Maverick Life

Maverick Life Op-Ed

The art ecosystem and the pandemic – so many questions, so few answers

Azka Rayhansyah for Unsplash

As art exhibitions move online in response to the pandemic, art fairs feel the same as galleries, which feel the same as museums, which feel the same as Instagram. Why bother with differentiating? What is the relevance of so many structures doing the same thing?

Covid-19 and lockdown-related restrictions have seen commercial galleries close their doors, some permanently. The others have suspended their physical exhibition programmes and restructured how they publish their artists’ offerings using online sales platforms. With the closure of physical exhibition programmes, the galleries find themselves in the position of artist’s agent, manager and PDF maker. A dramatic change of tone and purpose.

Likewise, the suspension of access to international art fairs and markets has brought the South African market and art sector ecosystem into sharp focus. Local economic and social collapse, suspension of all “direct marketplace sharing” activities locally as well as internationally, and a shift in users’ behavioural patterns, has blown in a perfect storm that has one art online platform feeling like the next.

The art ecosystem is complex, a game of dominoes within another game of dominos, within multiple games. The ecosystem, from a market perspective, when looked at superficially, can appear like a Ponzi scheme. It is, however, one of the most sophisticated thermostats a democratic society has at its disposal. It does, like a Ponzi scheme, require that not just “product” be created, but buying markets be groomed and grow. Collectors do age and die and a younger generation of buyers have to be prepped to take on the mantle.  Both the makers and the buyer have to be sustained, fulfilled, and facilitated to keep the ecosystem going for society as a whole to enjoy the benefits.  To keep this article manageable, I’m focusing on one game of dominoes in the bigger system, the commercial gallery dynamic.

Galleries have been forced to make pragmatic decisions around which artworks translate better on-screen and who is already established as a market darling.

If gallery curators are now just agents, peddling product to clients they have on their books, who may in some cases visit by appointment, what would financially established artists lose by setting up shop independently of the gallery structure? They do, after all, have access to their established buying markets – or do they? What is to be gained for emerging or mid-career artists by being part of a gallery stable at this point if they cannot exhibit physically? That question is amplified if market pragmatism has to be the guiding focus of the gallery business model.

At this juncture, galleries have been forced to make pragmatic decisions around which artworks translate better on-screen and who is already an established market darling. Enticing online buying audiences and soothing their confidence is a short-term necessity. Not, however, a sustainable solution, even in the midterm, as it comes with a debilitating toll on the visual arts sector ecosystem, and its future sustainability.

Resonance is dead, long live the marketing PR sludge.

The strength of publicly accessible exhibition programmes, open to everyone, not just buyers, plays a unique role in the development of artistic practice. The critically engaged feedback from viewers, critics, curators, and peers allows the artist the opportunity to master their storytelling.  Seeing a body of work in the context of itself, as a whole in an exhibition format gives the visitor, the reader, the whole story. Seeing individual works on a screen gives you a badly translated paragraph. A tweet as opposed to a book.  A brand as opposed to a tool for inquiry.

More often than not, artworks lose resonance when seen on screen – they become flat, literally. The colour is rarely true to life, the texture slimy and same-same, the physical scale unimaginable. Most importantly, the visual weight of the work cannot be assessed. The ability of an artwork to absorb you, to immerse or ruffle you, is gone. It becomes so safe it is dangerous. Resonance is dead, long live the marketing PR sludge. Seeing a body of work exhibited physically is key for an artist, viewer, and society to get perspective on their individual and collective engagement processes.

The online mechanisms available preach to the buying market that is already familiar with an artist’s practice. Likewise, all the online mechanisms feel the same. Art fairs feel the same as galleries, which feel the same as museums, which feel the same as Instagram. Why bother with differentiating anymore? What is the relevance of so many structures doing the same thing? Alternatively, if you buy art as a form of financial speculation, or with a thin grasp of quality, or perhaps you are just buying the artist’s brand and not really the artwork, you may not be bothered by buying online.

It does strike me that the sector is trying to cut a loaf of bread with an online soup spoon.

Without a deep familiarity of an artist’s practice, your speculation is doomed to failure. Buying lotto tickets is a safer financial investment. Buying brands without checking the quality of the product is a gluttonous waste. Art buying platforms are being developed that cater to the same addictive urges that online gaming and gambling fulfill. I do not doubt that they will become popular with some of the art buying market. But will they nourish the current or new generation of collectors in discernment and responsibility, or will the collector become as flat, as conservative, as the same-same image on the screen?

