How are we Getting by in the Art World?

Online adaptability and a general sense of gratitude has marked our return to a more regular, in-person schedule.

Considering all we have been through this last year—while taking careful stock of the last five— the world has experienced some definitive changes. The art world is no exception. In the US, we went from envisioning a bright future to seeing our worst nightmare(s) become elected. Then we saw change again, but still against the old familiar backdrop of regression. Perhaps it’s been a reflection of our country’s collective id, a terrible facet of our national psyche which had long gone unconfronted and ignored. On a national level, we’ve witnessed lies, violations of human rights, police abuses, racist killings, environmental betrayals, predatory sexual abuses, mass shootings, and more. But the truth is, this has been going on in America for quite some time. Only recently it seems many are starting to realize this as we reached a breaking point. That point came in the form of a virus that caused us to lose some near 3.5 million people worldwide, and almost 600,000 in the US alone. To say this experience has caused us to reassess our lives and change our priorities is an understatement.

We’ve been through hell—but as our elders and ancestors would probably tell us—sometimes it’s important to take a moment to reflect on what we’ve experienced and appreciate some of what we have learned. Here is a short list of things we might think about, some positives to come out this that might make things easier for us in the art world.

1. Remote communication
Once upon a time, we thought the only way to communicate in the art world was in person. Over time, with changes to technology, we slowly began to accept things like emails, websites, and eventually social media. Just a few years ago, if you had proposed the idea of having a virtual studio visit, many would likely have balked at the idea. Conducting a lecture wouldn’t have seemed possible a few years ago either. Now, out of necessity, video conferencing has come almost as second nature. Nothing can of course replace seeing artwork in person or attending a live lecture, but perhaps this experience will teach us to make some things easier in the post-Covid world. For example, maybe we don’t have to spread ourselves out so thin by trying to be everywhere at once all the time. We’ve learned many things can be managed equally as productive when handled remotely, like meetings, visits, and even small group talks. Perhaps in the future we’ll see remote communication playing a larger role in our lives, giving us a little more flexibility in our schedules either to get things done at home or to maximize our time in the studio.

2. Conscientiousness and appreciation
As things slowly resume as they were—with museums opening at limited capacities, galleries reopening their doors to the public, and some art fairs relaunching, one thing that feels different is the overall sense of appreciation of just being here. As more of us become fully vaccinated and there is a greater sense of things “getting back to normal” (whatever that means), in light of our long-term social distancing, the adage of “separation makes the heart grow fonder” definitely seems to apply here. At the recent Frieze art fair at The Shed in NY, for example—an event where one would usually expect to find a high amount of anxiety—there instead seemed to be a cheery, if not generally grateful mood all-around. (It’s new, easily-accessible location and venue likely added to this).

3. Sustainability and devotion
A significant phenomenon this last year is seeing how so many artists, galleries, writers, and others managed to keep going, even after being hit by Covid. In contrast to former years, like during the dotcom market crash of 2001, the housing market crash of 2009, or the closing of several mid-size galleries in the mid-2010s, this year we managed to see very few closings. That doesn’t mean it’s been a totally smooth ride, however. According to a recent art market report by Art Basel & UBS, in 2020 we saw a 22% drop in sales since 2019 and a 27% drop since 2018. In another report, 95% of artists reported an income drop and 62% of artists surveyed reported total unemployment, with an average loss of nearly 30k annually. The upside may be that, in contrast to some early forecasts leading into the pandemic, we didn’t see up to a “third” of the galleries closing, as was predicted in an article ran in The Art Newspaper a year ago. Additionally, online saw an increase of 25% this past year (according to the same Art Basel/UBS report) which likely accounted for the small number of closings. To put this into better perspective, art sales this last year were still 76% above their level in the last recession in 2009.

So what happened? Some have speculated that a combination of adaptability and knowing what to show managed to help everyone keep their necks above water. Similar reports were made after the 2009 market crash. Galleries, it seems, just knew how to respond. The takeaway? Certainly, our adaptation to online media and use of the internet helped us make it through this last year and has helped us avert some severe damage caused by major crises in the past few decades. As the relationship between art and online media continues to grow, it will be curious to see where it leads us next.