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How the Pandemic Has Changed the Business of Art

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

No industry has remained untouched by the Covid pandemic that began in early 2020. The art world is no exception. Like every other industry from hospitality to food retail to the airline industry, the art world was forced to adapt.

Just as the world changed, so did the art market. Galleries, art fairs, and auction houses took to the internet to show their collections. Art collectors mastered buying with only a few photos and videos. Some changes that have shook the art world may be temporary, but it’s predicted many of the effects of the pandemic are here to stay.

Galleries During Pandemic Times

Some galleries closed their doors entirely due to Covid. Other galleries operated in a completely new way as they adopted CDC recommended guidelines for the safety of both staff and visitors. In Beverly Hills, the Haykoff Gallery made significant changes to their way of doing business. Founder Bella Haykoff opted to close their physical doors not because of the fact that indoor spaces were indicated as contributors of the spread, but because they found people were not traveling to view art in person. The Haykoff Gallery took to offering online viewings as well as private viewings at a location of the client’s choosing and with no more than two people in attendance. This concept of bringing the gallery to the client had not been done prior to the pandemic. The gallery’s practice of hosting one or two international guests monthly and hosting private collaborations on a monthly basis are one aspect that is on hold.

With galleries in Seoul, South Korea and Los Angeles, California, Various Small Fires, owner Esther Kim Varet wasn’t worried back in April 2020 when Covid-19 toppled the world. Having heard what was happening in Korea, Varet felt she had an opportunity to get a grasp on the crisis earlier than most in the country. As Freeze Los Angeles opened in February 2020, Varet tried to predict what would happen if lockdown like Korea was experiencing happened in LA. Seeing how the virus was spreading in Korea, she knew it was inevitable.

Feeling it was not a question of “if” but “when”, Varet began growing an online reservation booking system. She created thirty-minute time slots for safe socially distanced gallery viewings. Varet’s goal was a safe viewing environment for art collectors as well as the staff of Various Small Fires. Varet’s unique position of having a finger on the pulse of the covid situation in Korea served her gallery well. A week after launching her new system, California Governor Gavin Newsome ordered a covid lockdown. Still Varet found much positive response to the idea of having a gallery completely to themselves for a thirty-minute viewing. Varet went a step further in adapting her gallery to the changes Covid forced upon the art world. Varet is confident her ability to use technology will leave her gallery unscathed. She believes when gallery doors open again to the public Various Small Fires will emerge stronger than before. Viewers can still view exhibitions in both locations by signing up for advance reservations through their website.

Prior to the pandemic, many galleries were seeing a growth in online sales. Internationally, buyers were bidding by phone and collectors were choosing to bid by a more convenient means. After being blindsided by the past year’s events, galleries are stepping up with digital innovations and pivoting to online events. The most difficult challenge for galleries is the need for an openness in the art collecting world. Technology must be embraced on all sides. The market appears to be responding positively to a steady stream of online sales, hybrid sales, and virtual art events. Still, galleries are committed to their physical locations. There is nothing like seeing art in person and many are working diligently toward the safe reopening of their doors. However, this new business model of viewing and buying online has left galleries attuned to the fact that the digital life is here to stay.

On the Bright Side

Like many industries that came to a grinding halt due to the pandemic, this moment of pause has made the art industry conscious of its need to implement more eco-friendly practices for the day they return to a “new normal”. One thing learned is that they can be no true substitute for the international travel and events that are integral to the art market. However, going forward those traveling for art will be more thoughtful in their planning, perhaps traveling less frequently but strategically planning so as to cover multiple engagements during one trip. When it comes to international events, major art fairs like Art Dubai could play an important role in being a convening moment for the market in that region.

One of the world’s largest brokers of fine art, Sotheby’s reported live streamed sales and online auctions were attracting new buyers who had never set foot in an auction house prior to the pandemic. Sotheby’s reported close to fifty percent of online sales were buyers new to them and thirty percent of buyers were under forty years old, a demographic that proves to be new to buying art.

Auction houses that embraced social media such as Instagram expanded their audience with extraordinarily little cost. As an example, Brett Gorvy, former Chairman of Christie’s who left to open his gallery Levy Gorvy, sold an artwork for twenty million dollars after posting it on Instagram. The piece was met with much enthusiasm by both existing and new clients almost immediately.   

This online selling capacity has made the art market accessibility convenient. There are few if any hoops to jump through when buying art online. Additionally, art fairs conducted virtually can use multiple social media platforms expanding buying opportunities with no worries about being limited geographically. 

One event on social media has sparked an interest and created a wider audience for art fairs and online art sales. The hashtag #ArtistsSupportPledge at last count on Instagram had over 564,101 active posts and on Twitter artists are actively using it to showcase their work for sale. The hashtag was created to encourage sales during the pandemic. It’s expected that it will become more significant to collectors looking for new works and new artists. It’s also believed the hashtag will help create and grow broader audiences for future art fairs and continue to play a role in online art sales.

Of course, nothing can replace the physical experience of seeing a piece of art. Standing in front of a painting, the colors, textures, and meaning, come to life. However, during times when limitations such as covid are placed on the art world, the internet offers a plan B. It grants access to a global audience, increases profit margins on sales, and opens the door for those not at home in the traditional auction room. The opportunities online offer art galleries of means of resilience. Just as many people feel more comfortable shopping from the comfort of their homes, there are many potential art lovers they may prefer their keyboard to a paddle in hand.

The art market is evolving at an aggressive rate. From the artists who create art to the galleries that show it to collectors who buy it, everyone who is a part of the art world will need to accept that the world as they knew it will look different after the pandemic. However, as with any drastic changes in life, there is always a bright side.

Read more of a Conversation about Art or Shop Now at Schmidt Fine Art Gallery


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