How Outsider Art Benefited From Americans Staying Inside

“Untitled (Train and Tunnel),” by Martin Ramirez, one of the artists represented by Ricco/Maresca Gallery.

By Mira Ciganek, with reporting help from Christopher Edwards | June 7, 2022

Two weeks before the pandemic, Ricco/Maresca Gallery signed a 10-year lease on a new space in Chelsea. The gallery moved its entire collection, comprised mostly of outsider, self-taught and folk art, to a space that was double the size and rent. Then, once everything went remote their new space set empty as they proceeded to sell nearly everything online.

“We were worried that people would be sort of against the idea of buying completely online and without having seen the works in person,” said Kylie Ryu, a manager for Ricco/Maresca. “But surprisingly, we did more sales during the pandemic.”

Ricco/Maresca saw a 30 percent increase in total sales last year compared to 2020, which is on trend with the global average, according to the 2022 Art Market Report from Art Basel. This is in large part thanks to the transition to online platforms.

The use of websites and social media has allowed galleries, museums and even artists themselves to reach a wider audience. This lends itself exceptionally well to the world of outsider art, made up of self-taught or otherwise unconventional artists because it provides a viable platform to those who would otherwise have nowhere to sell or display their art.

Layes Hussain is a self-taught painter based in New Jersey.

Layes Hussain, a self-taught painter based in New Jersey, garnered an immense amount of attention from a single TikTok he posted earlier this year. “That viral video, it literally changed this whole 2022 for me,” Hussain said, donning a paint splattered sweatshirt. “It already hit 16 million views and it gave me over 55 new clients.”

The eye-catching video features his erotic artwork, one of several collections he is currently completing. Although Hussain relied on social media prior to the pandemic, the recent increase in its popularity helped him grow his business.

Hussain is one of many outsider artists turning to online sales and promotion. Self-taught potter Greg Laplaca has been selling his pieces the old-fashioned way since 2001. He says he was hesitant at first to make the change, but his online marketplace now accounts for a third of his total sales.

The national average for online art sales is hovering at 20 percent in 2021, up from 9 percent prior to the pandemic. Among online platforms, personal emails and social media were the top two sales and promotion strategies used by art dealers over the past few years.

But some in the art world fear online sales could undermine the relationships galleries build with artists and buyers. 

440 Gallery in Gowanus, Brooklyn, showcases a wide range of artists, from the classically trained to the self-taught. “The gallery is an important part of the ecosystem of the art world,” director Amy Williams said. “Artists always want a physical place to show their work and to have people come and see it in person.” 

Williams is an artist herself and sells her work both through her website and through Artsy, a popular online art sales platform. Her pieces range from $30 to $600. She says 440 Gallery has sold work online through Artsy for years, and they experienced a sharp uptick in online sales at the onset of the pandemic. 

The gallery has recently sold pieces on Artsy for up to $10,000. But despite her participation in online sales, Williams fears they are too impersonal, eliminating the chance to connect with artists and buyers. 

“When I sell work through Artsy, I don’t get that collector’s contact information. I don’t ever have a conversation with them about the work,” continues Williams. “It’s really very transactional.”

Museums and galleries face different struggles than artists when it comes to presenting art  online. They have to focus on displays and events on a larger scale. Chris Goreman, a spokesman for the American Folk Art Museum, expects to see a hybrid model going forward.

“I do think that people want and crave direct interaction with artwork that they can see right in front of them,” he said. But even as more institutions open to the public, Goremen does not foresee them giving up on online programming. “I think they realize it’s valuable and it’s interesting and it’s another way to engage with people.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the American Folk Art Museum started a series called Virtual Insights. It was created to replace in-person admissions, but it ended up hosting panel discussions, virtual tours, and conversations between artists and curators.

This type of in-depth coverage available at the click of a button speaks to the message that outsider art promotes. “Folk art, self-taught art; it is a very accessible, almost democratic form of art,” Goreman said. And now, due to the pandemic, there is an equally accessible, democratic platform to sell and display it on.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the gallery’s collection is comprised solely of outsider and folk art. In fact, the gallery specializes in outsider, self-taught, contemporary, and historically significant American folk art.