How online art fairs are changing the art market

Updated: Jul 22


Not surprisingly it is art fairs that have been the most impacted by Covid-19 and the social distancing measures that have been put in place to limit the spread of the virus. For the African Art Market, the cancellation of the 1:54 New York art fair was the first blow – this art fair feeds off the activity in New York during the Frieze fair that takes place at the same time. It is particularly hard to ‘feed’ off foot-traffic virtually, so despite the fact the exhibitors were able to advertise their art on Artsy – they could not rely on collectors or curators who may have ‘spilled-in’, having exhausted their time at Frieze. Is the spill-over that guaranteed in reality?

In an interview conducted for my masterclass on the Future of the African Art ecosystem, Touria El Glaoui, suggested that 1:54 New York was perhaps too expensive to continue doing and that enjoying a presence (in western art capitals) during these art fair frenzies need not be in the form of an art fair.

Art fairs might reconfigure in physical form in time, but for now, the online art fair has been the new model. Last week South African Latitudes fair – a newcomer, having only one edition under their belt - launched their online platform months ahead of what would have been a physical fair in September. Turbine fair, another Joburg-based art fair that takes place in July announced their online edition, as did the FNB Art Joburg. Given the latter was dominated by South African galleries – top tier ones – one wonders how they will retain the air of exclusivity in the virtual realm.


An Alexander installation work offered by Stevenson Gallery art Art Basel's online art fair

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 UBS Art Basel Art Market 2020 report. This report embraces a global view (opposed to a Pan-African one) but nonetheless offers some insight into the role online platforms have been playing in reaching collectors. It is harder work, ushering in collectors or art buyers virtually. However, now that perusing art online – barring appointment-only masked visits to galleries – is the only option, established attitudes, particularly among older collectors (we are told that Millenials have had little trouble parting with cash for art online) might be changing.

Certainly, given that art fairs are all taking place online – seems to suggest that galleries and art fair organisers have some degree of confidence that online art buying patterns are shifting.

It’s been interesting over the last couple of months to observe the ‘new’ trends emerging around how art fairs are being conducted in the ether. Herewith follows a short list of what some of these have been and what the impact they are likely to have on the art market;

1) Price transparency; naturally given Corrigall & Co have been studying prices in the primary art market for some time, we are particularly delighted by this development. Though most galleries are happy to share prices, the Top Tier galleries – in South Africa this would be Stevenson and Goodman – have in the past been uptight about sharing price lists. Was it really so difficult to make them transparent, what has been lost and gained? Yes, perhaps now 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 receiving a ‘tailored’ price list. The impact; price transparency in the primary art market, will surely filter into gallery shows too – this will naturally regulate pricing…


2) Art is a luxury commodity: Following on from the first point – perhaps finally art galleries (particularly at the high end) and artists can let go of the conceit that they are not working in the luxury goods market.


3) Buying under pressure is over; yes, the VIP viewing has been maintained by some online fairs and this will add pressure to collectors to snap up the works they like before the riff-raff get a look-in. However, the longer duration of fairs online – they now go on for weeks rather than a few days – means that the pressure to buy now or lose out has been lessened considerably. Could this lead to more considered choices being made? Let’s hope so, as this could mean that lesser quality works simply get edited out of sales altogether…


4) The prominence of installation art; this ‘trend’ only really became obvious during Artbasel’s June fair online (or via their app). There was a striking number of installation and sculpture works available for sale that would not ordinarily have been the case at a live event where there would be limited space to show them – and given they would be too expensive to bring. This has yet to filter down properly into the African art market – given the offerings at 1:54 online and Latitudes, but hopefully it will.


5) More collectors can ‘attend’ fairs – I have not seen the figures – but I imagine that collectors who would not attend some fairs may now be more encouraged to browse them, and given they may be feeling less anxious about buying art online they may be purchasing rather than just looking for entertainment.


6) Art fairs are not for entertainment purposes - The majority of people who attend art fairs don't buy art. At least this has been the case in fairs in South Africa. Most browse for entertainment purposes or to be seen or socialise on the VIP opening night. It is doubtful this audience will go online. Of course, this is the audience the art world claim to want to reach and convert into art collectors.


7) Branding in the field of art counts more than it ever did or conversely not; as there is little difference in your online experience of different art fairs their brand is perhaps less important, though with a swathe of dodgy art being offered for sale online perhaps more branded portals with clear ‘curating’ and barriers to participation offer a degree of confidence. The brand of a gallery and artist is probably more important in this online trading sphere.


8) The Art fair will never be the same again: A fatigue had grown around fairs, not only for collectors, but for galleries too – particularly the small and medium sized ones who have been struggling to afford to attend so many. They had come to be seen as a necessary evil. This resetting period where they cannot take place in RL, will hopefully mean they will be reconfigured into something more sustainable, less ubiquitous, less homogenous.

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