Art News: How Artists Are Pivoting And The Business Of Art Is Changing During The Pandemic


Reprinted from Forbes

The pandemic has impacted every single industry, but especially the art world. Traditional art investors have not only pulled back due to financial uncertainty but also because galleries have been closed and events such as art fairs have been canceled. At the same time, the overall societal connection to art and design has increased immeasurably. Everyone is spending more time at home, leading to a major shift with many people moving, renovating, and at the very least, redecorating.

So where has this left artists, gallery owners, and art fair organizers? In several months, everyone has learned how to pivot in a different way. While it's realistic to say that most businesses are sill in the process of figuring out how exactly to proceed for the future— the result of the pandemic may not be as devastating for the art industry as initially anticipated.

Pandemic Gallery Life

Like most retail, some galleries have shuttered entirely due to COVID, while others are currently operating, albeit in a different way. “Our business model has changed significantly due to the global pandemic. We had to close our physical Beverly Hills Gallery doors,” says Bella Haykoff, founder and owner of Haykoff Gallery. “It is not only because we cannot operate an indoor gallery, but mainly because people haven’t been traveling to view art in person.”

Haykoff currently offers online and private viewings at the client's desired location, with a maximum of two people in attendance. “In other words, we bring the gallery to you, which was never done before.”

The appointments, which attract serious buyers only, require two to three personnel staff to showcase the work. The art can also be shown just outside the gallery’s vault. 

However, this is a far cry from Haykoff’s usual operations, all of which have been on hold since March. “We normally have at least one or two international guests a month. Plus, once a month we hosted private events and collaborations, with at least 40 to 60 people in attendance, since July 2016 when we opened our doors. Each week on average, [we had] three to four visitors including those that partake in the overnight stays. So around twelve to sixteen people per month [partake in the] private experience.”

While virtual appointments were available prior to the pandemic, that isn’t exactly standard for art of Haykoff Gallery's caliber. With prices ranging from $1 to $5 million, buyers are unlikely to spend that kind of money without seeing a physical product first. “These virtual meetings have always been more transactional,” Haykoff explains. “The first-time buyer always must see the art in person when buying it. Once they own a piece, then they almost always want to buy another one, in this case, based on digital viewing.”

As for sales, Haykoff shares that buyers have generally been going one of two ways “One half is consciously not spending any money right now in fear of the unknown times before us, and the second half is eager to invest and buying more aggressively. Art can be the smallest in size, but the most expensive valuable commodity and most serious collectors know this very well.”

The Future Of Art Fairs

While many large events have been canceled or postponed, Superfine, which is an art fair founded in 2015, plans to revive their in-person events beginning in 2021. Each fair lasts three to four days, with the first one scheduled on February 4th for Los Angeles. The rest will take place in San Francisco (February 25th), Seattle (August 19th), and Washington DC (October 28th). Three separate fairs are scheduled for New York on April 29th, May 6th, and May 13th.

Superfine plans to operate under a “Resilience Plan.” It requires all artists, vendors, staff, fair-goers, etc to undergo health screenings including having their temperature taken. The number of guests will also be limited to between 75 to 100 people at one time to maintain social distancing. Entry is limited to approximately 90 minutes to allow as many people as possible to experience the fair.

In addition to these protocols, floorplans will be unidirectional, although multiple loops are allowed and even encouraged, so everyone can thoroughly view pieces of art they're considering purchasing. While all events are located indoors, there will be plenty of cross ventilation and airflow.

While organizers will surely make Superfine 2021 a great experience, there’s no getting around the fact that it won’t feel exactly the same way it did prior to the pandemic. But that isn’t necessarily a deterrent because while everyone must assess their own risk, the fair will likely only attract serious buyers. Furthermore, timed entry slightly increases the pressure to buy, which is good for artists.

It’s also important to understand that Superfine isn’t a traditional art fair. Co-founded by partners by Alex Mitow and James Miille, it caters to affluent 26 to 45-year-olds. All pieces are priced accessibly ranging from approximately $100 to $15000 with most costing under $2500. This allows buyers to find art that they can afford and begin to discover what types of art and artists speak to them. For artists, the appeal of exhibiting at Superfine is that the customer who buys a $400 print today may end up buying an original work for $4000 (or more) in the future. In fact, Superfine’s exit polls show that 70 to 75 percent of visitors share that their favorite aspect of the fair is meeting and connecting with the artists in person.

Superfine was also founded on the principles of inclusivity and bringing art to people and communities who are often unwelcome or marginalized in the art world. The New York fairs have been specifically themed (female, LGBTQ+ and surrealist) to attract a particular demographic. 

Mitow reveals that while most people would assume galleries are welcoming to all, that unfortunately isn’t the reality. “[Some people] just don't have a way to [buy art] because you can't walk into a gallery in Chelsea [prior to the pandemic], especially if you're a queer person or a person of color. No one will look at you. And this is today, I'm not talking five years ago, ten years ago, or twenty years ago. If you’re under 35, no one will look at you. Since day one, we've always wanted to democratize the art market just to make it more available for everybody on both sides of the equation.”

