Online apps are more than just games and entertainment. They help make life easier, and they help people connect. This is especially significant for individuals trying to start a business and make a name for themselves, such as those in the arts who often end up sacrificing time to create in order to promote and market. Art aficionado Doug Dushan has developed and launched an app called Upklose to help artists make connections and get their work in the hands of collectors.
Dushan grew up “with art in his blood.” His mother was a photographer and collector, and his grandmother was an artists with a studio in Hollywood. When he visited, he’d hide underneath the floor boards and watch the artists paint and described it as a magical place. He started his own art collection during college, and after beginning his career designing smart home technology, would see paintings in clients’ home and recommend other artists’ pieces.
Over the years Dushan sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of art, helped artists with their portfolios, and connected them to buyers, often being given pieces in exchange, which helped grow his own collection. In 2001 he took a leap of faith and opened his own gallery in the Old Market so that he had space where he could invite artists to exhibit and where he could express his own creativity while continuing to build relationships between artists and collectors.
“I realized I was at the center of this symbiotic relationship,” Dushan said. “The artists needed someone to help them get their art in the hands of a collector, but I also knew the impact a piece can have on a person as a collector. I took that as a very important role.” Almost five years later, Dushan felt he had taken the gallery as far as he could at the time, but continued to facilitate artist/collector relationships when he could. But as the demands of his day job and family increased, it became harder to find the time to take pieces to collectors’ homes to try.
“I was no longer able to be a really vocal advocate for artists, and I felt like I was letting them down,” Dushan said. “I began thinking, ‘how can I make this more efficient without walking away from it?’” That’s when he started developing the concept for Upklose—an app that could showcase multiple artists’ portfolios and allow collectors to place pieces virtually on their walls. Dushan knew the business world of art, but translating that into a successful online venture was another challenge, and one he realized he needed help with in order to do it correctly.
Dushan and his business partner Jake Wiechman applied to be part of the Omaha Startup Collaborative, a non-profit located in the former Omaha Grain Exchange at the AIM building downtown that is dedicated to helping tech start-ups by offering monthly memberships. This includes community work space, meetings, and events to foster a collaborative environment so that these new companies can grow quickly and have a better chance for success than they would if on their own and didn’t have a network of resources at their fingertips.
“We look for strong entrepreneurs who are leading businesses, teams with a sense of approachability, and who are willing to offer support to others,” said Erica Wassinger with the Omaha Startup Collaborative. “Doug’s team is exciting because he’s working in the art space and has experienced the problem first-hand that he’s trying to solve. He came in early in the product life stage, and all of our businesses have grown 25-50% since we started in June.”
Dushan said coming into the Omaha Startup Collaborative gives him options for growth he wouldn’t have otherwise. “It’s a fantastic place where we can talk to other startups in other industries and learn from them,” he said. “I didn’t have that when I owned the gallery.” Dushan doesn’t intend the app to replace galleries, rather he said he’s trying to soften the boundary between gallerists and collectors. “I’m not revolutionizing the way art is purchased, I’m just making it more accessible.”
Upklose is already available as a free app for the iPad, and the iPhone and Android versions will launch soon. The app currently features 10 artists, and Dushan wants to add slowly so that the quality of curation remains consistent. His focus is on having conversations with as many regional artists as possible. And rather than charge a commission to artists, he charges a small fee for them to showcase their portfolios through the app. “Looking at a piece online starts a dialogue between the artist and collector,” he explained. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Dushan welcomes anyone to try the app and hopes that down the road it will become the go-to resource that collectors use to find quality work in any city. In the meantime, his team has plenty of work to continue to refine and make improvements in the app. “Creating something out of nothing is what I love,” he said. “It might not work, but you have to try, and you have to believe in things in order to have it succeed at all.”