Is COVID-19 a catalyst or a switch? Changes have swept nearly every industry on the globe, and most of that change has taken the form of a mass adoption of technology in lieu of conventional in-person practices. The question is especially pertinent when applied to the art market, in which all that feels novel is actually just neglected, and questions are raised as to whether the rush to digital is a migration or vacation. That things have changed is evident, yet it is plain to see how this change reflects more traditional values than at first appears, and that we are finding it difficult to stretch our imaginations beyond our screens.
The usual annual trade reports have this year been published during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has greatly effected their coverage and accuracy as the world continues to change. Both the Hiscox/ArtTactic July Report, Part One: The Online Art Trade, and the Art Basel UBS mid-year survey chose to publish their findings while still in the eye of the storm – making every statistic, whether sales are up or down, where people are buying and how – a surprise. Still findings remain relevant to the fast changing and fluid situation at hand, painting a picture of the art market before the dust has settled. There is now no baseline, the bottom has been taken out from under so many galleries, and they’re standing on new ground.
What commentators are now referring to as the post-COVID ‘landscape’ is quite an apt metaphor. We are looking at something like a garden – there are large trees, established modes of selling artwork online that have stood quietly for decades, then there are the fast-blooming flowers, hastily-planted and heavily-tended new techniques for art commerce, and finally there are small withered stalks, attempts past and present to nurture a digital presence that withered without attention.
Of those flowers that are blooming are the astonishing sales from Gagosian’s #ArtistSpotlight initiative, rounding off their series with the sale of a Jenny Saville painting for an undisclosed price upwards of $5 million. The Spotlights focused each week on selling one work by one artist, using targeted social media posts to build anticipation, desire and fever. Ever the bellwether for the rest of the industry, Gagosian’s studied avoidance of the Online Viewing Room (OVR) said something funereal about the format.
For some years now galleries have maintained a ‘room’ on their websites, unkempt and collecting dust until its readoption as everyone fell to the familiar in the early pandemic. What was already a neglected and unexciting program underwent an attempted revival as invites and advertisements to exclusive OVRs appeared everywhere. But it was soon learnt that four walls does not make a room, and after all of the inverted-comma vocabulary one is still left with a screen-sized scroll of JPEGs.
So, having patience with regards to selling seems like a good idea, though it’s a patience that is rarely afforded to smaller galleries. Such galleries cannot stretch their budget to hire more digitally-fluent staff or consultants (though the priority for this might be changing), nor can they afford to wait and strategise until their next sale, so a format which required little more than a site re-design became the mercy-bench of many.
And sales were made. At the OVRs of art fairs, handfuls of works were sold for millions of dollars, armfuls for hundreds of thousands. The 2020 mid-year Art Basel UBS report showed that the share of online sales rose from 10% of total sales in 2019 to 37% in the first half of 2020, though the statistic owes more to the forces of circumstance than genuine appetite. Only, as will be seen, despite its name the art market isn’t entirely about selling, and a desire has remained to create platforms that don’t just sell but which inspire, which support artists and ignite audiences.
Enter the initiatives that have been working in this space for years. Selling art online is not new, only the openness to it is. These are the metaphorical oak trees that have paid attention to the potential of digital long before we all were forced to. Take Daata, a digital platform for video and new media art that began as a commissioning site only to find demand developing its business into a streaming service, gallery host and now an art fair. Of this post-COVID rush to digital, Daata’s founder David Gryn says ‘we are all in a state of dread, panic, fear and anxiety. So it is our duty to share something positive you feel you can offer others’.
Still, though the commercial art world is rushing to the innovators that have been working on solutions for years – David Zwirner working with Vortic to create virtual-reality experiences, major auction houses relying on their digital departments to stage an online-only circus of auctions, Hauser and Wirth and Thaddeus Ropac joining Daata’s new fair – these digital platforms still find themselves bending to the templates of traditional art commerce. Gryn describes the process of building Daata as a matter of trust; ‘It’s taking its time but people are starting to recognise that the value model is really there’ he says. Just as Frieze was an established magazine for many years before it launched its fair, Daata had to make itself familiar and comfortable to the traditional art world before it could approach with new solutions. To quote Gryn, ‘it’s easier to get eyeballs when you fit to what people already know’.
So, is the newly-popular digital art world a fresh start or will it look just like what we knew before, un-regulation, ugliness and all? Daata has timed their new fair to the traditional art fair calendar, which is one example of the ways in which digital art commerce is tapping into the Pavlovian responses of its audience. In theory, there is little to distinguish online galleries and auctions from platforms like Saatchi Art, even (whisper it) Etsy and eBay, so in order to maintain a sense of luxury galleries are raising prices, cultivating prestige. Art Basel has raised its ‘booth’ price, reinstating the hierarchies in which access to space comes at a premium. Gagosian’s Spotlights run on culturing a scarcity mindset in its buyers, a ‘get it before it’s gone’ mentality. What many have hailed as a great democratisation of the art market that comes with scrolling from your bedroom might be a fantasy, as it’s a much smaller step to imagine pay-to-enter viewing rooms, interminable ‘waiting rooms’ just like the non-existent waiting lists for works, freeport storage replaced by harddrives hidden in a bookcase.
Nonetheless, there is room for optimism. With technology in every corner of our lives, we have learnt a helplessness that restricts us only to the tools we are given, yet there are people imagining ways to create new commercial options that feel fresh. One of those is Zien, a WhatsApp-based platform for selling art, and its founder Peter Holsgrove. It functions via a text broadcast, from which clients receive notifications of its ‘drops’, the first few editions of which can be claimed for free. The art takes the form of ‘scarce editions’; a digital file of an artwork, with a licence to produce it and instructions on how. In creating Zien, Holsgrove says he wanted to counter the exclusivity of the art world, closing the chasm between participation and observation by allowing anyone to collect. It feels novel, fresh, to participate in dealing and collecting from your phone, with no sense of its being a substitute for real-world connection.
With that said, what is a common theme of these digital projects is the humanity of them all. It may sound counterintuitive at first, but a digital-only art world, as the past year has shown, is not one that can sustain the magic that keeps us engaged. It is why all of the platforms mentioned have an emphasis on the translation from IRL to URL, ‘the online digital process is very human in its conception’, Gryn says, ‘the technology is the means to an end.’ And that end, however unlikely it might sometimes feel, is to support the creation of art. The digital initiatives that have lasted are the ones that have engaged artists, enticed them to new and exciting mediums, and the ones that have sold their work successfully in order to commission more. There has been what journalist Jenna Wortham calls a ‘context collapse’ in which we have all fallen into the same space, with the same tools. Those led by the core impulse of supporting artists, along with the creativity and optimism to imagine something beyond a website page, are those that will have the greatest impact on how we buy art in this new terrain.
Stella Botes is a freelance art critic and writer, find more of her writing via her Instagram @gallerina_ldn.