Another part of this commitment for Superfine is working with the Deaf community. For the past two years, the fair has taken place adjacent to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which is the only university dedicated to the education of the Deaf and hard of hearing. In previous years, Superfine has given private tours to students in ASL. The founders look forward to continuing this tradition in 2021 and beyond. It’s been a meaningful way for them to connect with the local community.

Superfine will also offer virtual tours facilitated through Exhibbit, which is a technology company that creates virtual rooms attendees can walk through. After all, virtual experiences are par for the course in a mid and post pandemic world. 

How The Pandemic Impacted One Artist

After a very strong showing in Miami during Art Basel, artist and commercial advertising photographer Tim Tadder saw a complete loss of momentum and sales. With plans of attending Art New York and partnerships with galleries in Atlanta, Sao Paolo, and Brussels, everything had come to a complete halt.

However, he also found his work was being inspired in a new way entirely “I think the lockdown mixed with the Black Lives Matter movement and the divisiveness that surrounded it aligns with my art in general,” says Tadder. “My art is representative of many of the political and social challenges that revealed themselves over the past four to five months. My work is about control, division, assault, power and abuse thereof.”

Then, things suddenly changed when Tadder accidentally went viral. “One of my images was used in China as a symbol of censorship when Dr. Li, the Chinese doctor informed the world about coronavirus.”

The image was shared millions of times on Chinese messaging and social media app WeChat, then made into masks, posters and protest emblems. “If it were not for the BBC calling me in the middle of the night to get permission to publish it, I would have never known. The lockdown and the noise that accompanied it, [not only] reinforced my conviction for my work, but inspired me to create new and compelling work.”

Tadder’s fine art is currently available at Avant Gallery in Hudson Yards in New York City and at Brickell Center in Miami.

Social Media Proves To Be Sweet For One Artist

Robyn Blair Davidson was the Artist In Residence at Bergdorf Goodman when the shutdown happened. While this was the first major foray into retail for founder of by robynblair, sales for the artist who became famous on Instagram for her candy art were still mostly driven by the social media platform. “That being said, artwork wasn't a priority purchase for many when the pandemic first hit,” she tells me. “We had to pivot to make sure we were still providing our clients with something that brought happiness to their lives during a dark time, even if they weren't purchasing artwork.”

Davidson approached this dilemma from a place of service and began offering free Zoom backgrounds and printable candy-themed coloring books for children. As a result of the pandemic, she also launched new product categories including jigsaw puzzles with 20 percent of sales being donated to No Kid Hungry.

The pandemic hasn’t really changed the way Davidson connects with most of her clients because as an artist, she paved her own path and isn’t showing in traditional galleries. While no business is disaster or pandemic-proof, her success proves that growing a social media platform is essential for all artists right now and in the future.

However, with her original pieces starting around $3000, there are still some potential buyers who want to see the product in person. “Most clients buy just from seeing photos on Instagram or my website, a small grouping of clients ask for more detailed shots or I can send video, and I would say five percent want to visit somewhere I have them hanging in person to see before they purchase. I will say there truly is nothing like seeing a custom piece in person for the first time,” she says.

A Major Pivot

For artist Elizabeth Sutton, the pandemic has meant pivoting in a very big way personally and professionally, including moving from New York City to Miami. “Throughout the course of COVID, I had to fire my staff, rehire my staff, and now re-staff due to my relocation,” she tells me.

On the operations side, supply chains were disrupted, collaborations that had been well-underway were postponed or cancelled entirely, and all revenue halted for the first month of the pandemic.

While Sutton shows at galleries, most sales of the Elizabeth Sutton Collection are driven by social media and e-commerce. Still, she had to reevaluate her strategy. Sutton discounted all of her products which include fine art, prints, fashion accessories and home decor. Then, she adapted her business plan by working more with architects and designers. 

Like Davidson, she began offering free coloring sheets online, which helped add to her email list. Sutton also raised funds for City Harvest by selling Mother's Day coloring cards, garnering her a significant amount of press attention. In addition to all of this, she launched a podcast called Success By Design.

After months of disappointment, several collaborations ended up coming to fruition. “I aggressively reached out to new companies for collaborations, eighty percent of whom had halted all new business development,” explains Sutton. She partnered with The Raynor Group and Bari Lynn Accessories as well as Galaxy Glass and Stone, to create mirrors, shower partitions, glass art, home office desk chairs, and a girls’ accessories collection. 

Although it hasn’t been easy, the pandemic has been beneficial for Sutton’s fine art collection. “People have been sitting in their homes looking at blank walls and my team and I have been selling more art than ever.”

The Rainbow After The Storm

While everyone involved in the art world has had a very challenging period, which isn’t quite over yet, the light at the end of the tunnel is that business may end up better at the end of 2020 for some than it was at the beginning. At the very least, these times have birthed new inspiration and hopefully a new normal for 2021. As long as there are walls, even during the worst of times, the art industry will find new ways to adapt and thrive.

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