The Digital Art Industry: How Instagram Is Creating Opportunities For Female Artists


Amid the selfies, fitness videos and Boomerangs that have come to dominate our Instagram feeds, a digital platform has emerged to showcase the work of tech-savvy artists. The Instagram that debuted in 2010 (a feed of blurry iPhone 4s photos all with the same orange, retro filter), hardly resembles the compilation of influencers and artists that now attract millions to the platform.

Seeing the opportunity posed by the incredibly visual and experiential app, budding artists have shifted their energy from impressing gallery owners, to posting daily updates for their follows. Instagram has changed the way we value art by rejecting the standards determined by a privileged and select few, and instead provided a space for the representation of artists who have otherwise been marginalized in the industry.

However, there is no denying that the app has changed. Due to Instagram's success artists are now subjected to covert algorithms used to monetize the platform and pressured to buy ads. The Instagram of the present has lost the impression of creating intimate and personal connections through shared profiles and has instead become a mass market. No one feels this pressure more than artists, including those who have used the platform for years and those just making their introduction to digital promotion.

SWAAY interviewed both Elizabeth Sutton, a millennial “mom-prenuer" who began her art career on Instagram and whose art has been featured in NYDesigns' 2016 incubator program, on Bravo's “Million Dollar Listing," as well as in The New York Post; and Samantha Roseland, an artist in her early twenties who recently began using Instagram to share her paintings and illustrations. We got the inside scope on their experience with Instagram, their journey as artists and their opinions on the evolving industry of art.

Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Sutton

Instagram: @ElizabethSuttonCollection

1. Did you go through a period trying to showcase your work in other ways before you turned to Instagram?

I did not because I never really intended for art to become my career. Only one time did I ever showcase my artwork, prior to really selling it through Instagram, which was unintentional. I was doing art as a craft for my home and one day my framer said, “why don't you make me an artwork, I can frame it and put it in my storefront and if it sells we'll split it?" And it's funny, come to think of it, he is my oldest business contact because he is now the person who is printing and framing my limited-edition prints.

2. Do you still try to get in galleries, or is Instagram where you solely showcase your work?

I actually never really tried to get in galleries. When I first started, in the early stages of my career I had an opportunity with a gallery and it was my first experience with one. Long story short, one partner basically had asked me to create an entire body of work for them and then the other discriminated against me, by literally calling the potential buyers from my local community “undesirable" thus rescinding their exhibition offer. You can imagine how that affected my confidence, and after that I did not want to work with galleries. Being a former retail and fashion professional, I'm business-oriented; my artworks take a lot of time and galleries take fifty percent commissions but don't incubate and develop artists the way patrons in the old world did. Time intensive labor goes into my artwork and I have several assistants who help me create, so the gallery model is not really for me unless there is a ton of added value.

I currently have an opportunity on the table right now which is an opportunity I would never say no to: working with one of if not the best galleries in Aspen, a team with which I've become friendly as well. This gallery represents some of the most successful pop and contemporary artists in the world, so I'm pleased to have the honor of potentially being included. Also, I would consider working with international galleries right now because I am trying to grow my markets. I have a pretty solid foundation built in New York and Miami, but I want people all over the world to have access to my art. I have my first client from Indonesia who is also becoming a good friend. I just want to grow and grow and continue to develop products that are influenced by and feature my art as well.

3. Many assume social media is a space solely for influencers and models, how do you value Instagram and social media as an artist?

I actually think that artists are some of the most fit people for Instagram because our work is completely visual. With a lot of the bloggers and fashionistas on Instagram, their purpose is to take pictures and be a model, so Instagram is kind of like their own editorial. For me, the point is that I can show my process on videos and time lapse, give a peek inside my studio, and my followers can really see just how elaborate and technical my process is. I think I am at a big advantage because, if I do say so myself, watching my art come together is pretty fascinating. People tell me they love my content.

4. How did you generate a following? Did it happen organically, or have you advertised your work in other ways?

I am not going to lie-- Instagram is so frustrating. I wish I had started my career a year earlier before they started messing with the algorithms. Now, they do not share their algorithms with users, they have changed their algorithms to monetize the platform, and they want to force you to have to buy ads— when it used to be organic and according to chronological time. Also, it has gotten much more difficult to grow your following, so I have to be resourceful. I have found that one of the best ways is to participate in loops, which are very large group giveaways. Press is also a great way to grow your following. Engaging and being raw and honest helps, and it is very important to utilize Insta-story.

5. What has been the number one challenge with selling art through social media?

My art is expensive, and it is not an impulse buy. People want to see it in person so, if they are not in New York and they cannot make it into my studio, it is hard to get them to drop thousands of dollars on unseen art. Part of purchasing my art is definitely part of the experience. Entering my studio, seeing my process, so I probably think that is the biggest challenge.

6. How do you think Instagram has changed the art world for young people?

I think Instagram could possibly make the gallery world obsolete within the next two decades. Artists are sick and tired of having galleries take fifty percent of sales. I mean, it is unbelievable. It is also depending how much the galleries are offering the artist. Maybe galleries won't completely go extinct, but the industry is moving towards some type of online gallery. Galleries are already becoming digital and there are already interactive pop-up experiences like The Museum of Ice Cream. Some artists are not good at the business end and they still need representation, but Instagram and social media can take you international without necessitating a retail space.

