the year of cancellation culture and bricks and clicks

There are many words that could describe 2020. Few are printable. It was a bit like making an army obstacle course blindfoldedAs Melanie Clore, co-founder of Clore Wyndham art Advisory puts it.

In January and February, the coronavirus was widely – foolishly – viewed in the West as an Asian problem. The big question was whether Art Basel in Hong Kong, slated for late March, would cancel (and it did). Frieze LA managed to take place in February, then New York’s Armory Week in March, as collectors and dealers jokingly practiced tapping “Wuhan Shake” at the opening of Tefaf Maastricht on March 5. . Less than a week later, the fair, with around 280 galleries, was closed after an exhibitor was diagnosed with the virus. More than 100 people suspect they have contracted Covid-19 after visiting the Dutch fair; a few unlucky ones ended up in intensive care. Tefaf’s organizers have faced a backlash from some, emotions heightened by fear and vulnerability that don’t normally permeate the rarefied high-end art world.

From then on, the market fell off a cliff. The fairs fell like dominoes – Frieze New York in May, Art Basel in June, first postponed to September, then canceled altogether. Fall events such as Frieze London have also succumbed, as well as Art Basel in Miami Beach this month. And the disruptions are already seeping in 2021: Tefaf Maastricht withdrew from March to the end of May / June, Art Basel in Hong Kong from March to May and Frieze LA from February to July.

An industry driven by great sociable events has been forced to reinvent himself in a world where such things are anathema. As Anders Petterson, founder of analyst firm ArtTactic, points out, the art market relies on events to drive it, so “it has to find new ways of doing it or else it just becomes a selling space. by retail “.

“Grande Femme I” by Giacometti (1960). Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The problem is, “retail” is cheap. This is part of the reason why many galleries are reluctant to embrace the “Buy It Now” functionality of the now ubiquitous Online Viewing Rooms (OVRs). While parts of the market appear to have become more democratic in the digital shift, the more exclusive end has retreated behind a mantle of virtual private selling. Take that of Giacometti Big Woman I (1960), offered by Sotheby’s in October via a confidential, sealed “auction” with a minimum starting bid of $ 90 million – apparently it sold out. But the auction house will not give out a price – all the publicity but no risk of a public auction.

Scrambled short-term solutions (OVR and live auctions in particular) were quickly tweaked and made permanent. Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler said having to cancel the company’s three 2020 shows “is heartbreaking.” But he is encouraged by the “rapid digitization” of the market and the “unprecedented collaborations” between galleries and others that have been catalyzed by the pandemic and “the feeling that we would only serve by coming together.”

And while few events actually took place, no one got a break either, as economist Clare McAndrew pointed out in a live chat with The arts journal in October. As the industry strives to win back lost business, the hybrid “bricks and clicks” Live-broadcast auction nights have taken place every month since Sotheby’s first high-tech foray in late June – “QVC for the oligarchs,” as one prankster called it. H1 2020 art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s fell about 50% in value (20% in volume), according to McAndrew, but both auction houses regained ground in during the third quarter normally calm, thanks to exchanges throughout the year. , and their online sales have grown by over 900%, from 2% of all sales in 2019 to over 50% this year. But as Scott Reyburn wrote in The Art Newspaper in October, the evening live sales totals at Christie’s and Sotheby’s are “about 50% lower than their previous ‘real life’ counterparts, not bad as a short fix. term, but very damaging if it becomes a lasting trend ”.

McAndrew believes that the market will have shrunk by around 30% to 40% in 2020, “a very difficult year with a substantial loss in sales value.” Its report on the impact of Covid-19 on the gallery sector, published in September by Art Basel and UBS, found that gallery sales fell an average of 36% in the first half of 2020, while 2% of galleries had closed permanently (this figure will probably increase). Lesser-known galleries and their artists are not helped by the lack of opportunity for collectors to meet them at a fair – viewing online is a more restricted experience and, as art advisor Emily Tsingou laments, it is “not easy to discover a new artist or ‘voice'”.

With global downtime expected due to pandemic, British Airways revenue has been decimated Courtesy of British Airways

The supply drives the secondary market and people don’t want to sell their art in a pandemic unless they have to. We saw some distress sales so far, such as works from the British Airways collection sold by Sotheby’s, many of the first-rate works sold by Revlon owner Ronald Perelman, as well as the many works ceded – often controversially – by struggling museums ( mainly American).

Big galleries (such as Pace and David Zwirner) and auction houses cut jobs, and Guillaume Cerutti, managing director of Christie’s, said it had been “a difficult year for everyone” and that ” accelerated demand for restructuring led to the difficult and sad parting of manners with a number of beloved colleagues. ”The impact on employment is also at the forefront of McAndrew’s mind as “the art market is a very valuable employer” and his Art Basel / UBS report found that a third (33%) of the 795 art galleries contemporary and modern surveyed were already downsizing. This is especially difficult for the young junior staff and the many freelancers who bring the art world to life – as Victoria Siddall, director of the Frieze board, says it has affected “art managers. , the shippers … the technicians. There is a whole ecosystem of jobs that are impacted. Meanwhile, a growing social media self-defense culture has prompted a few galleries to investigate allegations of misconduct by some of their senior executives, such as Gagosian who terminated director Sam Orlofksy’s contract in November over ‘allegations of “unacceptable and repugnant” behavior, mainly towards women.

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the art market systemic weaknesses and excesses. Stuart Shave, owner of the Modern Art Gallery in London, says that while sales are reduced, his gallery’s profit margins “have grown significantly, even quadrupled in a matter of months compared to the previous year. “. This, he thinks, says a lot about “the financial consequences of operating in the international art world before the pandemic”. Alex Logsdail, executive director of the Lisson Gallery, says “that even in the ‘good’ pre-Covid economy, the world was living at the limit of its means, with no margin for error and with an endless appetite for more. It is the greatest existential threat to our world right now and the art world is not immune to it ”.

Installation view of “My Last American Dollar: Round 1. Tricking and Flipping Coins: Making Dollars Hit and Round 2. Black Angels in the Infield: Dripping Fagot Sweat” by Keijaun Thomas, as part of the Housing’s Vigil exhibition for Black Death.

Heightened emotions brought latent issues to a boil, particularly the lack of racial fairness in a very white art market. In the middle of Black Lives Matter (BLM) events which began in May, many companies have issued BLM solidarity statements. But some have criticized them, like KJ Freeman of the Housing gallery in New York, who called them a “performative awakening”. American merchant Karen Jenkins-Johnson told us, “It’s one thing to hire a person of color; it’s another thing to put a person of color in a leadership role; it is quite another to give that person the opportunity to participate in the management of the gallery. As Siddall says, “[although] there is a greater awareness of the need to see more people of color in our industry, ”we need to“ make sure awareness turns into action ”.

If the trade was carried by a pre-Covid tailwind this year, 2021 will be the moment when the crisis really bites, even if a vaccine allows events again. Consolidation is inevitable and, according to Petterson: “The strongest galleries, the best known artists and the big auction houses will be okay. It is the mid-sized galleries with high fixed costs that will struggle.

Corn collectors always buy, some see it as their duty to actively commission works – Turin-based Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, for example, focuses on commissioning Covid-friendly video and land art.

The art market had to operate with both arms tied behind your back. But he adapted and, in part, scrutinized himself with unprecedented (forced) speed. We just need a little rest now.

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