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Who are the weakest links in the art ecosystem chain?

Gripped by nostalgia for the days when art appeared more accessible and the industry less institutionalised, corporatised, some secretly hoped that social distancing, economic strife brought on by Covid-19 would cause the art-world to implode slightly, levelling the playing field, slowing down the art fair circuit pace, and allowing art to be a little more like art – having more to do with expression, aesthetics, upturning politics and the status quo rather than luxury products for the super-rich.

Those ideas – perhaps outdated – collapsed faster than the top echelons of the art world. Certainly, when it was revealed that Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace and Hauser & Wirth were among the largest recipients of aid in the range of $1 million to $5 million in the US (according to a report in Bloomberg) it appeared that where the stakes were higher so too was financial aid. And if anything, those that have dominated the market were more likely to survive.

So where does the place the African art market – which is in the nascence of its growth, claims a slither of sales and exists at the periphery of this big art high stakes game? Does this macro-view offer insight into our micro art ecosystem(s)? Within our art market the larger branded African galleries based on and off the continent are those that have made inroads into the global art market – such as Goodman Gallery. Are these larger branded African galleries, which have been concretised via the western art market, more likely to survive compared to smaller- medium sized ones?

You do wonder how top-heavy galleries – such as Stevenson which is owned and run by its 13 directors – are able to reduce overheads and slimline their business during this period. This gallery have not exactly exploited the digital sphere, despite doing online openings and launches. Goodman gallery, have been far more active in generating digital content – with artist studio visits, previews of artworks pared with recordings and a very active Insta-live programme. Less high-profile galleries such as Melrose Gallery, outstripped them all with their multi-media presentation of Pitika Ntuli's exhibition with extensive audio and visual contributions from renowned African poets, academics and musicians. Bkhz reported to have created their own app.

What will determine which galleries survive now – the ones who embrace digital acceleration taking hold of the industry or those that have a solid collector base?

Baylon Sandri, director of Smac gallery in Cape Town, says the survival of a gallery comes down to one thing; “the quality of the artists you represent.”

So far, the galleries in South Africa most impacted or at risk, appear to be those selling art by young or young established artists. Smith Gallery in Cape Town and No End Contemporary in Johannesburg have both closed their doors. With its healthy art fair records – Smith gallery are classified in the SA Art Market Pricing & Patterns as a third-tiered gallery, while No End Contemporary are a 4th Tier one. Both have been run by young female artists and have advanced the art of their contemporaries – young white women (predominantly). Established in 2015, Smith represented artists (No End largely concentrated on group exhibitions with independent artists), which at that time were newly graduated. They have since grown-up and developed with the gallery – as should be the case – and could now be classified as established young artists or – in some cases – mid-career (over 35 years old). As such this gallery and No End Contemporary have (at different times) provided what you could call ‘feeder’ spaces for young graduates and mid-career artists to develop. These kinds of spaces are vital to the art ecosystem – few artists are able to graduate and open a solo at a first or second tier gallery. Someone has to develop new talent - and grow a new generation of collectors who know and relate to the art – art collecting is often generationally defined with people collecting the art of their peers.

No End Contemporary were looking to move their gallery out of the sleepy suburb of Linden and closer to Joburg’s art nodes – so they simply may be waiting for the art market to pick up again before resurrecting their physical space. Smac gallery put their plans to open a new gallery (opting to close their space in Trumpet) in Joburg on ice, according to Sandri. Some galleries may exist in the ether – for now – via the succession of online art fairs established by South African organisers – Latitudes, RMB Turbine, FNB Art Joburg. New online art portals selling art or art dealers without a physical space have also entered the market.

“Few will survive,” posits Lucy MacGarry, co-founder of Latitudes online, a new third-party portal that sells art from the African continent. “They are difficult businesses to run. You can have the most beautiful website but It largely depends on your network and database.”

MacGarry and Sandri have differing opinions on the viability or shift to the digital sphere with regards to selling art. Interviews with them and other industry leaders –Touria El Glaoui - the founding director of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which takes place in London, New York and Marrakech, Delphine Lopez - director Cecile Fakhoury gallery, Dakar, Abidjan, Paris, Christophe Person - head of Contemporary African art at Piasa, the French auction house and independent curator, will feature in the revised edition of The Future of the African Art Ecosystem(s). As will some new statistics, and other factual information.

Interestingly, 24% of the galleries we surveyed - both on and off the African continent - received Covid-19 relief funding. Both artists and gallerists in our recent surveys were united in their concern for graduating artists – who were identified as being the most vulnerable – as they perhaps are even during good times. Will a new platform like Latitudes Online, which presents works by independent artists and young galleries, fill the gap?

Some of the large galleries in the US and UK, have been assisting smaller galleries – by featuring (a curated selection) them on their websites and introducing their collectors to up-and-coming artists they would not be able to represent at this point in their trajectory. This is probably viewed as a way of ensuring that the ‘bottom’ end of the art market survives – artists need to be groomed and be nurtured before they can be absorbed into the upper reaches of the art world.

It seems unlikely this kind of gesture would be emulated in South Africa – even though the gap between the first and say third-tier galleries is so vast. Our galleries are far too territorial and the art world in this country is too fractured and competitive to allow for some of the necessary collaborations that should and need to take place in order to keep the ecosystem more balanced and ‘healthy’ during the social and economic strife we face.

The Future of the African Art Ecosystem(s)2.0 takes place Thursday 27 August at 5.30pm (Johannesburg Time).



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