Art is for the rich and famous. Or at least that is how it has been in India for many years now. A startup is attempting to make it accessible and attractive to everyone—one art piece at a time. Online art gallery Eikowa was set up by Gurugram-based Vaishnavi Murali in 2015 after she noticed several changes in the art market, including new wealth creators and high net worth individuals. But just selling art was not her idea. Murali wanted to educate customers about the possibility of owning art.

“Some families have been into art for many years. But some have stayed away. The idea is, art is intimidating. How can you understand it, how can you understand what is the price for it—these are questions everyone has, and this is where Eikowa wanted to help," explains Murali, 31. Eikowa has three kinds of clients—those who understand and are looking to buy more art, those who want to buy art but are intimidated by its pricing, and those who have never thought about buying art.

Creating a brand

The challenges for Eikowa were both from the demand and supply side. While creating a market was their top priority, they also needed to select the right mix of artists. It is important to get the support of mid-career or senior artists, but to keep the artwork affordable, Eikowa needed to have new artists. At present, the startup has a mix of each. It helped that a few senior artists supported them right at the beginning, which helped them make a name for themselves in the art world. “The big worry when we were about to launch was how people would react to art being sold online. They want to touch it and see it, can they buy it only on the basis of a photograph on their computer?" recalls Murali.

The team decided right at the beginning to allow clients to see the paintings in their own homes before purchasing them. A manager would go with the framed painting, hang it on the place decided, show it to the client and bring it back. Last month, Eikowa also launched its visualization tool—aimed at helping buyers with their primary concern—imagining artworks they see online in the setting they like.

Technology itself has been a challenge for Eikowa. While the visualization tool works well on computer screens, a mobile screen is too small to view a painting. That’s why it has steered clear of launching an app. “Art is also not like an e-commerce platform through which you buy movie tickets or groceries," she explains.

The absence of an app hasn’t stopped Eikowa customers from making repeated purchases though. As many as 40% of their 500-odd customers are those who have come back. These spread across various ages and regions—35 to 60 years of age, from metros to tier-2 cities such as Ahmedabad, Ludhiana, Allahabad and Surat. Other than individual clients, Eikowa also has tie ups with hotel chains such as Novotel in Chennai and Hilton in Goa.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to keep Eikowa as an offline, physical studio or art gallery? Murali’s decision to start Eikowa online had to do with a wave of startups launching in India at that time. “I have always been interested in art, and had even tried painting on saris to make some money when I was a teenager. When all these startups started coming about, I realized art also needs something new and young. By then, I was already working in the luxury industry after having done my MBA, so I knew a bit about how the market worked."

But more than that she believes the online space gives her more opportunity for Eikowa. “Most art galleries in India are situated in Delhi or Mumbai, maybe a few in other cities. But being online means we are accessible to anyone from Kochi to Kolkata, from Vizag to Ahmedabad," she says. Eikowa can also choose to keep only a few art pieces in stock. The artists work on a consignment model, and since the company doesn’t buy the artwork, they get to return the unsold artworks and keep only the freshest pieces for sale.

It can still be a challenge to store some of the artworks, especially in humid conditions. Eikowa stores paintings rolled up in a well-ventilated but dry room. They have also introduced a maintenance programme that helps people take care of their prized possessions, which includes dust removal, microscopic cleaning, germicidal UV treatment and dry cleaning.

Eikowa is still a small team—six employees and a network of 200 artists. But the art market is growing in India, and Eikowa is playing its part to bring it to a new generation of art lovers.

The Disruptors series follows startups who are bringing change in an already established market.