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Art post-covid: what's next?





By Kabir Jhala with additional reporting by Anna Brady for The Art Newspaper.

Sotheby’s year-end revenue has edged ahead of Christie's, reporting total global sales of over $5bn compared to Christie's $4.4bn (£3.4bn). But as both auction houses are now private companies, their profit margins are not known.

Somewhat remarkably for a year ruptured by a global pandemic, Sotheby's total sales are up from $4.8bn in 2019, (though likely still lower than its $5.3bn tally in 2018). Meanwhile, Christie’s turnover is $600m lower than its rival at $4.4bn, 25% lower than last year, which it attributes to a drop in live auction sales. Christie’s chief executive Guillaume Cerutti has described 2020 as “a shock and a catalyst”.

Sotheby's pronounced lead is largely due to its more successful pivot into innovative digital sales formats. Over 400 online auctions (a 30% increase from last year) this year totaled over $570m, around seven times the value for 2019 and an industry high, the auction house claims.



Artsy Editorial Dec. 31, 2020 (shortened from original)

The art market has gone through 10 years’ worth of innovation and evolution in the past 10 months. In many ways, the events of 2020—from the pandemic to global protest movements against systemic racism—added urgency to changes that were already happening at a glacial pace. As the rest of the world changed, so too did the art market, from auction houses, fairs, and galleries ramping up their online offerings, to collectors getting a lot more comfortable buying works based on high-resolution photos and videos. While some of these changes are temporary—be-masked auction house specialists stationed between plexiglass barriers will not be the norm forever—most are here to stay. We asked art-world figures to address how their businesses have adjusted this year and how they expect to keep adapting in 2021. Edward Dolman, the CEO of Phillips, helped transition the auction house toward a digital-first strategy with great success; on December 7th, Phillips had its biggest sale ever in New York, bringing in a total of $134.5 million and selling the fourth-most expensive auction lot of 2020, a landscape painting by David Hockney.

Edward Dolman, CEO, Phillips

How has the pandemic permanently changed the way you conduct your business?

Even before the pandemic, we were seeing year-on-year growth in online sales and international bidding by phone; in other words, collectors were making the choice to bid in a more accessible, flexible, and convenient way. With the events of this year, our plans for digital innovation were accelerated as auctions were quickly forced to pivot online. The changes required an openness from the collecting community to embrace these new technologies, and the market responded confidently to a steady stream of dynamic online-only sales, hybrid sales, and live virtual sales across all categories. Of course, there’s nothing quite like seeing a great work of art in person and we absolutely remain committed to our brick-and-mortar locations, this year going so far as to open a new outpost in Southampton. However, we are also keenly attuned to the reality of digital life and well aware that many of these advancements have proven to be extremely welcome and are here to stay.

Of the many solutions adopted by people in the art market in response to the exceptional challenges of 2020, which one do you think will have the longest-lasting impact?

With many art fairs having been put on pause, we’ve seen galleries, curators, and artists working much more closely with auction houses and I do see that as a longer-lasting trend.

What art market practices from before the pandemic do you think will never return?

Perhaps the furious pace of fairs and auctions will be adjusted a bit. The big giga-weeks were always so physically demanding on everyone’s resources—from staff to collectors, and of course to journalists.

What ongoing challenges for the art market did the events of 2020 expose, and how do you think they will be addressed in the coming year?

Broadly speaking, the pandemic and shutdown have likely been very challenging for smaller galleries that typically foster emerging talent. At Phillips, we are somewhat of a market bellwether for many emerging artists and we’ve seen artists like Robert Nava, who we debuted to auction in July, sign on with major galleries after the fact.



by Aimée Dawson for The Art Newspaper – 21st January 2021

How the art world mighty have fallen. Art fairs—ranking as the third most successful way for galleries to sell art in 2019—has slipped to the sixth position in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Artsy Gallery Insights 2021 Report. Social media has replaced fairs, becoming galleries’ third-best sales channel, moving up from the sixth place in 2019. “The ranking of top sales channels shuffled considerably this year, with online sales, social media, and gallery websites taking the place of art fairs and walk-ins,” the report says. However, the number one way to sell art remains outreach to existing clients, accounting for 28% of total annual gallery sales in 2020.

The Artsy Gallery Insights 2021 Report, which was conducted in October 2020 and surveyed 1,753 gallery professions, unsurprisingly shows a significant move towards the digital. “Galleries refined their digital strategies, invested in digital marketing, and tried new tactics to maintain bonds with existing clients and forge new connections online,” says Dustyn Kim, the chief revenue officer at Artsy, an online sales platform, and database for art.

