Reset of the Art World

29 June 2020

Reset of the Art World

For art lovers living in London Thursday afternoon means that they can easily visit two or three private views in just a two-hour window. Mega galleries including David Zwirner, Pace and White Cube, all within walking distance from each other, showcase the best art which you can discuss with a glass of wine in your hand. Drinking and socialising has always been an integral part of the art world. Well, at least until Covid-19 forced not only Mayfair galleries, but also auction houses and other businesses all around the world to temporarily close their doors.

What might seem like a death penalty for the usually very conservative, event-driven and relentlessly international art market, turned out to have a silver lining. Digital activities had already been taking shape before this March, but the pandemic has really accelerated the pace of changes which were slow comparing it to other industries. As the whole art world swapped personal meetings to digital almost overnight, I also installed Webex to listen to Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti stating from his living room: “We have to get rid of the bust, interest in pure art will emerge again.” Although it is hard to imagine the artworld with no parties, it’s already clear that this period will significantly redesign the way it all works.


Since the shutdown of physical spaces, there’s been plenty of action online. In May, Sotheby’s contemporary art sale made $13.7 million, achieving a record for any online only auction, more than doubling the previous one. Though some lots were withdrawn prior to the close of the sale due to the lack of interest, buyers are clearly getting comfortable bidding online. There are more and more artworks achieving prices exceeding the usual range for the auction houses and blue-chip galleries between $100k – 2million. Only recently, Cecily Browne’s painting sold for $5 million through Gagosian Gallery’s online viewing room. This can further encourage consignors who might not previously have thought of selling six figure paintings in a digital space.

One of the side effects of art sales moving online is a growing price transparency as most of the art works are displayed with their price or at least a price range. “We can now see that there are more than 70 pieces priced over $1m and that the total value of about 2,060 works on sale is around $270m,” remarked Marc Spiegler, global director of the Art Basel fairs, on the Hong Kong edition. And this is also for their benefit. According to Artsy, the online marketplace for artworks, galleries can expect approximately a fourfold increase in sales where the price of the work is listed upfront.


However, online sales cannot fully compensate the traditionally more lucrative live auctions and the experience of buying art in person. A survey by The Art Newspaper reveals that galleries around the world are expecting to lose an average of 72% of their annual revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Around a third of the 236 participating galleries do not expect to survive the crisis. Smaller businesses with five to nine employees which cannot afford sophisticated digital technology to attract online buyers are unsurprisingly most vulnerable.

But another astounding event took place when a wave of solidarity hit the art world. Traditional rivals joined forces together, such as sixty galleries in LA creating an online platform to promote engagement with the local and international art audience. David Zwirner gallery hosted a virtual exhibition featuring works by artists from a dozen smaller dealers in New York and London who were forced to temporarily close. Although the art market has proved resilient in the past, according to the International Monetary Fund the global economy could experience a 3% dip, comparing it to 1% during the 2008 banking collapse. Without ongoing solidarity and more collaborative art industry, the survey scenario comes true and we will lack so much needed diversity.


What will become the new normal? If the psychological after-effects of the social-distancing era undermine global travel and mass gatherings, temporary blockbuster exhibitions involving international loans, big travelling shows and art fairs with global audiences are likely to recede. A shift to a more regional art market, local art scene and permanent museum collections has been already urged by various environmental initiatives including reducing of carbon footprint.

The art world is heading towards a hybrid landscape with online and offline activities mutually reinforcing each other. Even before the pandemic in 2019, 41% of new buyers came to Christie’s through online sales. A dedicated team has therefore intensified their efforts in creating an engaging digital content to attract wider audiences. As we’ve now become more familiar with various digital platforms, virtual exhibitions and educational programmes will be a natural part of the way we consume art. I can imagine browsing through global exhibitions and art fairs online and on the other hand being involved in more innovative and interactive local events bringing the regional art communities together.

Barbora Půlpánová, Founder of the EDUART EXPERIENCE