Mio Asatani thinks the answer is yes. The 29-year-old founded Curina, a new art subscription service whose democratic ethos — art should be accessible to everyone — and flexible business model is geared toward Gen Y.
Asatani came up with the idea when she moved in 2017 from her native Japan to New York for business school at Columbia University. She didn’t want to buy posters from Ikea, but she was scared off by expensive, intimidating galleries in the art mecca of Chelsea.
“I looked like a student and like I didn’t have any money, so they were not too welcoming to me,” she recalled. “I thought galleries were missing out on business opportunities because they weren’t targeting the younger generation, so that’s when I started thinking about the rental subscription model.”
After receiving funding from angel investors, she launched Curina in August 2019, and has since generated $20,000 in revenue.
Standing Out In the Crowd
Asatani is not the first to come up with the idea, which is similar to that of Rent the Runway and Feather, a furniture rental service. But art rental outfits generally have not enjoyed the success of those operations — Artify.it, billed as “Netflix for art” and backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, closed in 2013, and Artsicle, another service, shuttered in 2017.
Asatani did her homework. She spoke with artists who participated in Artsicle, and was able to glean crucial information — namely, that both the rental fees and prices for the art were set too low, making it easy for customers to purchase and then unsubscribe.
She decided to offer three subscription models — $38, $88 and $148 a month — and price artwork according to size and value. If a customer wants to own the art, the monthly fees contribute to the purchase.
Katie Hector, an artist who recently joined Curina, said she had been approached by different art rental outfits, but they were not “as developed or clear in their visions.”
“Sometimes that bigger vision is lost when [startups] try to tap into a new market without being able to communicate very clearly how they’re going to do that,” Hector said. “Curina had a very clear way of communicating. It was very straightforward.”
Building Creative Partnerships
Asatani has partnered with an established New York City gallery, Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, to expand her reach. Seven of the 35 artists Curina represents are from the gallery, which has been around for almost half a century.
Owner Kathryn Markel said Asatani won her over with her enthusiasm and diligent work ethic. Markel said she does not make any money off the rental fees, which instead go directly to the artist.
“I won’t make any money until something is sold, which is fine,” Markel said. (Curina makes a 20 percent commission off of these sales.)
“I’ve seen these kinds of things fail,” Markel continued. “I want her to succeed. I’m hoping she can be the one who breaks through.”
Still, there are concerns — the installation, delivery and insurance for the art are all built into the rental fee, which may make it hard to see profits.
“At this point, I think she’s just anxious to get a market going,” said Markel. “The idea that she’s going to pick things up, install them and insure them, is not going to leave her with very much. But the idea itself could sell in the end.”
Asatani said she knows art rental is not a new concept, but she believes her approach of targeting a very specific customer — business professionals in their 30s, residing mainly in Manhattan and nearby Jersey City, New Jersey, who “want to make their home their own” and “enjoy inviting people over for dinners” — will set her apart.
“We make the process of purchasing the first piece of art in their lives very easy,” she said. “They trust us. We are a gateway to becoming almost like an art collector.”
Appealing to the Woke Class
True to brand, Asatani’s first organic customer was Caroline Spiegel — the younger sister of Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, and founder of her own company, a “no-visuals” porn site called Quinn.
“She wanted wacky, psychedelic artwork for her office,” Asatani said, laughing. “It was a double surprise — first I was like, ‘Evan’s sister!’ And then she’s working on a porn website for millennial women.”
Asatani said Spiegel rented three paintings from two different artists on Curina: Ellannah Sadkin, who does surrealist cartoons and pop art, and Ryan Patrick Martin, whose work is similarly playful and colorful.
Before taking on a new artist, Asatani and members of her 10-person staff go for a studio visit so they can understand the story behind the art and communicate it to potential customers.
“Art is so personal,” she said. “It’s something you emotionally attach to.”