McGuire Program grad UGallery continues to connect people and art

March 03, 2014

When CNN International covered the growth of online art sales in 2013, it reached out to a respected industry source: UGallery.com, an online curated art gallery that represents hundreds of artists, sells artwork internationally and got its start in the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program.

In 2005, Alex Farkas (Art History and Entrepreneurship ’06), Stephen Tanenbaum (Finance and Entrepreneurship ’06) and Greg Rosborough(Marketing and Entrepreneurship ’06) connected in the McGuire Program over a shared interest in entrepreneurship and art. Farkas, who also studied sculpture, saw a lot of promising artists around him in the art department, but knew that talent didn’t always result in professional success.

“I realized that I was in school with a lot of talented artists but it’s a big transition between school and business,” he said. “We wanted to find a way to help young artists connect with buyers.”

The result was the idea for UGallery.com, an online gallery that showcased and sold artwork by students and recent graduates. The team worked on the idea primarily as an academic exercise and learning experience.

“The McGuire Program is a unique opportunity,” Farkas said. “There are not a lot of opportunities in life to incubate a business for a full year without any pressure.”

However, by the end of the year UGallery had won three business plan competitions and the team realized they had developed a plan for a viable new venture.

“Two weeks before graduation we sat down with our parents and discussed launching,” Farkas said. “We decided to pool our competition winnings and savings and spend a year trying to launch UGallery.”

The investment paid off. Rosborough moved to New York to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, but continued to work on the startup with his teammates.

UGallery.com officially launched in October 2006 with five artists and 25 pieces of art. The Phoenix-based startup made its first sale within three days, but Farkas and Tanenbaum found themselves regularly coming back to Tucson for advice.

“We had a lot of support from the McGuire Center,” Farkas said. “The first couple years we came by a lot for advice.”

As the business continued to grow, Tanenbaum, who oversees financials and web development, opened a New York office in 2007. Farkas, who oversees art curation, relocated to the artsy Mission District of San Francisco in 2009.

“In terms of cost of living, Arizona is so inexpensive and it was easy for us to focus our attention and money into the business. Phoenix was a good place to launch, but for our business it made sense to come here,” said Farkas.

The move into art-friendly cities on both coasts paid off, and UGallery expanded in October 2009 to serve mid-career artists in addition to students and recent graduates.

“We realized there were so many artists out there who were more established but looking for a reputable place online to expand their reach,” he said.

While UGallery was a virtual pioneer, it is now finding itself in an increasingly crowded online market.

“There have been 300 online art startups in the past three years,” Farkas said. “Amazon launched a fine art section last year. When a player like Amazon comes into the market, you know it’s arrived.”

To maintain its competitive advantage as a trusted source for curated art online, UGallery has continued to innovate. In January 2012, UGallery acquired a physical gallery space in San Francisco and began hosting regular exhibitions. The following year, it launched two online initiatives: a wedding and gift registry partnered with wedding industry giants such as The Knot, and a business portal to make it easy for interior designers, art consultants and corporate clients to procure artwork.

Today, the business represents 500 artists worldwide and has made sales in every state in the nation and in 35 countries.

“Our business has grown substantially year over year every year,” Farkas said.

The secret to UGallery’s continued success is simple: They are passionate about art, artists and innovation.

“We act quickly when we see it’s time to make a change,” he said. “We’ve maintained the spirit of a startup in terms of being lean and quick. None of this would be possible without the McGuire Center and Eller.”