Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria) Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) to help us identify the people and organisations changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In the arts, one such person is George Hartley, one of the co-founders of online art gallery Bluethumb.
When Bluethumb was founded, traditional galleries were unimpressed with the idea of an online space to buy and sell Australian art. “I would say they still are,” laughs George Hartley, one of the three co-founders of Bluethumb. As a digital marketplace for art, Bluethumb is something of a maverick – for years, galleries have been the gatekeepers of the commercial art trade, picking and choosing who to represent, and therefore who is able to pursue a career as an artist. “[Bluethumb] is democratising art,” says Hartley. “It’s letting anyone build and grow an art career.”
The idea for an online art gallery is so devilishly simple that it’s almost hard to believe that Bluethumb was only started in 2012. Hartley was familiar with similar online creative platforms like SoundCloud through his then work as a musician, and when that career pathway didn’t work out, a pivot to computer science and app development, as well as teaming up with his brother Edward, eventually led to the creation of Bluethumb. “As a musician, I just had this incredible experience using SoundCloud to run my whole career,” Hartley says. “And so we were like, why not? Why not build SoundCloud for art?” That’s exactly what they did, and Bluethumb now represents more than 11,000 artists (and around 300,000 artworks) across Australia.
And just as Bluethumb is enabling anyone to grow their career as an artist, it’s also enabling more and more people to buy art. “Galleries traditionally have been a bit daunting,” says Hartley, explaining that not everyone feels comfortable going into a gallery, especially if they’re not all that familiar with contemporary art. Accessibility of the arts is a known issue, of course. But art is for everyone, and allowing prospective buyers to browse through hundreds of thousands of works online curated under easily understood categories like nude, landscape, still life, Australiana and photography – and then encouraging them to buy what they love, not what they’re told they should love – is going miles to attracting new markets to art collecting.
It’s not just consumers drawn to Bluethumb either, with a community of artists also appearing to enjoy the new model of selling their works. Hartley says Bluethumb has a “super-engaged, really positive” community of artists, connected via social media and actively supporting one another. “Our whole focus is to help more artists become career artists,” Hartley says. “We can kind of measure that by how many artists have sold enough art to quit their jobs. That number is growing, and has grown really strong over the last couple of years, even during Covid.”
That fact is a beacon of hope in an otherwise less than spectacular 18 months for the arts, and especially for a city like Melbourne that has so much of its identity (not to mention economy) tied up in the creative industries. “I moved here because of the arts,” says Hartley. “In my humble opinion, I love Melbourne the most, and the arts is really what makes it special.”
“I do feel like it’s been going backwards a little bit, mostly to do with Covid. I just want to see it get back to leading in the arts.”