When a young artist joins a gallery stable they benefit hugely from the association with the already established artists working with the gallery. Likewise, it’s the gallery that’s putting their skin in the game in the early days of the young artist’s development. The gallery business is investing its profit to grow an artist’s career, with the belief they will get the money back in the future. It’s a long-term partnership, it’s why galleries, even the established ones, often live hand to mouth.  This “by association” technique is the beginning of what we refer to as “provenance”. It is a fundamental tool in developing a primary buying market for an artist’s work, and a process that assists greatly in securing market value on the secondary market over time, whether it be through a private sale or public auction.

The gallery system can absorb the cost of exhibiting younger artists, who may not sell artworks at the beginning of their careers, as the gallery has the financial security of established artists who sell consistently.  If the gallery is now just an agent, and the established artists find them replaceable and go at it independently, how will the gallery afford to continue developing the younger generation of artists? Likewise, without the physical exhibition process for makers, facilitators, viewing, and buying audiences, the tools for critical engagement become blunt. Society loses a key thermostat. It does strike me that the sector is trying to cut a loaf of bread with an online soup spoon.

It might sound sterile talking about the commerce and the market without “arty” sentiment, so I will remind you that artists are people too, they have school fees to pay and families to care for. The commercial gallery system, love it or hate it, was the business system that made it possible for society to experience quality artworks, to have critically engaged discussions and moments of wonder, even if you were not the one buying the artworks.

The ecosystem was nourished, employed multiple people and made it possible for artists to financially survive through the commercial gallery sales made to others. Contrary to popular belief, starving artists don’t make great work. Yes, artists produce works for the luxury goods buying market, but to suggest that is all that society gains from the process is a myopic miscalculation. Society sharing the process with participation makes the exercise profound.

The question is, how will the commercial galleries shift to accommodate the changes to society’s behavioural patterns, while serving the artists and developing new collectors?

What do established artists gain by being signed to a gallery if the current status quo goes on for a couple of years? Would they not be in a financially better position if they could sell their artworks directly without the gallery commission, which makes up half of the wall price? The failing SA economy is a serious factor, bringing attention, like a slap in the face, to the lack of sustainability in the local market, already under strain pre-Covid-19.

If the artists left their galleries would their financial market value dramatically decline locally? Buyers who paid x for a work could now get it for half of that when buying from the artist directly. How will the secondary/auction market speculate on estimates when these works come up for sale? Or why would established artists not just skip the local gallery totally, and send their works directly to auction? The auction house may have a broader audience reach than the local gallery, and the auction house is like, yay, stock! And the artist is like, yay, only 15% commission taken! I’m not judging the necessity for this short-term gain for both artists and auction houses at this juncture. Hunger and uncertainty are just that. It would be foolish, however, for the auction house to forget that in this instance, the gain made is only possible because the galleries have already nurtured the artists, collectors, and established a stable market value for these artists’ works. In three to five years without sustained and dynamic gallery exhibition programmes, the auction houses themselves will feel the market stagnation. The ecosystem is like a game of dominos, knock over one or two blocks and it’s a matter of time before they all fall.

If the established artist had the opportunity, would they not go straight to an international gallery, or if SA galleries set up business outside the country, whereby they can cater directly to their biggest buying market without the uncertainty of local dynamics, would this be better for the artists in their stable, and therefore the gallery’s business model?

Important to acknowledge that on the African continent South Africa and Nigeria have had the most robust art sectors. This is largely due to their relative social and financial stability, the results of which have seen many artists living in the SADC region look to the established South Africa commercial galleries to be their primary representation. With South Africa’s economy becoming increasingly unstable, how far will it have to decline before artists look to galleries outside South Africa and the continent generally, to facilitate their careers?

Likewise, the relatively small buying market in SA will be further restricted by the local economic decline. Will local buyers seek to acquire works only if they can be assured that the works will hold their financial value on the international secondary market? For decades, African contemporary artists have survived through selling to collectors in Europe and, to a lesser degree, in North America. At best, it seems that the sustainability of artistic practice in South Africa is bound to these international markets and quite possibly has been for decades. If the local commercial galleries and related ecosystems falter in the initial, costly exercise of developing young and mid-career artists, which can’t take place online, the chances of the sector recovering to a place that brought a great deal of money into SA’s GDP is slight.

The artistic quality in which South Africa is rich will stop becoming a potential that is realised to the degree it has been over the last 15 to 20 years. Artists from South Africa and the SADC region have contributed some of the most important visual art stories globally in the last decade. Will the ecosystem in SA recover, and if it does, how altered will it be? Will it still serve as a societal thermostat? This ecosystem employs and gives purpose to thousands of people, possibly hundreds of thousands. So many questions. Anybody who says they have the answers is lying to you. DM

Kirsty Cockerill is an independent curator and consultant, with a focus on the visual arts and cultural systems.


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