Alexandra Weiner, the 27-year-old owner of online fashion retailer Figure & Form, has never bought an expensive artwork. She prefers to rent. “I’m still young,” she says. “I’m developing my taste in art, testing things out.” In 2012, Weiner signed on to pay $200 per month for an $11,500 photograph by top Chinese photographer Quentin Shih. She recently replaced it with a mixed-media piece by noted Turkish artist Kezban Arca Batibeki for sale at $20,000. “Having a beautiful, important work in your home feels wonderful,” she says. “And people definitely notice. People are amazed.”
Weiner’s rentals were facilitated by Art Remba, a New York startup that makes available high-quality works that would otherwise be sitting around in gallery basements and artist storage units. The idea is to democratize access to the exclusive art world, let novice collectors try works out before buying, and help galleries and artists earn extra cash. “A lot of the people I know have fabulous apartments in the city and completely empty walls,” says Art Remba’s founder, Nahema Mehta. “Our whole impetus is, once it’s on your wall, you can feel more comfortable about starting to collect.”
Launched in April 2012 with financial backing from two private investors who wish to remain anonymous, Art Remba has formed partnerships with nine New York galleries and several artist studios, representing more than 100 artists. The works are mostly from emerging markets, Mehta’s area of expertise. Roughly 40 percent of the pieces rent to individuals. The rest go to small businesses, such as boutique investment firms, venture funds, and family offices. “They want to outfit their offices with substantial, eye-catching art,” Mehta says, “but they don’t necessarily want to share enormous numbers on their balance sheets with their LPs [limited partners].”
Others like the flexibility. “Companies don’t necessarily stay in one space long term, or they want to refresh their visual environment,” says Erika Harrsch, a multimedia artist who’s rented two pieces to businesses through Art Remba. “Unless there’s a corporation that has an important collection, I think they are more interested in keeping the possibility of changing.”
Art Remba won’t disclose subscriber numbers, but Mehta says about 85 artworks are in circulation. The most expensive canvas currently rented, by Syed Haider Raza, sells for $150,000 and fetches $600 a month. Artworks in the $1,000 to $1,750 range rent for as little as $50 a month. When clients fall in love with their rental art and decide to go all in, 50 percent of their past monthly fees goes toward the purchase. Art Remba has brokered five sales so far. Galleries and artists get as much as 50 percent of monthly rental fees. Art Remba gets a commission for any piece sold.
The concept of renting art is not new. Museums and art consultants such as Art Assets do it, as do websites like Artsicle, which offers works by lower-profile artists. Art Remba tries to set itself apart by dealing only with established artists who have fared well at auctions or on the art fair circuit. Clients can choose from a catalog available on the company’s site, but the startup also has access to many more pieces. The service hand-delivers and installs the works and picks them up at the end of a rental. It also supplies dossiers on artists, to provide renters with dinner table talking points.
Mehta, a 27-year-old Belgian whose background includes time as a justicial internship scholar for Chief Justice John Roberts during college and stints with private equity art funds, helps put clients at ease. “Unless you’re brought in by an art world insider, it’s very difficult to walk into a gallery and feel like you’ll be given the time of day,” she says. “As soon as you start letting people talk about art and what they like, they stop being scared.” Some of her clients are established collectors of Western art who want to explore new markets. Gallery partners appreciate the arrangement, too. “We get to know what and how collectors like our artworks,” Philip Xie, director of PX Photography Gallery, with locations in Brooklyn and Beijing, said in an e-mail.
For safety, Mehta says, “the art is insured from the minute it leaves the gallery or studio.” Subscribers are also carefully vetted. They fill out a questionnaire covering everything from education level to building security, and Mehta visits many in person. So far, Art Remba has turned away 15 applicants. “We try to be as inclusive as possible,” Mehta says. “But inclusive for people with the desire, as well as the means, to participate in a program like this.”