7. As a woman, do you think Instagram has provided you with more opportunities and given you a space to represent yourself authentically?

I do not think it provided me with any more opportunities than it provides a man. I think that social media is an equal opportunity platform. I will say, I am not going to lie, I've definitely warmed up to the idea of taking advantage of my assets. I used to actually try and keep myself and my appearance off my Instagram, because I did not want people to follow me for shallow reasons. I wanted people to follow me for my talent. I was very self-conscious about that until I met with a very successful tech investor who said to me, “Liz don't be stupid, utilize all your assets. You need to hustle, you need to feed your kids and make money. You are a pretty girl, sex sells, use it. Don't sell sex necessarily but play on the fact that you are pretty." The truth of the matter is, unfortunately I am just following the rules that are existing in the world, I am not creating them.

Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Sutton

8. What is your advice to up and coming artists looking to gain exposure?

Hustle, hustle, hustle. Network and reach out to other artists. Put your art up in spaces, even non-traditional ones, utilize social media. Have a thick skin and don't close yourself off if someone says they do not like your art or it is not the right fit. It may not be the right fit for them, but art is subjective, so it might be the right fit for somebody else. Don't take anything too much to heart and don't be insulted by an opinion.

Instagram: @samanth_jr and @samanth_junior

1. Did you go through a period trying to showcase your work in other ways before you turned to Instagram? Do you still try to get in galleries, or is Instagram where you solely showcase your work?

I have generally always been too nervous to show my work anywhere. Whether it be in galleries or online, putting myself out there in that way always seemed daunting and anxiety-producing. Instagram was a good conduit into the realm of showcasing myself. The digital distance felt safer, and slowly I gained the confidence to show my work in real life too. Tomore directly answer the question, Instagram definitely preceded any other sort of showcasing of my work, but I am now pursuing both online and in real life exhibitions of my art.

"Maybe She's Born With it, maybe it's Make-Believe" Photo Courtesy of Samantha Rosenwald

2. Many assume social media is a space solely for influencers and models, how do you value Instagram and social media as an artist?

I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a social media artist. I am an artist who happens to use Instagram as a tool. In that regard, Instagram is great (especially in theory). As a free, relatively democratic platform for any and all content, Instagram is able to kick down some of the boundaries of the art world's ivory tower. It has proven to be instrumental in representing the work of those who would otherwise be marginalized or excluded from the old white man art canon. Instagram, though, definitely peaked maybe five years ago in terms of performing as a transparent, neutral artistic arena. The ads, manipulated algorithms, and sheer user oversaturation on the site has tainted some of that initial purity. But all in all, I'm pretty pro-Instagram.

3. How did you generate a following? Did it happen organically,or have you advertised your work in other ways?

I never advertised my work, no. That seemed so embarrassing and shameless. Maybe someday I'll grow a pair and start really promoting myself. At first, I just followed my friends and family, but eventually, my Instagram reached my good buddy Grace (@frigidartbitch) who already had a pretty substantial following, and she promoted the heck out of me. She got the digital ball rolling.

4. What has been the number one challenge with selling art through social media?

My number one challenge selling art through social media has been that I'm too nice. I have made a lot of work for friends or friends-of-friends for free because I was too shy or uncomfortable to value my art. Now, however, I push myself to not sell myself or my work short.

5. How do you think Instagram has changed the art world for young people?

Positively and negatively, in short. Free access to art (in whatever form) from any smartphone or computer is both powerful and revolutionary. The post-digital liquidity of time and space and the enmeshment of reality and the digital plays heavy in art accessibility. You can be anywhere in the world and see work from any artist or gallery you want. But with this plus comes a big minus. Instagram gives us a false sense of presence – especially for young people who are digitally native. Sometimes there is just nothing like standing in front of a piece of art in person.

6. As a woman, do you think Instagram has provided you with more opportunities and given you a space to represent yourself authentically?

Yes, I do. I actually wrote my undergrad thesis on this very topic! Instagram is radical for broadcasting the voices of underrepresented groups (including but not limited to people of color, LGBTQIA+ folks, people with disabilities, and women, especially women who identify with any or all of these other identities). Especially in the art world, where women have been heavily sequestered to the role of the fetishized or aestheticized subject, Instagram allows them to subvert that age-old dogma and reciprocate the male gaze with self-authored art and self-authored portraits (i.e. selfies). Women can totally still be the subject of others' and their own work, but they also now have the leverage to simultaneously be the subject, maker, and the curator of their bodies and bodies of work. Pretty powerful.

Photo Courtesy of Samantha Rosenwald

7. What is your advice to up and coming artists looking to gain exposure?

Don't be too shy to post your work online and to keep posting your work regularly. If you don't have the confidence or self-assuredness, definitely fake it. People will take you seriously if you seem like you take yourself seriously. Also, don't give your art away for free. Value yourself and put some mf price tags on your labor. Though Instagram is a great platform, I would also highly encourage stepping off the 'gram and into the real world. Meet people, talk to strangers at openings, put yourself out there – both digitally and in person.


A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.

Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.