With Silicon Valley Funds, Hillsborough's Daylight Digital Brings Art Online

Decade-old art book publisher Daylight Books releases new content platform for consumers, museums, galleries and brands

BY LAURA BAVERMAN@laurabaverman3.6.14
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Filed Under: NEWS: Startups

If the founders of Daylight Books can pull off their latest feat in art industry innovation, then they'll help dozens of emerging contemporary artists and photographers around the world add new fans and revenue streams for their work.

And they'll help museums, galleries and upscale lifestyle brands embrace art in the digital world.

It might sound like an ambitious goal for a nonprofit gallery and art photography book publisher in downtown Hillsborough.

But founders Michael Itkoff and Taj Forer have spent the last decade making a name for Daylight among the most celebrated artists and photographers in the contemporary art world. They've raised investment for the new (for-profit) business—a multimedia art content platform called Daylight Digital—from Silicon Valley-based Accel Partners VC and former Groupon President Rob Solomon, the San Francisco-based Alchemist Investment Fund and local angels Lee Buck and Peter Bourne.

And they happen to be in a niche of technology getting attention from the globe's most notable investors. The high-end art-buying site Artsy has raised $7.3 million from investors like Peter Thiel and Jack Dorsey and Andreessen Horowitz put $8.8 million into the photo-sharing site for professionals called 500px. Art auction sites Auctionata and Paddle8 have raised $20.2 million and $10 million, respectively.

“There is this marriage of art content and technology and consumer marketplace,” Forer told me in an interview yesterday. “There is a changing art market because of the accessibility afforded by digital platforms and a need for those that disseminate content to respond to consumer demand at a lower price point.”

Daylight Digital launched its new platform Wednesday, and the founders hope it can transform the way people consume, appreciate, discuss (and eventually buy) art online. In partnership with brands, galleries, museums and the artists themselves, Daylight will produce high-end digital editions of an artist's work, along with interviews and stories told via words, video and podcasts. Each edition connects with social media and encourages an artist's fans and followers to respond to the themes evident in the art created.

Consumers can view the editions from the Daylight website, but museums and galleries can also commission editions to accompany exhibitions and shows. The Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh tested the platform in recent months for an exhibition called Surveying the Terrain. The artists participated in video interviews taped live, which became part of a mobile application to accompany the show. The content was shareable across social media, helping it live on when the exhibit ended.

“It has served as a marketing tool, a publication tool and archival tool. It's a more progressive way to handle disseminating information about exhibitions,” says Contemporary Art Foundation Director Marjorie Hodges. “It's just the beginning of a new way for museums to reach a broader audience.”

Daylight: A decade ago

Daylight started as a way for Sarah Lawrence College colleagues and aspiring art photographers Forer and Itkoff to promote their work, and that of other artists.

They found it difficult to get the attention of those who mattered in the art world—galleries and museums, art book publishers and magazine editors. “We knew other artists who were being turned off from prospective careers as artists because of the difficult in getting traction,” Forer said.

So they created a new platform and publishing brand all about discovering up-and-coming artists. It started as Daylight Magazine, a high-end publication that would showcase the work of emerging artists and tell the stories behind the themes and issues they explore through art. The men were dedicated to ‘elegant, minimalist” graphic design and the type of design and production standards similar to high-end art publishers.

“We wanted to treat these things as precious objects, even though they were magazines,” Forer says. “And we were onto something. We've always had a knack for identifying the artists who were just about to break.”

Daylight's own break came after they launched a website around the content and began to combine audio with the imagery, producing narrated slideshows and a podcast series. The series was eventually syndicated with The Telegraph, the largest media outlet in the United Kingdom.

Book publishing came next—the men partnered with emerging photographers and modern artists to publish their works in collectible art books.They were the first to publish the work of Roger Ballen, a South African photographer who partnered with a band to produce a YouTube video with more than 20 million views. Soon, Daylight had a partnership with one of the world's premiere art book distributors, Distributed Art Publishers.

The iPad and Daylight Digital

In 2010, the men celebrated the launch of the iPad, the first device with the image quality and control to help introduce art to a broader audience. They created a new magazine exclusively for the iPad and tested it for six months before suspending publication to develop a much broader multimedia strategy.

Enter Daylight Digital. The men spent two years doing market and customer research, vetting technologies and creating a design and user experience that would resonate with existing and would-be art enthusiasts. (They also opened a gallery and art book store in downtown Hillsborough in 2012, open during Final Friday events and by appointment.)

"The idea was to take all of this experience, all of this access (to top artists) and brand credibility in the market and build these rich media editions to engage broad consumer segments with stories and images," Forer says. "We didn't want to just create a one-way street with consumers."

To provide that two-way street, the platform lets people inspired by the art to submit their own stories and images through social media and see it displayed next to the artist's content on the site.

"We're really building a community around this content," Forer says.

Building a business; attracting investors

But once that community is built, revenue must follow. Already, the men are exploring partnerships with museums and galleries who will pay to sponsor and produce an edition. Forer also hopes to have an advertising strategy like the news site VICE, which partners with upscale brands to produce entertaining, high-quality content (rather than banner ads or sponsored posts) for the site.

Eventually, Daylight could sell physical products based on the artists' work.

All of those ideas were enough to compel Buck to sign on as a co-founder. The husband of an art curator and angel investor and advisor to companies like Windsor Circle and Tethis was impressed by the men's access in the art world, and the front row seat the platform would give them as the art world evolved.

"We live in this transition between analog and digital and that will happen presumably once," Buck says. "We are unwrapping the possibilities and potential of it, and sometimes we see wonderful and exciting things come out. I love what Daylight is doing here, trying to harness technology to better enable artists to engage us all in some of the deepest, most important questions of the human experience. That's a worthwhile endeavor."

Forer and Itkoff are spending a bit less time in Hillsborough these days as they navigate the venture capital networks of Silicon Valley and sell museums and galleries on their new strategy.

But the Triangle community has helped them grow from artists to entrepreneurs. Last year was spent with mentorship from the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network while finding the team, building the product and raising money.

"It was about building test products, getting feedback, iterating until we refined the vision into something we can stand behind," Forer says. "Now we can foster real adoption and community growth, so we can attract real capital and really scale this thing."

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