Online fairs change art market

Not surprisingly, art fairs have been affected by Covid-19 and the social distancing measures that limit the spread of the coronavirus. For the African art market, the cancellation of the 1:54 New York art fair was the first blow. 

This fair feeds off the activity in New York during the Frieze fair, but it is hard to feed off foot traffic virtually, via the third-party art trading platform Artsy, where exhibitors artworks were on offer. 

Touria El Glaoui, the founding director of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, suggested that 1:54 New York may be too expensive to continue and that enjoying a presence in art capitals during these art fair frenzies need not be in the form of a fair. Nevertheless, it was announced last week that 1:54 London will take place in real life.

Art fairs might reconfigure in physical form in time, but for now, the online art fair has been the new model. Two weeks ago, South Africa’s Latitudes Art Fair — a newcomer, having only had one edition — launched an online exhibition months ahead of what would have been a physical fair in September. RMB Turbine, another Johannesburg-based art fair that takes place in July, announced their online edition, as did the FNB Art Joburg. Given that the latter was dominated by top-tier South African galleries one wonders whether exclusivity is viable in the virtual realm. 

Research until now has suggested that the online art economy is not as fast-moving as the live one. Only 5% of total gallery sales were made online in 2019, according to the UBS Art Basel Art Market 2020 report. It embraces a global view but also offers some insight into the role online platforms have been playing in reaching collectors. Ushering in collectors or art buyers virtually is harder work, but now that perusing art online — barring appointment-only masked visits to galleries — is the only option, established attitudes might be changing. 

Mashudu Nevhutalu’s Wedding Party and his other oil paintings are inspired by the nostalgia and aesthetic charm of old family photographs. This work is on exhibit at Latitudes Art Fair.

That art fairs are taking place online seems to suggest that galleries and art fair organisers have some confidence that online art buying patterns are shifting. 

It’s been interesting to observe over the past few months how art fairs are being conducted in the ether and what effect they are likely to have on the art market.

Price transparency: Though most galleries are happy to share prices, top-tier galleries have previously been uptight about sharing price lists. Was it really so difficult to make them transparent? What has been lost and gained? 

Perhaps the conceit that art is not a commodity might be undermined, but think of the confidence price transparency has instilled in collectors — there is nothing more off-putting than feeling you are getting a “tailored” price list. The effect of this will be positive; price transparency in the primary art market will surely filter into gallery shows. 

This will regulate pricing and inflated prices by not-so-hot galleries and artists will hopefully be a thing of the past. 

Art is a luxury commodity: Following on from the first point, perhaps art galleries and artists will now let go of the idea that they are not working in the luxury goods market. 

Buying under pressure is over: Yes, VIP viewing has been maintained by some online fairs and this will add pressure to collectors to snap up the artworks they like before the riffraff gets a virtual look-in. 

But the longer duration of fairs online — they now go on for weeks rather than a few days — means the pressure to buy now or lose out has been lessened. 

Could this lead to more considered choices being made? 

Let’s hope so, because lesser quality works could get edited out of sales and art fairs (particularly South African ones) will no longer function as dumping grounds for storeroom art that bigger galleries wouldn’t dream of offering at an art fair in Europe. 

Installation art takes off: This trend only really became obvious during Art Basel’s June fair online (or on their app). There were a striking number more installations and sculptures on sale than there would have been at a live event where space is limited and they’re expensive to transport. This has yet to filter down properly into the African art market.

More collectors can attend fairs: One imagines that collectors who would not physically attend some fairs may now be more encouraged to browse them — and they may buy artworks rather than just looking for entertainment. 

Art fairs are not for entertainment: Most people who physically attend fairs don’t buy art. At least this has been the case in South Africa. Most browse for entertainment purposes or to be seen at the VIP opening night. It is doubtful this audience will go online. But this is the audience the art world claims to want to reach and convert into art collectors. 

Branding: Because there is little difference in the experience of online art fairs their brands are perhaps less important. But, with so much dodgy art for sale online perhaps more branded portals with clear curating and fewer barriers to participation will offer confidence. The brand of a gallery and artist is likely more important in online trading. 

The art fair will never be the same again: Art fair fatigue had set in, not only for collectors, but galleries too – particularly small and medium-sized ones that have been struggling to afford to attend so many. They had come to be seen as a necessary evil. This resetting period will hopefully mean they will be reconfigured into something more sustainable, less ubiquitous, less homogenous.

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Mary Corrigall
Mary Corrigall is an award-winning critic, academic and founder of Corrigall & Co. She will be discussing the findings of the inaugural art report at an event hosted by Strauss & Co this Saturday. It will be followed by a panel discussion with Tokini Peterside, director of Art X Lagos art fair, Emma Menell director of London’s Tyburn gallery, Owen Martin, curator at the Norval Foundation and Matthew Partridge, contemporary specialist at the auction house.

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