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Art in the Covid-19 era: a new Renaissance?

LA LEGGE DELL’ARTE di Giuseppe Calabi

The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant and unexpected impact on the art market. It led to a necessary acceleration of the digitisation process it was already facing. The lockdown has forced operators in the sector, collectors and enthusiasts to rethink the world of the arts under a different logic, that of technology, which makes it possible to enjoy works from a distance.
The year 2020 witnessed some unprecedented scenarios until a few months ago: auction houses suspended live auctions. Art galleries stopped opening to the public and sector fairs cancelled all upcoming appointments, at least until the end of the year.
In this particular context, auctions and private negotiations exclusively online have been included, with conflicting results. While on the one hand, auction sales are achieving unexpected results, on the other hand, galleries and fairs are finding it more difficult to adapt to this epoch-making change.
In fact, on the one hand, online sales have achieved very quickly the goals that the market has been setting for years:
– the opening to a global market made up of buyers and spectators from all over the world;
– the possibility of having more sales at the same time;
– the amplification of advertising through social media;
– the obligation to disseminate even more accurate information on lots.
However, there are also some opinions against the digitisation of the auction world, as it would imply:
– the definitive elimination of pre-auction advice;
– the impossibility of viewing and analysing live lots;
– the risk of not being able to conduct adequate due diligence on individual lots;
– the removal from the market of buyers over 65 who might find the technology an obstacle.
The new digital frontier that the market has been forced to face because of the Coronavirus is not performing as well in other areas of the art world. Private sales are falling sharply this year, with not only a reduction in staff but also, in the worst cases, the definitive closure of hundreds of galleries.
At first glance, this discrepancy between the world of online only auctions and private gallery negotiations may seem unexpected. The opposite reaction to this sudden digital shift is due to the different nature of the two types of negotiations.
In fact, the sale in a gallery or in a trade fair is an economic operation that is based, in primis, on the direct relationship between merchant and buyer, totally eliminated in the process of online sales. As a result, the world of art galleries is characterised by an important technological deficit, so much so that it is only recently that merchants and fairs have begun to extend their activity to digital platforms and advertise it on social media.
According to the Art Market Report 2020 published by Art Basel in collaboration with UBS, in the first half of this year gallery sales fell by almost 40% compared to 2019, and the outlook for the end of the year is certainly not the rosiest, since the cancellation “on a date to be set” of the major trade fairs and events in the sector, from whose revenues the galleries usually derive the most income, could, according to this market analysis, constitute the swan song of many operators in the sector.
However, the saving of the huge costs of “physical” participation in fairs has allowed the most prudent operators to invest in their digital promotion. In fact, many marketplaces are being created in recent months on the websites of art galleries and the fairs themselves, starting from London Art Week in July 2020, have been able to recreate the experience of visiting and buying works through Online Viewing Rooms that have replaced the physical stands.
Another incredible fact is that, during the lockdown period, interest in the art market world by young collectors has also radically increased: Instagram has become a real sales platform, attracting a new public, that of the Millennials, who until a few months ago were absent from the world of auctions and private negotiations in galleries and, above all, at trade fairs.
Through this brief but significant overview, it is clear that the art market must set itself important objectives for the future, among which:
– making the digital offer attractive to potential buyers;
– putting auctions and negotiations on an equal footing with those exclusively online;
– communicate through multiple registers, accessible to both experts and amateurs;
– provide certainty when selling online through more accurate and in-depth due diligence;
– carrying out targeted anti-money laundering controls through an analysis of the potential risks of money laundering and terrorist financing associated with the sale of works of art, as well as adequate customer verification.
There are therefore many lessons that the art market has learned in these unprecedented months. As industry expert Prof. D. Thompson said, many market players have been able to “ride out the storm”, a storm that presents us with new challenges: will it take much longer to adapt to change? Will the digital world make it easier for new artists, who would otherwise have struggled to emerge, to enter the market? Will technology provide greater certainty in the sale of works of art? The prerequisites for success are all there, but this Renaissance of art is only just beginning.