Seismic Shifts

Why the art market will never be the same again

The art market may sometimes feel impenetrable and opaque but Covid-19 has certainly managed to infiltrate and force change. Deprived of the opportunity for face-to-face contact on which art sales thrive, the art market has shifted to an online presence; but crucially, in a much-altered guise.

Within this online context, the difficulty to forge personal connections with the seller and develop trust has had a stagnating effect on many sales, given its centrality within the purchasing process. Bonding over receptions and viewings in auction houses, buyers often cite this as a fundamentally important part of the process; in gaining the trust of the seller.

Moreover, the understanding of art objects as auratic works presents a colossal obstacle to the success of the move online, given that potential buyers are deprived of a first-hand encounter with the work on sale. Digital reproductions may provide the means to view works beyond the ability of the naked eye, but their inability to replicate the sensory and material aspect of the viewing experience leaves a gaping hole in the corona-era auction experience. After all, materiality equates to sociality.

Some may dismiss this of importance; indicative of the general shift towards art being considered solely as financial assets rather than personal auratic objects. Indeed, some collectors have profited greatly from the pandemic, benefitting from the diminishing interest of others and instead of snapping up works of art at low prices, with the hope to make a large profit later on by reselling it. But observers of any online auction cannot deny the far more muted experience. Gone is the theatrical performative aspect which drives up bidding. Instead, we seem far more detached from the action. Interestingly, however, this hasn’t had a dramatic impact on prices on average, with Sotheby’s first globally streamed auction (June 29 2020) proving a resounding success, achieving $363.2 million in total sales.

More positively, the pandemic can be seen as having a silver lining, in drawing positive change within the much-criticised art market. As Andreas Petterson of ArtTactic has argued, ‘The crisis has exposed the art market’s vulnerabilities’, drawing our attention to its issues and offering a chance to rectify and develop this. This can be discerned in the move online paving the way for a more inclusive art world. Bidding farewell to the intimidating private galleries and unapproachable white cube spaces, online sales can be accessed with the click of a button from the comfort of one’s own home. The impact of this has proved monumental thus far, seen in the huge widening of the demographic engaging with these sales.

Most notably, Sotheby’s reported that almost 40% of buyers on their online sales are now new buyers, with 30% under 40 years old. It seems then that an online presence aligns with the fast-paced lives of many, in an increasingly time-poor society. Thus, auctions moving to digital platforms should not be seen as a subpar replacement, but rather as a valuable supplement in offering the key to a far more accessible art world. Once this is recognised, it becomes obvious that we cannot return to lofty and exclusive private viewings and events. Sales must continue to operate far more egalitarian, as the pandemic has taught us.

Rather than lamenting what we have lost (the champagne receptions, opening events and networking opportunities), we ought to cherish the opportunity presented to increase accessibility, harnessing technology’s power to connect us and to create a positive future for the art world. The transition period may prove a little bumpy, but calm waters are ahead for sure.

Follow Nicole on her Instagram@nicole.kitsberg