The art of evolving online The art of evolving online

“Star Sconce” by Dale Jenssen, one of about 10,000 works available through

MADISON – didn’t start out as a dot-com. The art-dealer network Guild began in 1985 as a publishing company, supplying high-end sourcebooks for design professionals. The idea was to enable artists to market their products to an audience of designers and architects.
Founder and CEO Toni Sikes expanded her distribution to the rapidly growing World Wide Web in 1998. The possibility of instantly connecting artists and buyers appealed to Sikes, who formed as an independent company from the magazine.
While many companies would be content with this success, founder and CEO Toni Sikes kept looking for a new medium for Guild. She found it in the rapidly growing World Wide Web. The possibility of instantaneous connection to any art buyer with a modem appealed to Sikes immediately, and in 1998 was formed as an independent company from the magazine.
“The idea here was to use the power of the medium to bring the work of artists to consumers in a very, very significant way,” Sikes said. “We use the power of the real-time information that our technology provides not only for our planning over the longer-term, but to make adjustments day-to-day.”
The site provides essentially the same services as the catalogue, providing a directory of artists from across the country in mediums such as jewelry, painting, and sculpture. But online, buyers can sort through these categories automatically, define exactly what they want, and purchase it in only a few minutes. Other features on the site, such as a glossary of art terms and a list of organizations which share Guild’s vision of connecting artists and buyers, help to build art knowledge and speed up the buying process.
The site is also a boon to artists, as they can maintain an exact catalog of their products and offer them to an entire country of collectors. “The Web site has allowed me &mdashl a small crafts artist — to reach a larger market than I could reach otherwise,” said Patricia Madeja, a studio jeweler who was one of the starting artists on the website. “They’ve done so much networking, advertising and press … other sites can’t give you that exposure.

Adding a personal edge

To go even further beyond simply providing an online catalogue, Sikes and the other developers initiated the Custom Design Center on the site, giving buyers an option to create their own original work of art. Interested parties simply need to fill out an online form which describes the project in mind, specifying size, material, cost, and time constraints. Guild then passes the information along to artists who can fulfill the project, and any who are interested will communicate with the customer. The buyer chooses an artist with Guild’s assistance, and then directly works with their choice by sharing ideas and prototypes until the final idea is narrowed down.
The system works on several scales, as artists can offer their wares to either private buyers or corporate clients. It is completely open-ended, fitting a wide range of products from individual mailboxes to a customized floor or ceiling design.
“Commissions let us participate in forming the things we live with,” Sikes said of the CDC. “It’s incredibly contagious: once you’ve commissioned something and had a good experience, you tend to do it over and over again.”

Using a base for survival

Projects such as these commissions soon became very important to, as the dot-com atmosphere suddenly crashed down in March of 2000. What had once been a boom was rapidly becoming a bust, causing dot-com companies to fall apart across the board and putting hundreds out of work. The climate had been too inviting, and businesses entered into a market which they could not stay afloat in for long.
Sikes had seen before that this climate had a limited shelf life, and the potential for failure was growing along with the rabid enthusiasm for newer and more ambitious companies. “There was this expectation of meteoric growth with an eye to go public as quickly as possible that just wasn’t healthy … fuel[ing] a corporate structure that, for, just wasn’t sustainable.”
Having seen this disaster coming, managed to sustain itself by sticking with the basics: connecting to clients and providing a market not available anywhere else. By falling back on these successes, Guild was able to maintain its own niche and stay out of the line of fire. This also helped them in the long run, as the private investors who helped to fund Guild saw them stay the course of what they were founded to do, meaning they kept faith—and kept funding as well.
“Our relationships with our customers and artists drive our successes,” Sikes said. “We as a company have not lost focus on the original idea.”

Moving forward into artful homes

The cover of the Fall 2004 Artful Home catalog

Now that the harder times have passed by, is ready to develop again with its new image of “The Artful Home”, a revision of the CDC. This project goes beyond simply choosing a painting or sculpture for decoration, and looks at transforming every aspect into art. Buyers can search the database to adapt a room, finding specially designed furniture, doors and windows, lighting fixtures, and glassware for dining rooms. With the ability to customize the art search, buyers will manage to look at every part of the room and see where they can further add what Sikes calls the “richness [of] beautiful things made by artists.”
Even as Guild becomes larger and more successful, it continues to rely on the connections which kept it alive since the beginning and during the hard times—and those customers are not planning to forget what Guild has done for them.
“They act as my agent, my gallery, my retailer—a multifaceted thing,” said Michael Burns, a Madison-based metal artist who has worked with Guild for ten years. “They reach a national if not international market, and they address a system which I cannot as an individual.”