Rela subscription service brings local art into residential, commercial spaces

CCAD faculty member Kristen Brown recently launched Rela, which delivers and installs local art in homes and businesses for a monthly fee and pays artists for their work

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Kristen Brown, founder of Rela

At the Columbus College of Art & Design, Kristen Brown teaches in the History of Art & Visual Culture department, which involves looking at how the art market has changed over time. Mostly, though, Brown has noticed the ways in which the market hasn’t changed.

“It has not evolved a lot since the year 1500,” Brown said. 

Thinking through the ways art is bought and sold today, Brown identified a few problem areas. For one, potential art buyers are often daunted by navigating the art market. Galleries themselves, despite attempts to be more open and inviting, can be intimidating to people who appreciate local art but aren’t familiar with the gallery system. Sometimes patrons get sticker shock after identifying a piece they love. Others falsely assume that most contemporary art is cold, unrelatable or conceptually out of reach.

“I was thinking about those barriers that might be hurdles to everyone connecting with art, and trying to find a way to remove some of those barriers,” Brown said. “I did not know how to break down that massive problem. But then I had an opportunity with some friends who owned a local business. They wanted to display local artwork, but they did not know where to start.”

By helping her friends through that process, Brown began to formulate ideas to connect local artists with residents and businesses in their community in ways that could be mutually beneficial. In January, after speaking with Columbus artists, art-lovers and businesses, Brown launched Rela, a subscription-based model for displaying local art in commercial spaces and residences.

While Brown said pricing has been a “moving target,” Rela currently charges $45 per month per wall for residential spaces to host work by one of Rela’s 34 Columbus-area artists and $85 per month per wall for commercial spaces. (An oversized display fee of $30 applies to walls larger than 25 square feet.) The work stays up for at least three months, after which customers can request a refresh for $65.  

For Brown, infusing the business model with certain values was key to the enterprise. Most importantly: The service is free for artists, who get paid for their work. “It was really saddening to hear how many artists thought that they were paying us when we were first introducing the model to them. They would say, ‘How much per month is this going to cost me?’ It really shows the current state of the art market, and that there's quite a lot of distance to cover there to shift that status quo. People are carrying these false assumptions about art and artists: They think that anyone can do it, that it isn't work, that if an artist enjoys any aspect of creation they should provide it as a free service,” Brown said. “This is work, so you need to pay.”

Artists earn every month that their art is on view; multiple pieces on display in multiple locations lead to more earnings. (Rela can also store the art not on display.) Plus, every piece is available to purchase. “We want them to be able to double dip on their art,” Brown said.

Rela offers display cards with information about the artist and a QR code where potential buyers can learn more and purchase the art directly. Local Rela artist Chaz O’Neil, for instance, sold work after displaying a large piece in someone’s home. When a potential customer expressed interest in the mixed-media collage but didn’t have the space or resources to purchase it, O’Neil offered a similar, smaller piece, which led to a sale.

Rela founder Kristen Brown mounts a label with info on Chaz O'Neil next to the artist's work.

The process also runs counter to the way artists typically make and sell art. Often, artists create on commission or on speculation. Making work on commission involves finding a willing patron and “executing work that aligns with whatever that commission plan is, and, depending on what that relationship looks like, there's varying degrees of creative autonomy,” Brown said. “Creating on speculation means [artists] are guessing. They're making assumptions about potential future customers, and then going back and making work for those customers. And that mindset of creating for a market, for me, is where art loses its power.” 

Through Rela, Brown hopes to empower artists by enabling them to create without having to think about commissions or potential markets for the work. “It’s expanding all of this space for creativity to make that work that needs to escape out of the artist, that needs to have an outlet. We're taking that need for a creative outlet from the artist and finding space for it in the market,” said Brown, noting the model also gives artists the freedom to create artwork in any size. “They don't have to only work for the market that can afford to purchase their art. They can create on any scale.” 

Local Rela artist Christine D'Epiro Abbott, who has also worked for several art dealers and galleries, has encountered the sizing hurdle firsthand. “Large-scale work … is more challenging to store as an artist and it's more challenging to sell,” she said. “In my experience in the gallery world, a bigger purchase is a bigger commitment. It does happen spontaneously, but not as often as selling smaller work, which is pretty intuitive. So it's not uncommon for artists to have some really stellar work that is in storage.” 

Recently, one of D'Epiro Abbott’s large pieces from a 2013 show went up in a Hilliard commercial space. With Rela, the nearly 10-year-old gap between creation and display wasn’t an issue. “When you apply for juried exhibits ... they'll often want work that's not older than two years or three years or five years,” D'Epiro Abbott said. “So you have this really stellar [older] work that can sometimes be challenging to either store or sell.”

Rela founder Kristen Brown

On the customer side, Rela’s aim is to streamline the process to make it as easy and affordable as possible for people in Columbus to put art by local artists on their walls. “We really want to make experiencing, sourcing and even just shopping for local, original art more convenient than mass-produced wall décor, because we often take the path of least resistance. You end up buying mass-produced wall décor at IKEA or HomeGoods just because there's not a more convenient option in front of you,” Brown said.  

Rela handles the delivery and installation of the work for residential and commercial clients, but before any of that happens, Brown meets with them to look at the space and talk about what type of art they hope to have on the wall. “People have enjoyed the process of moving through the style quiz. We learn about their space, their style and what they're interested in, and we're educating them about art movements along the way,” she said. “Those have been some of the most rewarding experiences.”  

Clients can pick specific pieces from Rela’s ever-growing catalog, but Brown said many customers let Rela curate their spaces and unveil the art on installation day. "It's very exciting to see people's joy and excitement of the new piece that they get to have in their space,” she said. “When we change our spaces, it changes how we feel about them.” 

At the end of each installation, Rela educates the subscriber about the artist and the specific piece. “We talk through the message that the artist might have been attempting to share, and we give them profile information about the artist,” Brown said. “We're not just putting the art on the wall and then leaving. We're trying to build that ramp of educating, showing them this relationship through the artist profiles and learning about the art and the piece so that they can then talk to other people about the art and the piece.” 

While Brown is convinced of Rela’s model, she also sees it as merely one additional path in the art market, not a replacement for galleries or other art services. “Rela is not the only way to collaborate with artists, and it's not the only way to connect through art,” she said. 

To that end, Brown encourages Rela artists to continue showing work at galleries. “We want to work with galleries. There's no competition here. We're all working towards the shared goal of expanding opportunities for artists,” she said.  

In addition, Rela does not exclusively represent its participating artists, nor does it set the sale prices. “Artists can still sell on their website or through their social media. We don't have to manage the sale for them,” Brown said. “I buck against the idea of representation. I think it's old guard, and that's not how we define our relationship with artists. Our relationship is a collaboration that is truly working towards the best good for everyone. So if that means that the artist has somebody who's interested in buying a piece, and we have that piece, bring them down to our office. Or if you want to pick up that piece to show it to your buyer, absolutely. We want them to succeed through whatever venue they can.”