Over recent months we have all had a lot of time to imagine new possibilities for blank walls, empty sideboards and open spaces. As our homes became both a workplace and sanctuary, what we surround ourselves was more important than ever before. The ambition of acquiring artwork and fine furniture became both a want and a need. However, it simultaneously seemed out of reach with the forced closure of many different merchants. There was also a cultural gap in our daily lives, with Netflix-filled afternoons replacing strolls around the local galleries. As art consumers and patrons, many were left wanting as we faced the steady pace of lockdown.
With the art world now in the same position as many other businesses, an emphasis on connectivity with customers drew everyone towards the internet. Whether it was through the building of online sales, social media or experimental online events becoming a regular part of a company calendar, it was time to adapt. Nationwide lockdown quickly exposed the more traditional sides of a business which were unable to immediately compete with 2020 marketing and sales methods. New technology has finally taken hold of even the most conservative corners of the fine art sector, a result of pandemic problem-solving.
Commercial art companies had to build upon their spot in the online marketplace, cementing e-commerce as a standard practice, now sitting firmly alongside mainstream retail practices. In 2019 there was a decline in the amount of internet-based art sales. However, this year’s lockdown has resulted in a much-needed increase in online revenue. Virtual tours, zoom calls and video sales for new collections have thrown many business owners into a new arena for customer service and forced their gaze towards tech trends.
Museums and galleries have found whimsical ways to connect with their customers, a notable approach being Dulwich Picture Gallery introducing a stay-at-home activity to recreate pieces from their famous collection. Making sure to keep their presence within the minds of their patrons and reaching beyond that demographic whilst they have a captive audience on Instagram. Virtual collections, which were at most a study tool in the past, have become their main asset in maintaining an important cultural outlet. We are certain to see the quality and creativity of the museum sector grow online, even as lockdown is lifted, to hold onto a new audience which stretches beyond those who can make it through their doors.
Auction houses have seen over a 400% increase in their online activity compared to last year, propelling the online auction to the centre stage of a traditional sector. With fine art only making up a small percentage, the biggest sales have been through miscellaneous collectibles such as memorabilia, signalling a growth in a less traditional and younger demographic for the future of some of the most historic institutions.
With online sales dramatically reducing staff cost, rent and utility bills, the business model of galleries, auction houses and antique rooms has been altered. This cost-cutting approach will surely see a further decline in employment for those in the art world, with a room full of sales assistants reduced to just one administrative role with virtual customer service skills.
The pandemic has left us questioning what the future holds for art sales, whether independent businesses will thrive in new online communities, reaching beyond their local and regular clientele. When we step out of the bubble of COVID-19 will we ever feel the bustle of a busy exhibition again? Will we return to the norm of a crowded auction? The disruption has left some longing for the nostalgia of traditional sales, whilst many have now been converted to the ever-growing commodity of an online art world.