When looking at galleries’ use of social media in more detail, it possible to see a difference geographically. In Latin America and Africa and the Middle East, social media is the second most successful platform for sales; in Europe, it is the third most successful; and in North America and Asia, and Oceania, it doesn’t make the top three. Galleries say that they promote sales on social media using stories, direct messaging, and organic posts.

The study also reveals that galleries’ marketing budgets for online endeavors shot up: spending for online art marketplaces, websites, and social media increased by 49%, 32%, and 92% respectively. Meanwhile, there was a 31% decrease in budgets allocated for fairs. This shift to the digital is also changing galleries’ collector base; 73% of galleries reported that at least half of the collectors they connected with online in 2020 were new to their business and the number of buyers between 18 and 35 doubled, most likely because younger buyers prefer to buy online.

There was also a big jump in the number of galleries operating as an online-only business; 35% of the study’s respondents said that they had no physical gallery space, more than double the number reported in 2018 and 2019. “Financial concerns may […] provide an incentive for an online-only model, as the world feels the economic strain of Covid-19,” the report says. “With an end to the pandemic insight, 2021 will reveal whether these galleries return to brick and mortar or remain online permanently.”

But overall, the Artsy Gallery Insights 2021 Report expects that galleries’ new-found focus on the digital is here to stay: “It’s clear that the online art marketplace is not only a successful strategy to boost sales and stay connected this year—it’s also a trend that will continue into the future.”



By Anna Brady for The Art Newspaper – 2nd December 2020

The online art market has been a rare winner during the Covid-19 pandemic, with rising totals and many new buyers starting their collections digitally.

But online selling platforms should not expect buyers to show much loyalty, according to the part two of the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2020 (released today), produced in collaboration with ArtTactic.

The report compares activity between March and September 2020 with activity in the same period last year and finds that, in the first eight months of this year, online-only art sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips more than tripled, totalling $597m, compared to only £168m for the whole of 2019. Over two thirds (67%) of the 552 collectors surveyed bought art online between March and September, up from 44% in 2019, and—with little else to do—72% of respondents have found themselves browsing online sales platforms weekly (54% in 2019).

Art collectors have also spent more money online, increasing the average spend—29% paid an average of $10,000+ per painting, up from 20% in 2019. Those spending over $50,000 on a work went up to 11% ( 4% in 2019).

Robert Read, Hiscox's head of art and private clients, says of the findings that "after so many false dawns" he was "relieved to see that that online art trade has taken off and more importantly it has been the lifeblood that has allowed dealers and auctioneers to survive the pandemic. Without it, the list of casualties would have made grim reading."

A huge 82% of new art buyers have bought works online in the past year, according to the report Courtesy of his cox and ArtTactic

The party line amongst auction houses is that the rise in online sales is largely driven by new buyers who find this an accessible entry point to the market. Younger, millennial collectors (much fetishized by the art market) have also been actively buying online during this period, the report finds, with 69% of under 35s buying online during this period (40% in 2019) and two thirds (66%) of those buying between two and five works of art since the pandemic started (7% bought more than six pieces). What the report refers to as "novice" collectors (defined as those who have been collecting for three years or less) led the online buying spree with 82% making purchases from March to September. This is up significantly from 2019 where the comparable figure was 36%;

However these much desired fresh digital collectors are a fickle bunch when buying online—according to the report, nearly half (47%) of new art buyers said they "never" or "rarely" felt any loyalty towards the online platforms they bought from, up from 40% in 2019.

That said, they are keen to stress their civic-minded support for struggling artists—76% of millennials and 78% of new collectors said this was an important motivation for spending between March and September. A quarter of respondents (25%) said they had bought pieces directly through Instagram in support of fundraising campaigns, most notably the #artistsupportpledge.

Instagram's rising dominance as both a buying and research platform for art buyers is unavoidable—a quarter of respondents used Instagram to buy art during the period of March to September, with millennial buyers (35%) and new art buyers (38%) particularly active. Most (87%) use it to discover new artists. There has been some debate as to whether Instagram could threaten the traditional structures of the market but Read says he sees it "as a lubricant to view and promote sales but the actual selling will revert to the platform, and I don’t see it as a problem for the market long-term."

In 2021, Read says: "I expect that after a turbocharged year for the online art market we will start to see some consolidation as a few platforms emerge as clear leaders. I also expect there to be increasing levels of comfort amongst buyers to trade online albeit we will also all enjoy the return of the physical market, it is just that they are going to be much more evenly balanced."



by Marion Maneker ArtNews January 22, 2021

In 2019, when Charles Stwart was named CEO of Sotheby’s, he knew 2020 was going to be a year of big changes. But he got more change than expected, when, due to restrictions around the coronavirus pandemic that began in March, his first full auction season faced a global shut down. Yet when your mission is to continue to move a 276-year-old company into the digital future, more change is probably better than less. For the auction house, the pandemic’s silver lining has been the rapid change forced upon the international art market.

