Fair enough: A visitor to the Investec Cape Town Art Fair in February.
Fair enough: A visitor to the Investec Cape Town Art Fair in February.

Given that art is better appreciated in person, and the sale of art is entangled with the experience economy, the industry has suffered during the coronavirus lockdowns. And with social distancing measures in place it will take a long time to recover

In times of distress, collectors will gravitate towards artworks produced by proven names. As a result, many small and medium art businesses around the world will have closed their doors by the time the pandemic has passed. Those businesses left standing will be the ones with the resources to weather this period, and those that have made the most of online trading.

Against this backdrop, however, the value of art itself will hold, and this will keep the art world turning.

The fate of the global art world depends on how quickly and to what degree the New York market recovers. This is largely due to the size of the US market, which claims 44% of global market share by value, according to the UBS and Art Basel "The Art Market 2020" report. The UK and China tend to follow, while Africa’s claim is less than 1%.

US commentators such as art critic Jerry Saltz expect that the high rents in New York will force most middle and small galleries to shut, leaving the heavyweight, big-branded galleries to dominate. In this way, the gap between the top-tier galleries and superstar artists and the rest is likely to widen even more, globally and locally.

Top-tier galleries in SA, such as Goodman and Stevenson, are the most likely to survive and dominate. They are less reliant on art fairs to reach European collectors, given that they both have spaces in Europe.

However, SA’s second-tier galleries — Whatiftheworld, Blank Projects, Everard Read, Gallery Momo, Smac and Afronova, for example — and third-tier galleries depend on art fairs to reach collectors beyond our borders.

Art fairs in Joburg — Turbine in July and Art Joburg in September — have not been cancelled, and neither have key ones in Europe, such as 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London in October. But their value and existence will depend on whether large crowds of people will be allowed to gather at that time, and how this might be managed.

The global market’s recovery relies on art fairs resuming — it is estimated that up to 37% of a gallery’s income comes from its participation in art fairs. This figure is probably higher for African galleries, given the smaller collector base on the continent.

An analysis of 2018/2019 gallery records shows that 84% of SA galleries participate in domestic art fairs, while 53% participate in those outside the country (mostly in Europe).

Consequently, the volume and value of art sales is set to drop considerably. Important, however, is the value of art is likely to remain stable, particularly with regard to works produced by artists with proven records — those who have achieved healthy sums at auction or enjoyed institutional validation. This means art will remain a viable investment to some degree — though few collectors buy art for this reason or have the savvy to select art with real liquidity.

Joburg galleries, which tend to depend more on a local collector base, will be under more pressure, especially those serving a middle-class collector who might be more affected by an economic recession.

For Cape Town galleries, which rely on up to 70% of foreign visitors for sales, survival will depend on how quickly the tourism industry resumes.

There is hope, among traditionalists, that the shake-up will erode the excesses that have become tied to the art world as a consequence of art becoming a luxury product for the super-wealthy. A slump in the property market may allow artists to live and work in cheap studios again, and engage in the real issues from which some art stars have been distanced.

In this way, art-making itself — the substance of it — is likely to shift. However, this renewed sense of "authenticity" will more likely serve the interests of the big-branded galleries that survive Covid-19.

This extended period of virtual trading, which is likely to continue into 2021, will have a lasting impact on the art world. Business models, how we engage with art — and, indeed, what kind of art (new media art products have become the focus) — along with what collecting means (not necessarily material objects), will all be reshaped.

What it means: The global market’s recovery relies on art fairs resuming — up to 37% of a gallery’s income is reliant on comes from its participationng in art fairs

  • Corrigall is art consultant and author of The SA Art Market: Pricing & Patterns


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