for boat rentals.
Still, Billings yearned to bring digital art to the world. He grew up in South Florida with an artist mom and spent time at art fairs, helping sell his mother’s work. At Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002, he fell in love with the genre of “digital art in motion” and quickly, bought a piece. Soon, he and art marketer Marisa Terrizzi launched Blackdove and tried different ways to spread the art to a wider audience.
In 2003, they began a DVD service, but found the market not yet ripe. In 2016, with digital art taking off, they built an online marketplace for collectors. Now, as NFTs help bring attention to digital art more broadly, they see potential to scale up distribution, essentially becoming a publisher of digital art in much the same way that traditional publishers offer books and music.
Just like the printing press brought literature from the elite to the masses, Blackdove’s network aims to bring the digital art to consumers globally, “shifting the model from scarcity to abundance,” Billings says.
Bringing original art easily into your living room
Here’s how Blackdove’s business works: First, you download the company’s app to display the digital art either on your television or on Blackdove’s special “digital canvas.” Its most popular 65-inch canvas runs about $2,500, says Billings. The canvas is not just a TV flipped vertical. TVs are not designed to work round-the clock, they get too hot, and they typically show a menu when you start them, says Billings.
Instead, the Blackdove canvas by LG is designed to run 24/7 and go straight to art. More importantly, it has an internal hard drive to store the art, so it doesn’t use lots of bandwidth for streaming. The screen also has a matte finish, so it won’t reflect images of people and things nearby that distract from viewing art, he says.
Next, “you decide how much art you want,” says Billings. Users can choose to subscribe to a service that changes works regularly (now $99 per month). And they can opt to rent a piece for a year (usually $100 to $1,000) or buy a work (usually $1,000 to $10,000), he says.
Blackdove galleries will host release parties, where the art can be purchased. New pieces later will be available for rental, and after that, on the subscription service – much like a movie, which is released first in theatres, then on premium rentals on home and finally on subscription services like Netflix.
“The model is designed to create time-based scarcity. So, if you want to have the newest art, you have to buy it, similar to a hardback book,” says Billings. “The only way to properly compensate the creator is to create a premium initial launch.” Artists will get 80 percent of sales and rentals and 50 percent of subscriptions, more than what most traditional art galleries pay, he says.
Raising $3 million in Series A funding
To fund its business, Blackdove so far has received about $4 million, mainly from Miami angel investors. Now, it’s raising another $3 million in a Series A round, with LG among the investors, Billings says.
Today, the company has nine employees, mainly in Miami and New York. Billings expects to hire as many as 200 people in Miami to support growth worldwide.
Blackdove’s name reflects its mission to spread the voice of artists. Co-founder Terrizzi came up with the idea, recalling that ancient cultures used birds to transmit messages. She’d read that “white doves were used for regular mail, and black doves were used for important mail as sent by kings and priests,” says Billings. The co-founders are convinced that artists’ voices are “most important.”
One voice Billings wants to amplify in Wynwood: Iranian artist Ali Hadian’s. His work “Breathless” shows a woman in distress breathing deeply. Hadian says his sisters now are “breathless” amid Iran’s crackdown on the way that women must wear their hijabs.
In 2021, Billings made a splash at Miami Art Week by launching a pop-up gallery focused on NFTs (non-fungible tokens, which certify ownership of digital asset on the blockchain.) Blackdove’s new permanent gallery won’t offer only NFTs, since Billings says they’re a limited sub-set of the digital-art market.
He calls each work of “digital art in motion” authentic and original anyway, because the artist agrees to release every one through Blackdove. The works are not copies, like a printed poster of an oil painting, because the art is made directly on a computer and each piece is identical, Billings adds.
“Let art breathe!” says Billings, keen to spread works far and wide. “It’s not about being the only one who owns it. It’s about allowing the art to multiply.”
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