Our Apartment, 2020
Typically around this time of year, the New York City art market would be alight following the May auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, which come right after the dash to Randall’s Island for Frieze New York and uptown to TEFAF New York. But of course, 2020 is far from a typical year. This spring, collectors have had to switch out their VIP passes for online log-in credentials as the art market has gone completely digital due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, this new digital landscape has yielded some flashy numbers. Sotheby’s reset its record for an online auction with its very first entirely virtual contemporary art day sale, raking in $13.7 million, and Frieze New York’s online edition saw several seven-figure sales. But standout sales aside, the market is far from business as usual. Fine art auction sales reportedly dropped nearly 76 percent in March 2020 compared to 2019’s numbers, and U.S. galleries are projecting a 73 percent drop in revenue in the year’s second quarter. In other words, while collectors are making some purchases online, the numbers pale in comparison to a typical spring season in the art market.
“I’ve realized a few things during this time,” said Brussels-based collector Alain Servais. His biggest takeaway? “Art is not made to be seen online—except,” he clarified, “for the art that is designed to be seen online.”
Servais spoke with us during the first week that Belgium had begun to lift restrictions for businesses. The collector—who owns works by artists such as Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman, and Nan Goldin—said he went to a couple of galleries earlier that week.
“The physical response to work is key,” Servais said. He added that during the months businesses were shut down and art fairs around the world were canceled, he didn’t do any collecting, finding Frieze’s online user experience “not short of terrible” and reportedly deleting between 50 and 200 emails about online viewing rooms per day, “without even looking at who is sending them,” he said. “I’m not kidding, it’s going to the trash immediately.”
In lieu of the most publicized methods of art sales, both Servais and Singaporean collector Cindy Chua-Tay said they’ve preferred to focus on artists whose work they already know, and to look closer into works that they had already had in the back of their minds. “The works I recently purchased are from artists whose works I already own,” Chua-Tay said. “In some ways, this pandemic has made me more mindful of younger and emerging artists, and I endeavor to support them and the galleries that represent them. But the fundamentals of what and why I collect hasn’t changed as a result of this pandemic.”
Servais concurred. He’s been looking into a marble piece by Ryan Gander, whose work he had seen at Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris about a year ago. Gander’s Parisian gallery, gb agency, reached out to Servais as he had previously expressed interest in the piece. “The people that did it smart were the people that came back to me with works they knew I liked in the last one or two years that were still available, or sending me back works,” he said.
Adam Lindemann, art collector and founder of New York gallery Venus Over Manhattan—who is also currently suing real estate mogul and mega-collector Aby Rosen so that he can break the gallery’s $365,000 lease—confessed that the only thing he had purchased since the lockdown began was a wetsuit for cold-water surfing as he hunkers down in Montauk. His other ventures have included selling Peter Saul prints from the 1960s and ’70s to support hospitals in New York, and organizing an upcoming sale of furniture to benefit the Montauk Food Bank (he’s also reportedly looking to offload his Montauk property for $65 million). Simultaneously, he’s been fielding queries from other collectors through Venus Over Manhattan.
“[I’ve been] entertaining some absurd inquiries,” Lindemann said. “People think that because there’s the COVID crisis, that everything would be 30 percent [discounted] or something. Which I don’t understand, because the art world has never worked like that. It’s not like the stock market. These are things that trade infrequently.”
His gallery participated in the online edition of Frieze New York due to the fair’s removal of booth fees, but did so with some skepticism. “If they had charged for it, I wouldn’t have paid for it,” he said. “I saw one dealer say, ‘Well, we were tired of fairs anyways.’”
Lindemann expressed a related feeling of cynicism over other efforts meant to aid smaller galleries at this time, specifically David Zwirner’s Platform initiative, which allows a handful of smaller galleries in select cities to offer works through Zwirner’s digital portal. “When you see smaller galleries going on the websites of bigger galleries, I know some people thought that was great, but is it?” Lindemann asked. “Is that just the first step of a complete monopolistic rollup of all the smaller galleries and all their artists into bigger enterprises? Is that what’s going on?”
He went on, “They’re going to eat their lunch. [The bigger galleries are] getting access to all [the smaller galleries’] clients and all their information. When they go out of business, these artists are going to hope to flee to the bigger gallery. But maybe they were going to do that anyways.”
For their parts, both Chua-Tay and Servais spoke positively of the new collaborations brought about by the crisis. “I am encouraged to see various entities coming together and supporting each other,” Chua-Tay said. “This is positive and immensely helpful as not all galleries have the technical infrastructure and resources to support a fully functional website, let alone the reach of an international client base to garner sales.”
Many have been speculating whether the current recession will impact the art market the same way the 2008 recession did—a hard crash and a slow recovery. Servais suggested that a glimmer of hope for galleries is the fact that, due to their limited capacity, they will likely be the only art spaces open for a while, as museums and fairs lag behind. As galleries in Asia and Europe begin to reopen, he said, “I don’t know exactly what will happen a year from now, but I do think that galleries have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the role that they had 15 years ago.…They should take advantage of being the only cultural space available right now, by being a little bit more innovative and entrepreneurial than they are usually.”
Chua-Tay echoed that optimism. “The real patrons will prevail. How we all see and buy art will be very different,” she said. “I believe it will be a combination of traditional vehicles, like fairs and galleries (but the format and the scale will be vastly different), with new virtual platforms. It will be a very different art world ahead.”