The landscape of the art market has clearly changed over the past three months. Economic challenges pervade the art market as other sectors equally feel the negative effects of shutdowns due to the coronavirus, but art markets, museums and artists uniquely suffer due to restrictions placed upon them by patrons and institutions. They, in turn, have explored possible approaches to increase their funding, some successfully and some not.
The prohibition of large gatherings has ended art fairs, biennales and triennials for the time being, and may limit them in the future. Even if the sponsors choose to go on with the extravaganzas, they recognize that potential visitors, gallery directors and curators will be lax to get on a plane to attend. Art Basel, the granddaddy of art fairs has responded to the potential threat as best they can. They refunded 75 percent of the fees of galleries and artists that had signed up for the Hong Kong Fair that was canceled this spring and pledged to refund 100 percent of the fees of those signing up to exhibit at the rescheduled fair in Basel, Switzerland (still slated for September 17 through 20 as of this writing) if the fair is canceled.
However, it is not clear how much of the expenses of commissioning artists spent in preparing and shipping their work for fairs would be refunded, which has led some galleries not to sign up. Already, Frieze New York on Randall’s Island has been canceled, but Frieze Sculpture will take place at Rockefeller Center this coming summer, exact dates to be announced. Similarly, the Volta fair, rescheduled to take place in Basel during the same time period reserved for Art Basel has advertised its opening dates from September 14 through 20. As magazines and galleries have only last week been asked to reserve their booths, we will have to wait and see how many will attend. In the meantime, galleries, artists and art fairs are all presenting work online.
Gallerists that I have spoken to including Elga Wimmer, who said that her Chelsea gallery has not sold anything nor attracted clients interested in purchasing work since the lockdown began, and reiterated that if someone was interested in work, they could not see it nor get it home. Jim Kempner has sold some work by directly contacting individual clients he thought were interested in the pieces. Margery Goldberg, owner-director of Zenith Gallery with spaces both in her home in Northwest Washington, D.C. and at 1111 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., directly across the street from the Trump International Hotel, has sold only two pieces, through advertising on Artsy, but is awaiting payment upon delivery of pieces from the current show at 1111 when the lobby gallery again opens. She also awaits payment for maintaining the gallery there from the law firm that owns the building.
Galleries, including Aldo Castillo Projects (Chicago), have announced that they are open for business, by appointment, the meeting arranged by phone or email. Whereas galleries’ and museums’ spaces are limiting shows to those artists whose work is deemed important, either to contemporary times and issues, or to visual interpretations of past history, philosophies and cultures, digital platforms have no limits. I have been inundated by work online. Lelong Gallery (New York and Paris) sent out images online of Andy Goldsworthy’s photographs of his land art in Scotland, anticipating his installation at Frieze Sculpture later this year. Curators at museums in Washington D.C. to whom I have spoken are showing virtual tours of museum exhibitions already filmed or photographed on their websites.
Irving Lippman, executive director at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, in Florida, notes “Great inroads have been made over the last decade in making collections available online, and now there are opportunities to have virtual tours of collections, conversations via Zoom and studio classes.” Whereas galleries and museums have for years explored digital options to introduce work, Lippman said that he saw the current crisis as an opportunity to further those digital options. “I have always been an optimist, but also a realist, and I don’t think we’re ever going to see a return to business as usual. What we must address first is how we will make people feel comfortable and safe. We must employ empathy for what everyone is experiencing, including staff as well as visitors.”
As for the months and years ahead, Lippman said, “Museums were built for people to stand before the visual and cultural history of our civilization — when we can again visit the museum in person, a sense of normalcy will return.” The question to be answered is whether we will be satisfied with the solitary activity of viewing or previewing art, or whether that social in-person experience is required.
Digital platforms are encouraging people to ultimately visit museum collections that they are seeing online. This is the best advantage that I see in current online viewing. It allows us to preview the collections that we would ultimately like to visit, when things come back to normal, and this “advertising” will benefit all the museums now exhibiting online. As art fairs similarly exhibit online, I can make an intelligent decision as to which ones that I will safely choose to visit and invest my travel funds. This also will raise the quality of art at the fairs and biennales as decisions are made based on online previewing.
