In the past year, the majority of cultural institutions have had to deal with an “earthquake”, which caught many unprepared. In these months, we have realized that a physical relationship and contact with art is not the only one, but certainly the most important.
The art world has been one of the most severely hit by the pandemic’s outbreak but it also is amongst those which better reacted to the crisis, given its ability of showing solidarity and actively organizing initiatives, such as online auctions, to support those in need during these troubled times. This period has taught us that no matter how interesting and engaging online auctions may be, from a content perspective, these may represent a “side dish” but not the art world’s “main course”.
As a consequence of the pandemic:
- Museum admissions decreased by 77%.
- Visitors to Europe's top 100 museums in 2020 were 24 million, compared to 83 million in 2019.
- The Vatican Museums lost 81% of visitors, the Uffizi Gallery 72%.
- Institutions without a permanent collection, which organize mostly temporary exhibitions, suffered less damage (e.g., Palazzo Reale lost 48% of its visitors, despite remaining closed for 193 days).
- China has achieved a 36% market share in public auctions, compared to 29% in the US and 16% in the UK.
- In 2020, the global percentage of new billionaires grew by +7%, whereas during the 2009 crisis, billionaires had declined by 30%.
Museums were able to continue some of their activities via digital means, but in multiple instances this has not been sufficient to support their financial needs, leading several cultural institutions to sell part of the works from their collections to replenish funds for acquisitions or to move forward. Thanks to online sales, the greater China region (incl. Continental China, Taiwan and Hong Kong) has become the largest market for auctions, overtaking the USA and UK. The auction’s main axis has shifted towards the East and for the first time, the online auction sector was able to acquire a significant portion of the overall market and to double its size compared to the previous year.
Perhaps, the widespread adoption of digital means in 2020 has prevented a disastrous economic collapse as in 2009 from occurring. However, this may be attributable to a specific cause: while in the past year the number of billionaires worldwide increased by 7%, they decreased by 30% in the 2009 crisis. Such a polarization is ultimately what supports the market.
On one hand, auction houses have had the opportunity to continue their usual activities through online channels by organizing online only, hybrid auctions and virtual private sales. Galleries on the other, have faced greater challenges and difficulties because of the pandemic. Approximately 50% of gallery revenues derive from sales during art fairs and in the past year, most of these have exclusively taken place online. Consequently, auction houses have embraced this as an opportunity to prevail over their main competitor: galleries. The strength that auction houses have of expanding their operations internationally and of embracing new online selling channels may pose a threat to the artistic research carried out by galleries, which ultimately protects and safeguards the art market as a whole.
Auction houses do not predominantly focus on conducting artistic research. Moreover, art galleries in Italy also face greater “structural” issues compared to auction houses, such as having to pay resale rights twice when they operate as intermediaries. Should political forces not intervene to implement structural changes, such as ones of financial nature, the risk is that new digital openings will eventually cannibalize the artistic research conducted by museums and galleries, which lays the foundations for the entire art system. This would inevitably lead us back, especially in the contemporary art system, to a closed, polarized and exclusive art world with little space left for artistic research as it had been until 2009.
Written by Nicolas Ballario
Nicolas Ballario is an art professional who attended Oliviero Toscani’s academy “La Sterpaia”. He has collaborated with multiple cultural and artistic institutions and was awarded the Bassani prize, one of the most important acknowledgments in the world of journalism. He is currently a contributor for the Rolling Stones Magazine’s Art section and has collaborated with Mudec and Il Sole 24 Ore Cultura for multiple culturally themed podcasts. He is both a television presenter for La 7 and Sky Arte and a radio one for Rai Radio 1 and Radio Radicale in Italy.
Credits: Ilde Forgione, currently responsible for the management of Uffizi’s Tik Tok page; source : https://forbes.it/2021/04/28/ilde-forgione-la-socialmanager-che-ha-rilanciato-gli-uffizi-grazie-a-tiktok