A Picasso painting hangs on the walls of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Mamco) in Geneva, and it wasn’t acquired by the museum, or donated by a generous benefactor. It is in fact owned by 25,000 people who are all members of the online retailer QoQa. Titled the Buste de Mousquetaire, the 1968 portrait by Picasso was bought in December, 2017, during a 48-hour-long surprise offer to subscribers of the QoQa website. How did this happen, and why?
Kristen Knupp interviewed Pascal Meyer, founder of QoQa, to find out more. Pascal started QoQa in 2005 in his garage when he was working for an international company as an IT manager. After three years, he moved to the existing headquarters in Bussigny where the company grew from 6 people to 98 people today.
KK: How did the idea to buy a Picasso painting come about? Was it your idea or did someone approach you with the idea?
PM: With QoQa we have a special philosophy, we have a community, and we offer to our community a new product every day at midnight. The community means that they can interact with the product that we offer. We have been involved in different fields and one field which we had never explored before was art. People around me told me that art was something impossible, that it is very difficult to get in, and that there are a lot of special things associated with it, and that it would not be easy to act in this field. And so I thought that it sounded interesting, and wanted to dig in and see what we could do.
As part of this, I went to several people to ask them what art means to them. If I asked young people, “What is art?”, they would say that art is painting. If I asked them “Who is a great artist?”, they mostly all answered Picasso or Van Gogh. Those were the two artists that were named the most often. And for me, Picasso was number one, so I said, “Ok, let’s find a Picasso”. I thought it would be very easy because I find new products every day.
But it wasn’t very easy and it took me more than a year to find a Picasso, and to find the right Picasso. First, I had to understand what the difference is between real painting, a gouache, and a drawing, etc. I had to understand the basics like the difference between a painting on wood or on canvas, those sort of things. It is not that easy to just find a Picasso. I started to dig into this universe, and found that it is really a dark place sometimes, with many strange ways of buying art. So I found an art expert who advised me about which people were trustworthy in the art world, and then I was offered several pieces, until, suddenly, I was offered the Buste de Mousquetaire.
Now this painting was really interesting because the motto of the Mousquetaires was “one for all and all for one”. And this is the same motto that we have for our QoQa community, and is also the same motto for Switzerland, and is even written on the five Swiss Franc coin. So I thought this was great, and I wanted the painting. We were very lucky because we had direct contact with the owner of the piece, and negotiated a good price for it.
To buy it we decided to have a different approach and we wanted to democratise art. With QoQa, the thing is not just to sell products, but we listen to the community and to what they want. The QoQa community has power, and if tomorrow they were to say that we need something, we would try to find it. We also wanted to surprise the community, and I decided to offer the possibility to be an owner of a piece of art. The art had a certain price which I could not reveal because I had signed a contract about that, but we had to raise an amount of 2 million Swiss Francs.
This could be broken down into 40,000 shares of 50 Francs and we thought that 50 Francs is not that much money to be a contributor towards owning the art, and be a co-owner. And a share owner would also have a credit card showing ownership, and get in free to the museums showing the piece, and also decide on its future. We decided to create this and to make something a bit special in that everyone who bought a share would get back their 50 Francs, if the community decided to sell the piece. Any added value would go to up to five charitable associations or causes that would be voted on by the community. So the added value would only go to the right causes.
So in 48 hours we raised 2 million Swiss Francs. We sold 40,000 shares to 25,000 people who bought those shares. We created a platform called PiQasso, with a Q, with a live webcam where people could go to view the painting. We created interaction around the piece of art. We wanted to change the experience that people have when they are interacting with art. So this is when we used Artmyn (a company that scans artwork using thousands of photographs in different types of light), so people can see it in 3D. We bought iPads for children to see the piece of art and the different layers of paint. My idea was to give a different experience for people when viewing art. Hopefully those people will be more interested in art. So we created this and we are very happy because we had a lot of success. Our community is very active.
Even though I expected the project to make a lot of buzz, I was astonished by it’s international success. Yet, it’s only when Claude Picasso, son of the famous painter and guardian of Picasso’s cultural heritage, expressed his eagerness and support for us that I realised the importance of such innovative projects in the world of art.
