Excerpt from the May 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
With fairs canceled and galleries closed over the past year, London’s art market is a shadow of its former self. Will the city experience high attendance again, or are virtual viewings and dwindling sales here to stay? Below, art dealers Stephen Ongpin and Thomas Dane and François Chantala reflect on what’s to come.
The art market in London is a thing of many splendours. I know this from my own experience, both as a gallery owner specializing in old, 19th century and modern drawings for over 30 years, and as chairman of London Art Week (LAW), an event run by dealers which showcases many of the capital’s leading galleries and auction houses, and highlights the best that the city has to offer in the world of pre-contemporary art. Although this may surprise the national press, which seems to view the ‘art market’ as being all about contemporary art, London supports a thriving ecosystem of galleries spanning some 5,000 years of art history.
The effects of the pandemic over the past year have had a huge impact on my own gallery, forcing us to adapt and react creatively to an unpredictable and evolving situation. Besides the fact that our doors have been closed for several months, the cancellation of several art fairs has also led to an inevitable reduction in the number of sales expected in a normal year. Nonetheless, the gallery weathered the crisis with a program of online exhibitions and digital catalogs, and an increasing level of engagement with clients, notably through our recently updated website. We even managed to hold our annual January exhibition in New York this year, attracting a smaller but much more determined audience of collectors, many of whom expressed the sheer delight of being able to once again view the art in person. And throughout the past year, I have felt the thrill of every sale made against all odds!
At LAW, the decision was made in April last year to move to an all-digital format, and in the space of just 10 weeks, a visually appealing new online platform, rebranded as LAW Digital, was created, almost from zero. Over 50 galleries – mostly based in London but also from France, Germany, Italy and the US – took part, and I’m immensely proud that LAW was able to survive because it had the ability to change for its own sake. adapt to its times. For 2021, LAW will once again host several physical gallery exhibitions in London, while continuing to maintain a broader online component, and London Art Week and LAW Digital will run alongside and complement each other; a synchronicity that can continue into the future.
I believe that the London art market – at least in the many specialized fields of pre-contemporary art for which the city remains a center of knowledge and connoisseurs – can recover quickly from the tribulations of the past year. This is largely due to the genuine passion of connoisseurs, curators and collectors driving the market in many disparate fields. To take my own discipline of drawing, for example, the vast majority of my clients are long-time collectors who have been actively involved in the market for many years. These collectors, as in many other specialized fields of pre-contemporary art, are driven by a particular enthusiasm for works and a concomitant desire to explore what is available on the market, rather than by, say, an interest in investment or a desire for social status. Overall, it would seem that the pandemic has done relatively little to prevent the engaged collector from continuing to seek out and acquire works of art.
While art fairs will continue to play an important role (although some of the lesser ones may be phased out), it must be recognized that visiting a fair, with its crowds, is something that can take some time to get used to. get used to. Thus, some collectors may come to prefer the relative calm of a tailor-made visit to a gallery to the less intimate environment of a TEFAF or a Masterpiece. It’s also true that a digital or online component will become a much bigger part of any art fair’s program, as it will for any gallery like mine. The success of recent online auctions in specialist areas such as Old Master drawings demonstrates the willingness of collectors in many fields to continue to engage in the market. While most patrons are now accustomed to looking at works online, I think everyone can agree that there really is no substitute for standing in front of a real work of art, and London will always be one of the best places to do it.
Stephen Ongpin is a London dealer in old, 19th century and modern drawings.
Thomas Dane and Francois Chantala
Months into Brexit, and with the UK battered by the Covid storm for more than a year, London’s long-established identity as the world’s second largest art market is questioning; its resilience threatened. London-bashing is suddenly cool.
Politicians and the press can be quick to invoke and emulate a chauvinistic and antiquated spirit of the Blitz. Likewise, we may be too inclined to reprioritize “local” and believe that art can be exhibited and sold online as well as in the flesh. But looking back over the past year, we think the London art market will, as it always has, rebound.
London was out of phase when, almost 10 years ago, a number of international galleries stormed the city, attracted by its enduring cosmopolitanism and position as the English-speaking capital of Europe; conversely, it will resist any exodus that might occur. Why? Because it has the richest mosaic of galleries, dealers and arts organizations in the world. Unmatched. The London art world is complex, historic, avant-garde, balanced and collegial.
When the storm hit last year, the majority of the city’s dealerships didn’t consider laying off staff or moving to sunnier shores, but instead fought to protect and salvage what they could. Even at a time when some felt the need to be more competitive, and the pitfalls and excesses of our industry had been laid bare, London came together like never before. From Sadie Coles, who together with a few other colleagues created a gallery forum in which information and ideas could be exchanged, to Christopher Battiscombe of the Society of London Art Dealers (SLAD), who was instrumental in negotiating reliefs and providing advice, London professionals looked at and talked to each other. Meetings of the Visual Arts London Strategy Group (VALS), chaired by Ralph Rugoff and bringing together leading figures from the museum world, gained urgency and have continued every week since.
The question is not so much whether the London art market (and by extension, the City of London and the UK as a whole) will rebound, but of course How? ‘Or’ What it will bounce back. If London were to become a tax haven, fanned by a government of ideologues and corsairs, which would ultimately only grasp the potential of the arts through the prism of their economic impact (which is immense), then we would lose our singularity and a bit of our soul. This unique creative and collegial spirit means that an organization such as the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC), which was established last year and aims to facilitate a greener and more sustainable commercial art world, could not really be than a London invention; especially in these difficult times. The range of people involved, from gallerists, writers and art fair directors to software and shipping professionals, reminds us that there is more to the arts than greed and megalomania.
London is, of course, a capitalist and entrepreneurial city, but it also has a remarkable civic responsibility. It stands somehow proud between the too private North American model and the too manager Continental model. The actors and professionals of the London art world, down to its vital core which are the artists, will always give back to it. A real sense of community (and the word can indeed be exaggerated or twisted) exists in London: as a purpose, a business sense, a set of ethics and, ultimately, a social fabric. And that is why the playwrights, visual artists and restorers of this world will always want to come here rather than to a Monte Carlo or a Singapore. Moreover, London professionals will have understood and learned from the fragility and versatility of its economy, and will be keen to re-emphasize its originality and durability (in every sense of the word).
Frieze, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Tate, SLAD, VALS, GCC, et al. are not just a collection of companies, collectives, brands and acronyms, but an ingenious and creative territory from which to exchange, lobby, mobilize, bounce back and grow – true London (re)inventions. Don’t give up on London.
Thomas Dane and François Chantala are associated with the Thomas Dane Gallery.
Excerpt from the May 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.