Individual artists whom are not affiliated with galleries are also showing work online on their own websites or affiliating with and paying a percentage to such sites as Ocula and Artsy. As we conduct Zoom meetings and meet in other social media platforms, the backgrounds behind us are important in conveying a professional presence. Lower priced art is being sold online to decorate those home office spaces, as retail stores and galleries are closed. We can see what the piece will look like on social media as we are viewing it online. Art in this way becomes the commodity it once was, for the homes of all, rather than the noble, rich or famous.
Although we already have and will lose artists and gallery spaces due to the coronavirus, some advantages to the art market have been developed by those who met the challenge caused by stay at home and essential businesses only orders. They’ll also be positive changes to art schools, where the teaching will revert to traditional methods that will result in the production of excellent work rather than tricks of the trade like bananas attached to gallery walls with duct tape.
The parties will go on, with fewer attending, but they will be smaller with room to actually see the art. The jokes will still be there, but there will be fewer, as people will not invest their safety and funds to see the latest pun. Art will prevail — changed, higher in quality, more democratic — but with all making decisions as to where to see it, what to see and who to support.
It will be a changed art market. We may again see art viewing as an activity less social than it has been. An opening will be a preview and celebration of the art shown, rather than a background for a group imbibing white wine, and looking at each other.
Museums will radically change. Now closed, they cannot rely on recently raised admission fees to pay their bills. They will seek other ways to raise funds. Donors, in these economic times, with their stock portfolios losing value, are not donating to art museums. As their in-kind, works of art donations are no longer tax-deductible, and they cannot use 1031 exchanges to turn art into real estate investment (or vice-versa), wealthy donors are not donating. If they did, museums could not pick up and deliver the work to institutions now closed.
Since the debacle of deaccessioning at the Berkshire Museum to raise funds, the negative PR after the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, sold many works in storage to buy one excellent Gustave Caillebotte painting, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s fire sale of older work so they could buy work by Afro-American artists, and the wholesale plundering and closing of the Corcoran Museum of Art’s collection and subsequent donation of work to George Washington University and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., these times clarify the need to deaccession to raise operating funds so museums do not close, throwing thousands out of work and denying the public access.
Although the American Association of Museum Directors has revised its guidelines to allow “restricted endowment funds, trusts and donations for general operating expenses” and the profit from de-accessioned work to go to the “direct care” of museum collections, this is not an available option to many museums as donors of collections often stipulate that the collection must be kept together and cannot be sold. Museums risk protracted court battles if they use this method, as happened with the Berkshire Museum. The solutions are not available due to the nature and history of museums in the United States and other nations.
Whereas wealthy individuals in past centuries used some of the profit of their corporations, industrial and manufacturing companies to enlighten the public by providing free access to art, literature and performing arts, at institutions that included the Morgan Library, Carnegie Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney and Guggenheim Museums, Boston Museum of Art and numerous others, corporate giants today, including the Waltons and Mitch Rales, establish museums to house their collections in institutions, claiming tax deductions for housing their personal collections.
Perhaps if we went back to wealthy individuals contributing to the greater good, even if propelled by tax deductions, art museums would continue to function for all of us. Now, however, profit-making institutions lack wealthy supporters willing to contribute and wealthy individuals willing to buy work but prohibited from doing so by restrictions in the original contracts. We need those philanthropists of the old pre-income tax days to support and contribute to art institutions. That is not happening. As this income stream is limited, and government is only willing to support select institutions like the Kennedy Center for the Arts, we may be looking at some very lean years to come for art galleries and museums.
That doesn’t mean that artists will stop painting, sculpting or creating. When they figure out how to address these times, they will react by making art that speaks to the realities and emotions of people and their reactions to current times. They will explain, honor, memorialize and empathize. They always have and always will. And courtesy of the internet, and changed museums and galleries, art will be accessible to more people.