At Large  April 10, 2020  Anni Irish

How COVID-19 Has Affected the Global Art Market

flickr/Financial Times

Sotheby's auctioneer Adrian Biddell

Within the last month, the world has dramatically shifted due to COVID-19, greatly affecting businesses across the world, including the art market. In 2018 alone the global sale of art reached $67.4 billion. In spite of its strength in the past, the art market is now scrambling in the face of this quickly-spreading global pandemic. As museums and galleries temporarily close to the public, a number of upcoming art fairs have either postponed or canceled events, including Frieze New York, Art Basel Hong Kong, and Art Basel. 

Last month Paris' famed Louvre Museum closed its doors, as did the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, the Guangdong Art Museum and the Union Art Museum, among others. These closures have led to a loss of revenue due to canceled fundraising events, and lost admission fees and ticketed events, resulting in staff layoffs. The Museum of Modern Art in NYC, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, the Brooklyn Museum, as well as the Whitney Museum, the New Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles are just some of the institutions to recently announce staff layoffs stateside.

Photo by Yeo Khee on Unsplash

The Louvre

Last week, art auction powerhouse Sotheby's announced it would be furloughing close to 200 employees, 12% of their staff. Currently, those who are employed in the US and UK will receive a 20% pay cut until June 1, while executives have also agreed to take a 10% pay reduction. This news comes on the heels of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips all announcing the postponement of their signature spring sales. While new dates have yet to be announced by all three auction houses, they are hopeful that their sales will take place in June.

Despite these recent layoffs, Sotheby’s has been able to successfully transition much of their business to their online sales according to Mary Bartow, Head of Sotheby’s Prints & Multiples department.

 “Our dedicated online sales in 2020 alone have been especially robust, having raised $35+ million to-date and climbing daily–with recent sales spanning Modern and Contemporary African Art, 20th Century Middle Eastern Art, 20th Century Design, and Photographs. Collectors are still actively buying in the marketplace, and our proprietary online sales platform provides the best possible interface for clients to interact with works online and bid,” says Bartow.

wikimedia commons, Dirk Ingo Franke 

Sotheby's London headquarters

Bartow noted that since launching their online sales in 2016, Sotheby’s has been continuing to aggressively grow its presence in this sector of the market. In 2019, they held 129 sales online totaling $80 million in sales which was up by 55% from the previous year. They are also actively looking to engage online ventures in more innovative ways. 

Galleries and cultural institutions have also started showcasing works exclusively online. Bluechip galleries such as Zwirner, Gagosian, and others have started to offer online showrooms from past and current exhibits, as well as more interactive newsletters, video streams from their artists and more. Other galleries have taken note and have also started to produce more content for their digital platforms. 

Just this week, the Armory Fair announced that it would be launching Armory Access, an online platform offering a space for galleries to showcase exhibitions that had to close early or never came to fruition because of coronavirus closures. Hauser & Wirth followed suit launching one of the most ambitious online initiatives to dateArtLab. This program will offer an online residency and exhibition space to artists who are affiliated with the gallery in LA, and will also utilize a new virtual reality tool developed by their team.

COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

Exterior view Hauser & Wirth Menorca created in HWVR

Despite these steps forward, the future of the art market is still incredibly uncertain. This week the Art Newspaper reported that a third of France’s galleries could potentially close permanently as a result of the coronavirus by the year’s end. This is a scary reality and has left many wondering what will happen next. In an effort to continue to move forward, galleries have turned to social media to promote artists and their work in new and innovative ways, as well as to create new content. 

Chelsea-based gallery P.P.O.W has responded by bulking up their social media in an effort to  ramp up business. Co-founded in 1983 by Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington, P.P.O.W. has established itself as one of the most ingenious galleries in the industry today. Throughout their thirty-plus year reign, they have continued to produce thought-provoking and challenging shows, and now, given our uncertain times, have found themselves in a unique position. After closing their doors for an extended period for the first time in thirty-eight years, the gallery has turned to digital platforms to help them continue their day to day operations. While it's no secret that many galleries and auction houses conduct sales online, P.P.O.W has also made the shift to online exhibitions.

“We quickly pivoted to doing online shows, and if you look at our website you will see we replaced the forthcoming exhibit with an online exhibit entitled Hell is a Place on Earth, Heaven is a Place in your Head which is a sentence by David Wojnarowicz. Our team pulled together a really smart and timely show of artists we work with that reflects the current moment. As we are a gallery that works with artists who explore injustice in all its manifestations, it was actually a very empowering show to release at this time and hopefully for the audience,” said Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of P.P.O.W.

Installation view, Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online.
Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P·P·O·W, New York

Installation view, Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online.

Installation view, Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online. 
Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P·P·O·W, New York

Installation view, Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online.

Installation view, Hunter Reynolds’ From Drag to Dervish at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online.
Courtesy of Hunter Reynolds and P·P·O·W, New York

Installation view, Hunter Reynolds’ From Drag to Dervish at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online.

Installation view, Hunter Reynolds’ From Drag to Dervish at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online.
Courtesy of Hunter Reynolds and P·P·O·W, New York

Installation view, Hunter Reynolds’ From Drag to Dervish at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online.

Installation view, Hunter Reynolds’ From Drag to Dervish at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online.
Courtesy of Hunter Reynolds and P·P·O·W, New York

Installation view, Hunter Reynolds’ From Drag to Dervish at P·P·O·W, New York, now available to view online.

Olsoff added that their online sales were already gaining prior to this, and may continue to increase during this time. While the situation has strained the market overall, Olsoff remains optimistic about the future of the art world. 

“Galleries will 100% survive as will the art market. Once someone said to me, ‘rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated’ and this occurs to me now. There will always be artists, exhibitions, collectors, and supporters. I actually have the hope that gallery presence will return in a healthier stronger waywith people going back to the galleries to look, talk and collect art in a more serious and slower manner,” said Olsoff.

About the Author

Anni Irish

Anni Irish has published cultural criticism, articles, and essays in BOMB magazine, Brooklyn MagazineGoodHyperallergicMen’s Health, the Outline, Racked, SalonTeen VogueVice, and the Village Voice, among many others. She has taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has guest lectured and participated in numerous conferences across the US. She holds a BFA from Tufts University, an MA in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College, and an MA in Performance Studies from New York University.

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