The thing I forgot in the process is that the word “Picasso” is very protected. Thanks to the relation we now have with Claude Picasso and the Picasso administration, we were able to overcome paperwork issues concerning rights to scan the painting and usage of the name “PiQasso”.
Now we are looking for museums for the painting. Some museums in Spain and France would like to have it, and also some museums in the Swiss-German part of the country. The community will decide where the painting will go. Now we hope the piece of art will travel and bring with it a message about art; that it is not only for very rich people to have in their houses, but that it can be shared. QoQa is all about sharing and having the power within a community to do crazy things.
KK: What benefits does the PiQasso community have?
PM: If you haven’t bought a share then you can still login to www.PiQasso.ch and find information about the painting and where it is. If you have bought a share then you have access to voting on where the painting will go, whether it should be resold, etc. If a majority of the community votes to resell the painting then QoQa will have to find a buyer. Shareholders also have a credit card that gives them access to any museum where the Picasso hangs, for free.
KK: What about insurance, storage, transportation, etc. Was that included in the price of the painting or is that paid out of another fund?
PM: For this piece we said that the buyer would pay 50 Francs and all the insurance, and other extra costs would be covered by QoQa. Because they have supported the project and that was our gift to the community.
KK: Is there a trigger date of when it will be sold?
PM: It depends completely on the community. The first thing that many people asked us was how much money they were going to earn on this. So I decided that no one would earn any money from it, and the only money earned would go for a charity. When I said that, many people thought no one would support the idea. Funnily, people supported it anyway. When I was at Mamco the first few days when it was hanging there I saw many people coming to see “their” Picasso, and it was very emotional for them. And it was also emotional for me because it was the right cause, and without the community it would not have been possible. I am still very happy about it. When you try to do good things, the stars are aligned and everything goes well.
If I had listened to my lawyers and the people around me, I wouldn’t have done it. But I focussed on the creative people who would create the right approach with me, and removed the saboteurs. In the end, I said to the lawyers to find the path which would create the fewest problems possible. When you do that, you take some risks, but when it is a success, everyone says it was a great thing to do. Especially Picasso’s son Claude really appreciated this new approach to democratise art and do something in a different way.
KK: What was the benefit for QoQa? Did you gain subscribers?
PM: In fact, every year on QoQa’s birthday we like to do something to astonish people with crazy things. Last year, it was with the work of art. Of course, someone has to login to the website to buy the shares. But we don’t send spam to those people or anything like that. QoQa is a completely different concept and more than anything else, this is a community of people on the internet. QoQa has a strong reputation for this and we would not do anything to jeopardise this.
KK: Do you have any plans to do something similar with art again?
PM: After the PiQasso project we have been bombarded worldwide with ideas and projects. Everything from blockchain ideas to buying more Picasso pieces, to projects with people who own other artist’s estates. Many people said we changed the story of art with our way of doing this project. But we aren’t that arrogant, we only did something that we believed in, and it worked. Now all these people would like to have help from us, so I give a little support here and there. But for this year and next year we haven’t planned to do anything more with art. It is important to settle the PiQasso project properly with all the experiences that we would like to have with it, and be able to say that it is a success. Until then, we are happy to explore this project and end the story properly.
KK: Has the project influenced the art institutions in Geneva and Lausanne?
PM: The museums are very important and now they need to be a little more exciting. So the question is how can we use the tools we have today to do this. We need to push people. We know that what we have in museums is interesting, but the young people don’t go there on their own unless it is with a school trip. We need more interactive approaches to give them the right messages about art. I think that would be very positive and people would love it.
KK: Do you want to add anything else?
PM: It was a very positive experience and a lot of work and in the end I am very happy with the result. I am especially happy that the community liked it and supported it. For me that is the most important thing. We always said we would have a website that would do more than sell a product. It is people who can talk about a product and say what they think about it. For example, we have a website called Qooking where you can get a new recipe every day. And that is what you have to give the community. For me, a good member of the community not just someone who buys a product, but it is someone who shares ideas, who tests a product and who tells the community about it.
Kristen Knupp interviewed Pascal Meyer in October 2018.