“The art of problem solving” by Saelen Ghose
Jason Gracilieri is not an artist, or even an art collector per se, but he has a deep appreciation for art, and a profound respect for the people who create it. This, combined with his problem solving bent, led him to launch his latest venture Turning Art, the startup company offering a creative new approach to art consumption.
When I finally meet Gracilieri—we had been trying to schedule our talk for over a month—I’m relieved. That morning, my wife suggested I wear something “nice” since I’d be interviewing someone who works in the art world. After a painful foray into my closet’s lean offerings, I decide to go casual. I figure it’s always best to be comfortable; and when Gracilieri shakes my hand I smile, inwardly noting his jeans and relaxed shirt. For once in my life I make the right fashion choice.
Turning Art is located on South Street in Boston. The fourth floor office overlooks Boston’s Leather District, which is less about leather these days, and more about affordable space for startup companies. It’s a place where entrepreneurs can lay down roots and get up and running with the business of problem solving, which is what Gracilieri is all about.
Upon entering the office space I expect to see freshly painted walls providing a clean backdrop for expressive mosaics, abstract splashes of color, loud lines, and bold palettes. Instead I’m met with a room full of cardboard boxes, a ‘sudden’ reminder of helping all too many friends move from old apartment to new, with only pizza as payment for my hard work.
Gracilieri explains the mess and the production line atmosphere of the space. “The turnover is fast. All this stuff you see will be gone in a week, replaced by the next set of prints and art that’s behind that other wall.” I mention to him the obvious: As business grows they will quickly outgrow this space. Gracilieri agrees. “It’s a good problem to have.”
“So how did Turning Art begin,” I ask. He begins to speak passionately and with purpose—a contrast to his casual attire—explaining how he came up with the idea to solve a simple problem. “I’d moved to a new apartment and had a whole bunch of bare walls. I knew I had matured beyond at least 50 percent of the stuff I currently had to put up. So I asked myself, how do I go about filling the walls with something I like? What’s the process? Go to stores and hope that on the day I show up there’d be something I might be interested in, at the right price point? It was too random. And I didn’t want to compromise. That was the beginning point of Turning Art.” The whole time he’s speaking I’m nodding my head in agreement. Who hasn’t been stressed out by what pictures to hang on the wall?
Gracilieri goes on to explain the problems he’s addressing with his new company. “It’s such a big hurdle to spend a lot of money to put something nice on the wall. People either don’t have the financial means today, or they don’t feel they have the disposable income. They also have this perceived lack of knowledge about what they SHOULD be buying. Or they don’t have the time to look. It’s those three things that Turning Art is tackling.” Gracilieri continues to carefully craft his vision for me just as a painter does to canvas, and I’m thinking he’s more of an artist than he realizes.
Turning Art has a Netflix vibe to it. Subscribers browse the website, choose from nearly one thousand paintings of various styles, filling their queue with art pieces they’d like to try out in their home. Then Gracilieri and his team send the subscriber their first print housed in a high quality frame. Prints are then rotated at the frequency of the subscriber’s choosing, allowing the individual member to sample different types of work, to see which styles work best for them. In addition—and I think the best part—every dollar a subscriber spends, earns one dollar towards the purchase of an original work of art on Turning Art’s site. This arrangment helps both the consumer and the artist. Not many businesses can tout such a win-win platform.
Of course I openly question the model, wondering how the prints don’t get bent or damaged. Gracilieri laughs and says the prints are almost indestructible. “They don’t bend or crease. We use high quality substrate. You could even spill water on them,” he says, although I doubt he wants me to test this water theory on some of the prints I see on the shelf. I’m still a little skeptical until we walk over to look at them. Sure enough, they are exactly as advertised. Another problem solved.
Gracilieri has been solving problems since leaving Dartmouth College with an engineering background. Directly out of college he founded Applied Reason and Technology, a company focusing on search and information intelligence. Then he and his team dreamed up Sconex, a social networking site for the under 18 crowd, which he later sold. He followed with Bankfox, a search engine for consumer deposit products. And now Turning Art, his fourth startup. Suffice it to say, Gracilieri has been busy. However, he was never busier than he was in March of 2010. “My daughter Lucy was born on March 20th. I came home from the hospital and sent out Alpha invitations for Turning Art on March 22nd, which officially launched the company. Now I have two start- ups going,” he jokes, referring to his daughter. Okay, so I’ll retract my earlier statement: Turning Art is Gracilieri’s fifth startup, if I count his 16 month old daughter.
Gracilieri also mentions another family member: Julie, his wife. He gives much of the credit for Turning Art’s origins and success to her, telling me she was the one who used her connections in the art world—she’s an artist, and was a gallery director—to find the initial group of artists, which set the bar high for entry point. Now all artists are vetted. And from my perspective—as someone who is part of the creative world himself—the Turning Art family is a great place for any artist looking for exposure, and a fair marketplace to sell their work. Many online businesses use content created by artists to help their own bottom line, but not many sites actually benefit the creators themselves. Turning Art does, and it’s just another example of the win-win focus Gracilieri has established.
Gracilieri might describe himself as a problem solver, and he certainly is that. But he brings so much more to the table. I was struck by his genuine affection for the people he works with, the artists he helps promote, and the customers he exposes to the world of original art. He’s someone who truly cares about doing right by people, and he puts his money where his mouth is. And I say, to be able to pull off what he’s doing requires more than drive and determination. It actually takes a bit of artistry to create a business where everybody wins.