“The longer the current lockdowns and restrictions remain, the weaker the pre-Covid habits become,” said Stewart, seated in a back hallway at the houses’ York Avenue headquarters behind the exhibition for the upcoming blockbuster Old Masters evening sale, in an interview. “It’s not at all clear to me that everything snaps back.”

No one is suggesting that last year was easy. Sotheby’s took the lead with their auction format creating a live stream sale that featured their specialists as the main characters in the bidding drama. “We keep coming back to the idea that at the heart of the company is the expertise,” Stewart says. “It’s what differentiates from any kind of digital-only platform. We don’t do enough to showcase the specialists. You have to be in the know to have the access and awareness to know who they are and why you should speak to them.”

The live stream sales were the most visible side of the auction house’s response to the pandemic. But it wasn’t the only one. And the advent of mass vaccination has Stewart looking toward 2021 to consolidate his company’s embrace of ongoing change.

“There was this period of massive adaptation,” Stewart said. “This year is different. Now we know. We know we can operate basically in a fully remote environment. This year, it is a question of looking at the adaption and asking which portions of that were really innovative—which do we want to make strategic and which were just us trying to cope at the moment.”

With all of that in mind, Stewart decided to poll his leadership team—and his employees—for their ideas about the future of the art market. They came up with eight predictions for 2021. If 2020 taught us anything, these predictions are probably more indicative of Sotheby’s thinking about their business than they are literal prognostications. Either way, they are a window into what a major auction house’s internal deliberations are like.

Sotheby’s Predictions for 2021:

New sites and bespoke events: The art world is pining for in-person communication and a change of scenery. There will be a reinterpretation or reimagining of physical experiences once those can be held safely again and we’ll see a lasting resistance to large-scale events and greater demand for exclusive, high-quality in-person events with an immersive digital component. Further, there will be a greater focus on presenting art in unique and innovative locations, and in a way that takes advantage of public spaces and virtual networks outside of the establishment.

Virtual audiences to expand: The audience for buyers will continue to expand in 2021 as rapid technological transformation and the embrace of digital channels will remain ever-present. The comprehensive set of digital tools clients can now access has not only broken down barriers to entry but reduced the need to view or physically handle works in person prior to purchasing. As a result, the average number of times that a work is seen will exponentially multiply.

A new emphasis on sustainability: The art world will continue to make significant strides in advancing sustainability initiatives and reducing its carbon footprint. From eliminating printed catalogs, invites, crates, and excess packaging in art shipping and handling, to rethinking the need for international air travel for art fairs and exhibitions, there will be a greater consensus about how to reduce waste and incorporate more sustainable practices. In doing so, there will also be a shift in how art itself reflects the growing concerns of our ecological crisis, and the types of art collectors are interested in.

Local will be the new global: Driven by pandemic travel restrictions, local will be the new global. Having unavoidably spent much more time than usual in their hometowns and areas, many people have come to appreciate more acutely the sense of regional identity that was increasingly lost with globalization. This will mean that local styles and movements will become more pronounced and revered and will impact how and what auction houses and galleries choose to exhibit, as well as heighten the importance of local museums as people rediscover their local regions.

Hybrid auctions will replace the old model: Following the continued rise of cross-category collecting in 2020, which offered contemporary art alongside cars and design objects, auctions featuring property from various departments will continue and increase in volume in 2021. Similar to museum exhibitions, more auctions will be contextualized by era or a specific theme rather than by a singular department.

Market players will consolidate: The distinctions between art fairs, galleries, and auction houses will continue to blur in 2021 as the primary and secondary markets converge at an even greater scale than last year. Building upon the barriers that were broken down in 2020, market players will experience reconfiguration due to information consolidating and being widely available.

The Asian market will continue to rise: The strength of the market in Asia saw a step-change in 2020, with a steady influx of new, younger buyers and a radically expanded buyer base with greater cross-category participation. This will continue in 2021. The demand for works by Western and emerging artists will continue to rise as well as a strong continued appreciation for classical works and luxury.

African art hubs will be new attractions: The number of buzzworthy artist-driven projects throughout Africa, coupled with the recent excitement for figurative paintings by young artists of the continent’s diaspora, will segue into a greater interest in African art and art history, which will be enhanced by the continent’s ability to participate digitally at a greater scale than physically within the market. Once it is safe to travel again, various hubs in Africa are gearing up as burgeoning destinations for the arts—among them established cities like Cape Town, as well as others such as Lagos and Benin City, where new world-class institutions are being built.

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